Thoughts on the first year of book editing

Twenty years ago, I packaged doughnuts for $4.25 an hour at my hometown bakery. Today, I package words in the big city. But the jobs aren't as different as they might appear.

Twenty years ago, I packaged doughnuts for $4.25 an hour at my hometown bakery. Today, I package words in the big city. But the jobs aren’t as different as they might appear. Photo from

Twenty years ago this month, I started my first job at my hometown bakery. Every Saturday and Sunday, I rolled out of bed early, threw my hair back into a ponytail and walked the three blocks over to Colonial Mall, where I would don an apron and box up doughnuts and cookies for customers, make coffee, scrub trays, and do baking prep for eight hours.

At the end of the first day, I was bone-tired and overwhelmed. But those day-to-day tasks quickly became second nature, and I didn’t devote a lot of thought to the doughnuts that magically appeared in the bakery case each morning or the bread that appeared on the shelves, neatly sliced and bagged.

That soon changed. The boss — a cocky young tattooed baker who commuted from Minneapolis to bake bread on the graveyard shift — gave me more hours. I came to see that nothing happened by magic. Many long summer evenings passed with me on my feet, cutting and weighing bread dough. I’d then work into the wee hours of the morning, slicing hundreds of loaves, and when they had cooled, I shoved each one individually into a bag with a label and closed it up with a days-of-the-week twist-tie.

I was perpetually sweaty and sore. I was always nursing a new cut or scrape, and my fingers were covered with eczema. Somehow, I never lost my taste for baked goods. But I’ve never looked at them the same way since.

One year ago this week, I embarked on my newest professional adventure, which includes book editing, something I had never done before. Nearly 15 years of editing had prepared me for the responsibility of editing a book about as well as babysitting prepared me for the responsibility of working at a bakery — which is to say, only in the most superficial way.

When I started at The History Factory, I had no idea how many individual tasks went into making a book. I’ve always loved the look, the smell and the feel of books. But I only had a vague idea of the heavy lifting involved with actually producing one — even after nearly 15 years of getting paid to play with the printed word. It’s an arduous, months-long task that demands lots of focus, organization, patience and teamwork.

Call it cliché, but I’ve compared every professional job I’ve ever had to that first job at the bakery, because no job offers a better metaphor for how individual tasks are building blocks for bigger and more complex tasks, and the final product is easy to take for granted if you have no concept of how much work goes into it.

A year in, I’ve edited my first book and have a hand in editing two more than are in progress. I’ve also worked with curators — people with actual Smithsonian experience — and others to produce exhibits and some pretty cool websites. Obviously, packaging bread didn’t prepare me for the challenges I would face (and continue to face). But it did provide my first real glimpse of big-picture thinking.

My longtime love of books is unwavering (as is, somehow, my love of doughnuts). Like Professor Harold Hill’s sadder but wiser girl, though, I know too much to see only words on a page. I now know the only story that every book tells — a story that includes months of rewrites, blown deadlines, image swaps, fact-checking, and endless rounds of editing and proofreading.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Anyone else hungry for a doughnut?


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