Writer and editor Susan Prior has a wealth of experience in the industry — working in the corporate, not-for profit and freelance sectors. With a hectic schedule Susan made time to sit down with Calista Bruschi for a one-on-one earlier this year
When I first sat down with Susan Prior in February things were hard. Susan’s husband had been made redundant and the challenge of finding a new job when you’re in your sixties had presented itself.
“Ageism is rife,” she says, after explaining the situation.
To “blow out the cobwebs” Susan and her husband had planned a trip to Tasmania and it was in between her planning she made time to talk with me.
“I’ve got a local magazine that I do and I’ve been on to the graphic designers today to say ‘I’ve got Monday, Tuesday next week, I’m away Thursday and Friday I’m going to Tasmania’.”
It’s not just magazines Susan works on though. “I do a huge range of different things. I often have people ask ‘What do you specialise in?’ and my response is that I don’t specialise. The reason I do the job I do is because I like the variety,” Susan says.
As an editor, Susan’s clients includes those from community, corporate and educational sectors.
“I do a lot of theses, especially English as a second language type of stuff,” she says. “I love doing theses because you find out some interesting [information].”
Susan also edits both fiction and non-fiction manuscripts and “I have a book coming up when I get back from holidays, that’s a children’s book”. But if I had thought Susan had run out of fingers for the pies she reveals she also gets great enjoyment from writing, especially creative non-fiction, and craft (“I like to knit and I design tapestries”).
“When I’ve got down time I will write articles, and actually I’m finishing my Masters at the University of Queensland this year.” Her supervisor is renowned south-east Queensland author Dr Kim Wilkins.
Perhaps as a sign of the quality of Susan’s work she says, “Things I’ve written so far have all been picked up by The Australian or the Courier Mail or whatever so that’s great”.
The diversity of her writing mirrors that of her editing — “I’m doing one on adoption; I’m doing one on gender stereotypes, with men who knit and do craft and that kind of stuff” — and to demonstrate her passion for certain subject matter Susan will also focus one article on ageism and employing women in their fifties.
“I’m lucky in that I’m self-employed, but I know so many really capable women, and I mean capable women, and they can’t find a niche,” Susan says. “I just have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about that.”
Following her Tasmanian trip Susan informed me she would be moving away from her freelance work.
“The need for a regular income became more important,” she says, and of the two interviews she had there were three job offers to follow. She has also put her Masters on hold.
The issues surrounding how many freelance editors earn reasonable money for their services appears to be industry-wide, and Susan was gracious enough to provide her thoughts on the matter.
“So many editors undervalue their skills and when I look at the skills they have they shouldn’t feel embarrassed about charging $55 an hour as a freelancer. I know I pay my doctor a hell of a lot more for just 10 minutes of his time.
“Where I used to compromise I no longer do that. I’m honest with people in saying that this is what I believe it’s going to cost you for me to do that job and some people will go away and find someone who will do the job cheaper and that’s fine. I thank them for letting me know. You win some and you lose some, but I’m confident in the job that I do.”
Susan believes it’s a conversation editors need to be having.
“I know Kerry [Davies] has been trying to get something happening with the Institute of Professional Editors as well, because I think it’s a national thing,” Susan says. “I do work all over the place; I’m not just restricted to working in Brisbane.”
She says if an editor is good enough to be working as a freelancer they should be charging a professional rate.
Susan’s path to editing is just as interesting as the variety of work she does. Moving back to Australia from Norfolk Island, the process of which she describes as “putting a pin in a map and ending up at Toowoomba” Susan did a course at the University of Southern Queensland in journalism, public relations and multimedia.
“I really decided quite rapidly that going to courtrooms and council meetings were not quite my idea of journalism so I ended up concentrating on the editing side of it,” she says.
Susan got work experience with the ABC, which then got her work experience at the BBC in England, which then lead to work experience and a job with an outfit called Online Opinion — one of the very early online political websites in the same vein as Crikey.com.
“I was there for nearly seven years and I was basically publishing six or seven articles up to 2,000 words each a day. I became very familiar with the political landscape in Australia at the time,” Susan says, highlighting that she thinks of herself as a very a-political person, which in turn made her a good fit for the role.
From there Susan worked as the chief of staff for a politician, but quickly realised she wasn’t a “political animal”, however at four weeks was probably also the longest-serving staff member of that politician’s career.
“I didn’t feel too bad about leaving,” Susan says. “It was after that that I started freelancing and that’s also when I started my Masters at the University of Queensland.”
Susan had a couple of years working with the education department in the LOTE (Languages Other Than English) centre doing the curriculum materials for five different languages, which she says was fascinating.
“It was especially amazing because I was picking up errors in different languages and didn’t have any prior knowledge of those languages before this role,” she says. “But I got so used to the material and I didn’t know quite what was wrong with it but knew it wasn’t correct.”
Susan is also proactive in the marketing of her business, Write-Now! (“I had to have the hyphen in there, which really irritates me.”)
“I have a very cheesy sign on that back of my car saying ‘Write-Now!’, which is the name of my business. I carry my cards around with me all the time because I do have people stopping me when I’m down at the bakery for example saying ‘Oh, I’m writing a book’,” Susan says.
“I think the key is being visible.” In addition to her static website page (www.write-now.com.au) Susan has a Facebook page with an eclectic range of posts, which she says she dedicates about half an hour each week to.
“I don’t think these things work in isolation,” she says.
When it comes to resources, Susan says there are many.
“I’m a bit of a style guide collector; I love my style guides. Google obviously. I do like to collect lots of books on English usage and historical stuff.
“I think my Macquarie online dictionary and the Australian Style Manual are probably my two main references but I do use The Little Brown Handbook a lot. For writing I also use The Australian every day, I get lots of ideas and get a feel for what’s happening,” she says.
Finally, I ask Susan what advice she might impart at the close of our interview: “It would be to both the editor and the writer, and that would be to ‘bury your ego’. It’s not personal, it’s not about ‘you’ the editor or ‘you’ the author”.
Wise words from someone who wears both hats.