Nuts and bolts — the problem-solving of editing
Publishing director Lauren Kukla shares her experiences as an editor and publisher in children’s literature.
by BETHANY LENDERINK | Web editor
Lauren Kukla began her editing journey as an English major in college. Her interest in editing quickly grew into a passion for problem-solving and developing children’s literature. Now Kukla works as the publishing director for Mighty Media Press, striving to provide thought-provoking and creative content for kids.
How did you get started in this industry?
“I was an English major in college and I was the editor of the literary arts magazine there. I also had an internship as a copy editor, so I was working on boat reviews and things like that. It wasn’t the most exciting work. I kind of got a taste for editing there. I graduated in 2008 and decided I wanted to pursue publishing, but at the time there were no publishing jobs available, so I interned at Milkweed Editions, which is a Minneapolis publisher. Then I got a job editing for a hunting and fishing catalogue.
“After that I moved to a book packaging company and that’s when I started working in children’s (literature) for the first time. They did school library books for various publishers in the area and nationwide. It was kind of everything. It was developmentally editing manuscripts. It was writing some manuscripts. It was copyediting and proofreading and finding photos, the whole package. I found I really enjoyed that part of it a lot and I really liked working in children’s literature.”
What led you to Mighty Media?
“I was with that book packaging company for 3.5 years, and then I had a chance to meet with the owner of Mighty Media. I was really excited about the work they did. They were a little bit more design-driven and they also did some fiction books, which I was interested in working on in addition to producing school library books. I was going to have a chance to be more of a managing editor, which I really liked.
“I found I enjoyed mentoring new editors and helping people solve tough problems with their books. I liked that even more than developing my own books. So, I kind of switched gears and I took the job there. I’ve been there for two years now. I do managing editorial work. I also help handle acquisitions for our publishing side, and I also do some product development for them as well.”
What happens during a typical day at the job?
“It’s hard to say. I feel like every day is a little different. I usually try to have one day a week where I work from home, where I either work on big writing or big editing projects. Sometimes when I’m at the office I get pulled in a lot of different directions and sometimes you just need to lock down and focus on something. So I have one day dedicated to big projects.
“Otherwise, I do a lot of staff management. I still do a lot of editing. I do a lot of quality assurance reviews with other people at work. I have a couple of those a week that I try to fit in. We’re very deadline-driven, and we do some work for clients, so it’s a balancing act. I also do a lot of our scheduling and make sure that everyone is prioritizing correctly.
“Mighty Media produces a lot of project books. We have a mini-photo studio. Last week, I was in the photo studio trying to get a robot project to work, so it really does vary a lot, day to day. I would say about a quarter of my week is spent with big, longer-term editing and writing projects. The rest of it is moving things along, helping other people, scheduling and client management, things like that.”
“With kids, with whoever you’re editing for, you need to think about the audience a lot. With kids it’s more important than anything.”
How does working in a genre like children’s literature affect your work?
“With kids, with whoever you’re editing for, you need to think about the audience a lot. With kids it’s more important than anything. You have to know how long of sentences they can handle — which varies by grade level — and what words they’ll understand.
“It also needs to be really engaging. If it’s too dry, kids will zone out, but it can’t talk down to them at all. It’s really a fine line of finding that perfect tone to get the content across and also knowing how much content is appropriate for the grade level you’re writing and editing for.”
What’s your favorite part of the job?
“I really like the problem-solving. I love when there’s something in a book that just isn’t working for some reason, and either just consulting with somebody else or talking it through or working with the author to figure out what it is, because it’s not always obvious.
“I also love working on our fiction books. That’s really fun. We have a new middle-grade novel that came out this fall and that was such a joy to work on with the author. It uses a different part of your brain and a different technique than nonfiction editing, which was so rewarding. And it’s much more important that the flow is right and the characters are well-developed, things you don’t have to think about with nonfiction.”
What’s your least favorite part of the job?
“Sometimes it’s hard when you have a nonfiction book you’re just not that interested in. I’m working on a book on drones right now and I’m having trouble getting into it. Some topic areas are more interesting than others. We’ve also found sometimes if it’s a topic you know less about, you do a better job editing it, because you don’t bring any knowledge to it, so you’re approaching it at the level a kid would.
