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Conference Review: What I Learned at PENCON 2018

Earlier this month (May 3–5, 2018) I had the opportunity to attend PENCON 2018, a conference for Christian editors organized and hosted by the Christian Editor Network LLC (CEN). I learned a lot and would like to share three specific takeaways that I think will be helpful to other editors, whether or not they are in PENCON’s target demographic. Conference registration was $250 in advance, with discounts for members of The Christian PEN (another CEN division). About 65 editors attended this year’s conference, which was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the Doubletree by Hilton Airport. The hotel gave us a nice discount on accommodations ($120/night, about $45/night off the regular price) and kept us cozy and caffeinated for the whole weekend, so keep them in mind if you need an upscale room in the area.

PENCON was a jam-packed event, starting with a tour of Our Daily Bread Ministries on Thursday morning and offering workshops, panels, meals, and networking opportunities all the way through Saturday afternoon. Like many conferences, PENCON featured both whole-group events and more specialized seminar/workshop sessions, since the participants and presenters had different skills and interests. The CEN team, led by Jenne Acevedo and Tisha Martin, went above and beyond to make everyone feel welcome and included, whether they had been editing for three months or thirty years. They also kept us posted on conference logistics, reminded us of resources like the bookstore and the individual meetings with conference faculty, and kept all the events running smoothly. This was my first editing conference, but I’ve attended and organized enough academic conferences to know how much energy all that takes! I especially appreciate that all the sessions were recorded, since I had to miss a few of them due to work and travel constraints.

Since PENCON is the only conference specifically for editors serving the Christian/CBA market, there were a lot of Christian presses and organizations represented among the attendees. The Christian PEN does require members to sign a statement of faith to join, but membership is not required to attend PENCON. The sponsoring organizations and the bookstore selections suggested a significant Evangelical Protestant influence—Zondervan, for example, donated beautiful NIV Study Bibles for all the attendees—but the conference sessions themselves were ecumenical and generally avoided doctrinal controversies. In fact, Robert Hudson’s opening keynote address, “Editing Books for the Library of Heaven,” stressed that Christian editors contribute to a broad and diverse tradition of Christian literature. Hudson identified six important types of writing within that tradition: tales, testimonies, teachings, treasures, truth-tellers, and temples. This last category, he noted, contains works that evoke lasting awe and inspiration, which he compared to the feeling of walking into a magnificent cathedral.

Takeaway #1: How to Be a Better Christian Editor

Hudson’s address, which he supplemented in his later workshop “Editorial Mind Games,” brings up an important question: what does it mean to be a good Christian editor? From what I could tell, most PENCON attendees work primarily or exclusively on Christian materials, and several worked directly for Christian publishers or organizations like Answers in Genesis. As with any editorial niche, subject-matter expertise helps with Christian editing projects. For example, one of my clients works with a campus ministry organization here in Ohio, and he hired me to edit his fundraising letters partly because I was familiar with the genre and the context. Likewise, while The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style is extensive, some style sheets may draw partly on an author’s or group’s doctrinal beliefs, such as whether or not to capitalize the deity pronouns.

Given these contexts, I expected PENCON sessions to be about “editing Christianly,” so to speak, by focusing on things like editing provocative content or dealing with significant theological disagreements. Those issues did come up occasionally: one speaker, for instance, said that she turned down a job editing a plastic surgeon’s website because she was uncomfortable with the (non-sexual) nudity on some of the pages. But by and large the session content would benefit any editor, not just those who hold Christian beliefs or those who work on Christian texts. Natalie Nyquist, for example, shared her tips on utilizing CMOS and summarized some of the changes in the 17th edition, while Christi McGuire offered an excellent introduction to the business side of freelance editing. In fact, all the presenters and panelists encouraged us to improve our craft for its own sake, no matter what we edited. In other words, I learned that the best way to become a better Christian editor is to become a better overall editor.

Takeaway #2: All Roads Lead to Chicago

Most of my editing clients are full-time academics, so I mainly work in APA, MLA, IEEE, or ASA style. That’s a useful skillset in academic editing, especially for journal article and dissertation projects, since I market myself to authors in a lot of different fields. However, I’m at the point in my editorial career where I want a more predictable schedule, especially when I’m balancing teaching and editing responsibilities. That means more book projects, and The Chicago Manual of Style is the king of the publishing jungle. I’ve done academic projects using CMOS-style references, of course, so I’m familiar with the basics, and dozens of CMOS questions have come up in my Facebook editing groups. But I hadn’t really prioritized learning CMOS as a system until now, because I mainly thought of it as another stylistic option. Three PENCON workshops helped clarify the value of learning CMOS as a prerequisite to further professional development.

First, Ann Byle’s presentation, “Style Guides: Discovering When and Why to Use Each One,” offered a useful overview of about a dozen style guides, including CMOS. Getting a macro-level view helped me see the potential relationships among style guides, especially since many academic books use MLA (for instance) to format citations but defer to CMOS for all other style questions. Second, Natalie Nyquist’s workshop “Are You a Master of CMOS?” included what she rightly deemed a “firehose” approach to Chicago style and the mind-boggling level of detail in some of its rules and recommendations. To be honest, I probably should have started with something like “Are You a Patzer of CMOS?” instead! Natalie did a great job, though—I especially liked her advice to read through CMOS at least once to learn the framework, and then to identify key areas to reread and study in-depth. Finally, I learned a lot from Dawn Anderson’s presentation, “Compiling Comprehensive Style Sheets.” Style sheets, she explained, are editorial tools designed to clarify and supplement style guides like CMOS, so editors can preserve the author’s voice without sacrificing consistency. Her remarks underscored the importance of using a style guide systematically, even when an individual project or author departs from the chapter-and-verse rules.

Takeaway #3: Networking for Introverts

Since freelancers often work alone, networking can be a major benefit of attending professional conferences, both in terms of meeting colleagues who share your interests and of setting up future subcontracting or client referrals. For introverts like me, however, the prospect of talking to complete strangers can be daunting: social interactions are often physically and mentally draining, especially if they take place in busy or noisy environments. This makes it tricky to network using traditional methods, since I want to conserve my energy while still maximizing my social (and potential economic) benefits. While none of the PENCON sessions I attended specifically covered networking, I did find a few techniques particularly useful—in fact, one contact I made has already resulted in a job lead!

First, I looked for ways to demonstrate my interests and expertise. For example, for the tagline portion of my name badge I used “Academic & Business Editor” rather than my business name. As it turned out, there weren’t many other academic editors at PENCON, so this label helped my fellow nerds find me to swap business cards and/or war stories. Second, I tried to contribute knowledge and resources to large-group conversations. Often this was in the form of a question, like when I asked about using PerfectIt’s style sheet tool during Dawn’s style sheet workshop. It helped that many of the workshops were interactive (a big difference from most academic conferences), so sometimes I was able to answer questions from the speaker or other participants. As an added bonus, asking a question during a session gave me a good excuse to talk to the speaker one-on-one later, which is how I got some “face time” with representatives from two major presses. Finally, I tried to socialize in small groups or one-on-one. That helped me control the amount of stimulation and information, so I could focus on talking shop without getting overwhelmed by noise or small talk. It also made it easier to get comfortable with my colleagues, and established baseline professional relationships for future interactions.

All in all, I’m very glad I decided to invest in PENCON this year, and I’m looking forward to attending next year’s conference in Nashville!


1 Comment


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