GINA WALTER, on working for pagemill press

My background in publishing is still quite brief, but the experiences I’ve had at various small presses have been quite impactful. Despite being professionally green, I have formed a personal publishing philosophy that I follow, both in terms of how I work and how I edit.

When I entered college, I didn’t plan on working with books. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew one thing: I loved language. So, I studied applied linguistics. I took courses on all sorts of things related to language. Within the linguistics program at my university, I learned about concrete aspects of language beneficial to an editor: things like syntax, English grammar, and discourse analysis. I also took courses on the cultural and personal aspects of language, such as sociolinguistics, language and gender/sexuality, and language and law. My background in applied linguistics has taught me two important lessons about language, particularly in the context of being an editor:

  1. There is no such thing as “proper grammar.” Grammar, in the linguistic sense, is the set of rules governing how words can be arranged to make sense in a particular language. Depending on your dialect, these rules can change. Prescriptive grammar rules are, and have historically been, oppressive tools that are classist and racist in nature. In the past, access to grammar knowledge was restricted to those who were allowed and could afford to attend schools, barring people of color and the poor from learning. English’s grammar system is incredibly complex, and as such, it is fraught with obscure grammar rules—some outdated or falling out of style, like the differentiation of who and whom, others so obscure I never learned them until I took an editing class in college, like subjunctive mood. As such, many archaic rules are simply unknown unless you have access to higher education even today. Another, more modern example, is the hallmark of modern Black English (also called African American Vernacular English, or AAVE), called zero copula. Zero copula is the removal of an auxiliary verb—usually a version of “to be”—in sentences where it could be contracted (for example, “where’s she at” would be “where she at”). This grammatical phenomenon occurs according to set syntactic rules and therefore, as a linguist, it’s grammatical to use it. But prescriptivists would say otherwise. Because of my background in linguistics, which differentiates between prescriptivism and descriptivism, I consider myself a “descriptive” editor. When I edit, I am not looking to enforce obscure, irrelevant, or non-inclusive rules, though I may point them out for the author to ultimately choose how they’d like to proceed. I generally focus more on each sentence’s construction itself and the intention behind the construction. Does it make sense? Is there anything about the construction that may be distracting to readers, like misused punctuation? If there’s an “error” in this sentence, is it purposeful? If so, does it need to be changed? If it needs to be changed, how can we convey the meaning in a way that won’t be distracting? If it’s awkward, how may it be improved? It’s a delicate balance: you have to acknowledge that the history of enforcing grammar rules is fraught with racism and classism, but also, to ignore them would result in something not polished, and open the book up to criticism that would overshadow the value of the story. That’s where I’ve found the importance of critical thinking, a light editorial hand, and—above all—kindness with how you broach the topic of grammar.

  2. The language that we use is important to our identity. Generally, the concepts I learned about surrounding language and identity had more to do with how we think about and label ourselves and how the language we use relates to societal expectations, norms, or rules. But this applies to books for the portrayal of character identity and self-perception (for fiction) and (for memoir) how authors choose to write about themselves. It’s also important to recognize the relationship between an author’s voice, their identity, and their story, and not to override it.

My technical publishing training comes from earning a writing minor under the Ooligan Press Book Publishing program at Portland State University. At Ooligan, students function as members of the press, publishing about four books a year in a range of genres from YA and adult genre fiction to nonfiction textbooks and guidebooks. Students are assigned to teams working on books in production and can volunteer to work on different department projects based on their career interests, like pitching, copyediting, designing, event planning, and marketing. All students are required to assist the acquisitions department by reading and evaluating proposals and submissions. Ooligan taught me everything I know about publishing and gave me a strong belief in the value of indie publishers.

After I graduated, I briefly interned for Forest Avenue Press, a local publisher in Portland. Laura Stanfill, founder and publisher, was my Book Editing professor. I did some acquisitions work and proofreading work for her. While not a traditional internship, in that this was during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and was therefore remote, I found it really valuable to learn under Laura’s wing. Her commitment to activism in publishing is admirable and inspiring and was foundational to my own belief in the importance of telling, promoting, and creating diverse stories. The book publishing industry as a whole needs to do better in hiring and publishing diverse authors (as well as hiring more diversely in general). Year after year, we see the same, unchanged diversity reports from Big-Five publishers, continual scandals about racist books, and so on; real strides in diversity are spearheaded by smaller value-driven presses.

After Forest Ave, I landed at PageMill Press. I was excited to apply to PageMill so that I could work on more nonfiction projects. I was also excited to use my psychology minor. At PageMill, I’ve helped out with everything we do, including providing developmental feedback on manuscripts in the early stages of production, maintaining the website, editing and proofreading our books, and researching and compiling resources for production behind the scenes. I’ve loved being able to see each and every aspect of the publishing process. Moreover, PageMill’s mission to publish transformative works is important to me. As a reader, I love looking into the lives of others and exercising in empathy for others’ experiences. I’m personally not religious, but spirituality is an important aspect of the human experience, and I enjoy reading about how healing it can be for people to engage in spiritual practices. I hope to continue learning as I go and developing this personal philosophy to support small presses, support authors and their identities, and promote diversity at every step.