As part of my alumni profiles series, I recently talked with UIUC alumnus Dan Klen, who graduated in 2012 with majors in English and Creative Writing and a minor in Business. Dan shared information about his work as an Assistant Scientific Editor for the Illinois State Geological Survey at the University of Illinois and offered some advice to current students who may be interested in careers in editing or publishing.
VO: Can you tell me a little about what you do?
Dan: I’m an assistant scientific editor for the Illinois State Geological Survey at the University of Illinois. My job includes what is probably the obvious part to most people, which is editing. What most people think an editor does is read manuscripts and edit for style, form, and clarity. But there’s also a lot of other things that go with being an editor – a lot of managing and coordinating of authors to meet deadlines and to remind them of their goals. A lot of my time is actually spent just coordinating with people for particular projects. Usually in planning for a project, I’ll sit down with the principal investigator (PI) and figure out what our writing deliverables are—usually it’s reports if it’s a government-funded project. I’ll develop schedules with authors for turning in their individual contributions; then I’ll edit those contributions and put them all together into a final topical report or project report that the PI reviews. That’s just one example, but my point is that there’s editing and formatting that goes with my job, but also a lot of coordinating with contributing authors. As far as types of documents, we produce final project reports, academic papers, website content, monthly reports, and press releases. I’ve also done some work on public outreach materials, such as walking guides to parks in Chicago, so it’s a little bit all over the board.
VO: So what does a typical day at work look like for you?
Dan: Today, for instance, I began the day by answering emails and reviewing a form that manuscript authors fill out for project research leaders. I also met with an engineer in charge of a project to discuss revisions made by subcontractors on a report. In the afternoon I had two more meetings—first, I met with my boss and a lead author on a paper, and then I had a phone meeting with another author about some comments I’d made on his manuscript. I went over some examples of reports similar to his to give him guidance on his draft.
VO: Wow—that sounds like a pretty diverse schedule.
Dan: Yeah, there’s all kinds of responsibilities, really. I’m on multiple projects, too, so everything’s at different stages and involves different people, so my work is always team-based.
VO: What is your favorite part of your job?
Dan: My favorite part is getting the finished product, like the outreach material or one of our publications—seeing it in print, seeing that team contribution come together, and knowing that the scientific knowledge that goes with it is out in the world now. Just being a part of the process of disseminating our research to the public.
VO: How is your work as an editor with the Illinois State Geological Survey different than work in other areas of publishing?
Dan: I interned for a textbook publisher after I graduated, and with the bigger publishers, the process is very streamlined, so when I was interning I just did the editing on a manuscript and then I would pass it to a graphic designer who I never really saw. The process was a little more like an assembly-line. Larger publishers want to maximize their production flows, whereas being part of a smaller in-house team at the Survey, I sometimes do graphic design work in addition to editing. Working for a smaller publishing group, I have a little more flexibility to move between roles, whereas in a larger publisher you can get compartmentalized in a particular role—you’re just one piece of the puzzle.
VO: When you were in undergrad did you ever think you would have a career as an editor?
Dan: I’d say no. Originally, I just started working at the survey as a student assistant. And then eventually I started doing more and more editing, and that’s how I came to be a full-time employee there. Things just kind of aligned for me, I guess. I didn’t expect to be working as an assistant scientific editor when I was graduating because I was also applying to MFA graduate programs. I had been leaning towards going to grad school for fiction writing, but then my job in editing worked out alternatively.
VO: Do you have any advice for students who might be considering entering the field of editing or publishing?
Dan: Definitely get an internship. Or do some kind of work. If you’re a freshman, sophomore, or junior, especially, intern at least for a summer to get a feel for what the job is and to determine whether you like it or not. It’s important to get applied experience in the field to see if you would enjoy the day-to-day tasks that go with it.
VO: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known as an undergrad? Something you would tell your undergrad self based on your present knowledge related to life after graduation?
Dan: I think a lot of my advice for my younger self would have to do with writing—I’d tell my undergrad self to read more. And to diversify. In undergrad, I knew that I was interested in nature writing, but I didn’t connect that to my studies. So, I’d encourage younger writers to explore other subjects, because it can open up your writing and get you to think differently. It can also help in terms of employment or a career. For instance, even if you think you might want to go into academic publishing, doing a journalism internship can be just as helpful. I think the most important thing for English students is to get applied experience and accumulate writing samples and just to find a way to write and get paid for it or earn school credit. The most important thing is to find a job that lets you write and edit, and really build experience outside of the classroom.
VO: What skills would you say you draw on consistently from your English and Creative Writing background?
Dan: What’s really helpful in academic publishing is to understand how an academic article works, to be familiar with the conventions of the form. It’s helpful to understand the way authors structure arguments and use evidence. I also recommend that students acquire technical skills to work in this field. That includes knowing all the ins and outs of Microsoft Word, and being able to use tools like TrackChanges. All the Adobe products are good to know, especially InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. Desktop publishing software is also useful. And Excel is good to know, especially if you think you’ll be working in math or science. I think knowing HTML or being able to do website work is very helpful, too, nowadays because as an editor or a content manager it’s important to have a diverse skillset.