How editing contributes to a stronger democracy by Gael Spivak

You may think that being an editor for the federal government is boring. So staid: all those rules, all those bureaucrats.

It’s actually a lot of fun. The topics are interesting and I get to help a lot of people.

What kind of topics?

I’ve worked as a writer, editor, coordinator and communications advisor, in three government departments.

Topics I’ve worked in include food safety, food labelling, organic food, animal health, plant health, biotechnology, ethics and government, road salts, and flu. Lots of flu: seasonal flu, pandemic flu, avian flu and swine flu.

All that government-speak

Bureaucratic language is a problem in government. It’s not that it is technical or scientific language. It’s the government style and tone.

People pick this up when they first start working in government. Because they are smart and adaptable, they quickly start writing to match what they see around them.

But this kind of writing is unclear. The sentences have too many thoughts and the verbs are usually way at the end of the sentences.

The writing is also dense. Because many of the writers are policy people who’ve been examining issues for many years, they are experts. So they want to give a solid background when they write, not realizing that it’s too much information for a non-expert.

How does editing help?

As an editor, I build a bridge between the experts and their audience (often the public). I help the experts write more clear text, so that Canadians can understand what to do to be safe, to comply with legislation and to keep dangerous pests out of the country.

I also help people participate in their government, by making legislation, policies and decisions more understandable. Editing helps build a stronger democracy.

 

Gael Spivak works in communications for the federal government. She specializes in plain language writing and editing. Her Editors Canada work includes

  • membership chair for Editors Ottawa–Gatineau
  • co-chair of conference 2012
  • co-chair of conference 2015 (Editing Goes Global)
  • director of volunteer relations
  • director of training development
  • vice-president

To chair or not to chair by Gael Spivak

To chair or not to chair

What’s it like co-chairing an Editors Canada conference committee? Well, it depends.

I’ve done it twice. Once, by design. The second time, totally by accident.

The first time was for the 2012 conference in Ottawa. The national executive council approved Christine LeBlanc as the chair and she then asked me to be her co-chair. We’d worked well together on the branch executive and I thought it would be fun. It was (mostly!). A lot of work but really fun.

And I learned so much. I learned

  • how to supervise a team (we had about 15 core volunteers),
  • how to use social media to market,
  • how to run a big event, and
  • how to split tasks with a co-leader.

All of those are transferable skills that I took back to my workplace. I’d just been laid off in the big sweep of government cuts, so I knew I’d be looking for work once the conference was over.

I went on an assignment in another branch at my workplace. After a few months, my new boss said something about my volunteering (on the conference and on the national executive council). He commented that with all my skills, and all the things I’d learned in my volunteer work with Editors Canada, there was no doubt they’d find a place for me. That really struck me, that he noticed that (it wasn’t something I talked about a lot but he’d seen my resumé). And they did. I got hired back on, in another job. And I was told that my volunteer work contributed to me getting the job.

The second conference I co-chaired, the international one that happened in June of this year, I did not intend to be so involved in. Yes, I am the director of training and development but I figured that would be it. And with Greg Ioannou chairing, there would not be much for me to contribute (except cajoling him to submit chair reports). Then he asked me if I’d help him by providing some input and advice, and maybe working a little bit on getting speakers.

After I agreed to that, this conference (to some unusual circumstances) ended up being almost entirely volunteer run (instead of the usual volunteer–office division of tasks). And I got completely drawn in to helping.

It was a ton of work but we had such a fabulous team (and we never did really settle on if I was truly the co-chair or if we actually had five co-chairs). And I got to be part of something brand new and huge: the first ever international editing conference, a pretty cool thing to get to work on.

Things I learned about this time around included

  • figuring out how to effectively work with someone whose style is utterly different from my own (and everyone else’s on the team),
  • learning how to delegate with no strings but still keep a good grasp of the overall picture, and
  • creating mini-communities of editors from around the world, to talk about how to run editing associations.

I also learned that there is more than one way to run a conference and both ways are right. There often is not one right way to do something.

Those are also things I can take back to my workplace. In fact, the people at my work who got really excited about the last point (creating international groups) are two executives. They immediately understood the significance of that kind of experience, as a volunteer but also for government work.

Running a conference is a big deal. It’s a lot of work. But it’s also a lot of fun, and you learn so very much. Co-chairing these conferences were a big investment of my time but the return on my investment was pretty big.