“The deadlines can always be challenging. I think that’s not unique to my company. It’s been the case everywhere I’ve worked, and I think that’s how it is in publishing. Sometimes it feels like there are peaks and valleys where you’re really busy or things are really slow, and our goal is to have none of those and have it always be pretty steady, but that’s not always achievable.”
What is one editing horror story?
“One of our copy editors would always insert off-color jokes into his copies, so we had to be on the lookout for those and edit them out. I’ve also gotten just really sloppy manuscripts from free-lance authors. Most of the freelancers I work with are so great, but every now and then we get one that’s not. I had a guy that wrote a book on the Komodo dragon. It was full of spelling errors, like he hadn’t read it at all, and it was way too short and not researched at all.
“I’ve also gotten things that were clearly plagiarized from an Internet article, and that’s always scary when you see that, especially from an author you’ve worked with before. I’ve never had anything totally explode, though. It’s always something we can solve.”
How do you find balance between your professional and social life?
“When I was first starting out when I was younger it was hard for me to draw the line. Work would really stress me out. I would take stuff home a lot. Now, I’m married with a dog and when I come home I don’t really want to think about work. So, I really do try to structure my time. When I’m at work, I work the whole time. I’m not on the Internet or Facebook or anything like that. But as soon as I’m there eight hours and when I’m done, I go home and I usually don’t think about it again until the next morning. Sometimes we’re busy and I can’t do that. I might need to do a few things over the weekend, but I try to structure my time in such a way that when I’m at work, I’m at work and when I’m home, I’m all at home.”
Do you have a mentor or someone who inspired/impacted your career?
“There are a few people. When I was in college, the director of our English program really helped put me on that path. I had other professors, too, when I was debating between going to grad school or start trying to find a career in editing. They pushed me in the editing direction, which I’m very grateful for.
“Jill Brakely, who’s a marketing director, we worked together for a while a few years ago. She’s been in the industry for a long time and has always been a great mentor to me. She’s always there when I have career questions or general editing questions. She’s also really good at product development. She’s somebody who’s really shaped my career and given me a good path to follow.”
“It’s really a trade, I think, and it’s not something you can be taught in school. It’s something you develop with time and practice, kind of developing that eye for detail.”
What advice would you give to students starting to look for internships and experience?
“I think editing experience, it sounds obvious, is the biggest thing I see that people don’t have a lot of. They have clubs they were involved with or maybe they wrote for their school newspaper, but they need professional editing experience. I would recommend taking whatever you can get, be it internships, editing for a hunting magazine, whatever, just to learn those nuts and bolts. It’s really a trade, I think, and it’s not something you can be taught in school. It’s something you develop with time and practice, kind of developing that eye for detail.
“Don’t be afraid to take something you’re not excited about right away. Jobs aren’t always easy to find in this industry, but once you’re in it’s fairly easy to move around. Things open up all the time. So I would try to network as much as you can, and even if you think you’re taking a job that’s below you to start out with, if you do well, you won’t be there long. Don’t be afraid to take a risk.”
Kukla emphasized the idea that editing is a trade learned through experience. There are ‘nuts and bolts’ to nail down and developing an eye for detail is crucial. As someone without much editing experience, I found this recurring theme to be particularly resonant. I used to think of editing as something you either could or could not do, but talking with Kukla reminded me that it is something you have to practice and master overtime.
Kukla also demonstrated a great passion both for the work she was doing and for the audience she does it for. Kukla recognizes that knowing your audience is a vital part of the process. She knows what elements of a book are going to keep kids entertained, and she knows what mistakes would lose their interest as well. As an aspiring author, for me this was an important reminder that every part of the process, whether it is the writing or the editing or the publishing, has to be tailored to the audience I’m hoping to reach.
My largest take away from this interview, though, was Kukla’s advice to take risks. I have always known the writing world, any part of it, is difficult to get a foothold in. If I want to be a part of this industry, as Kukla said, I have to be willing to take jobs that scare me, or work on projects that don’t capture my immediate interest. “If you do well, you won’t be there long.” Getting all the experience I can and putting forth the best work that I can is the surest way to find my place in this industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed.