The Personal is Historical
On the Craft of Editing, Our Teachers, and Leaving Academia

On the Craft of Editing, Our Teachers, and Leaving Academia

Generations of history graduate students at the College of William & Mary have stories to tell about Gil Kelly. The longtime managing editor of the books program at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (OI), Gil was one of those unforgettable individuals. Throughout his career and long past the advent of Microsoft Word, Gil continued to edit manuscripts on paper, always using a blue pencil (as was traditional) to do his work. He smoked a pipe, using the nastiest smelling tobacco you can imagine (luckily, he had been forced outside for this pastime years before I met him). Gil loved cars, asking each apprentice on the first day of editorial training about what make and model they drove. He carried a coffee mug around the office that depicted a 1950s-style housewife stating, “Housework’s a bitch”—the legend was that he had bought a dozen of these years before as party favors for his young daughter’s birthday and was told they were not appropriate for children. Gil was also one of those editors that authors talk about long after their book was published. In his early 70s by the time I worked with him, when he died in 2017 he left behind dozens of authors who knew that their books were vastly improved by his blue pencil and his endless attention to detail.

In 2010, I began the MA/PhD program in the history department at W&M. Like dozens of master’s students before me, I was selected to serve my MA apprenticeship (a longstanding tradition at W&M) at the OI. I arrived in Williamsburg in early August to spend three weeks in intensive editorial training. Little did I know that nearly a decade later, I would be relying every day on the things I learned there from Gil and his colleagues.

Black and white photo of a 40-something white man sitting in a chair and leaning against a white cement block wall, laughing. He wears black-rimmed glasses, a gray suit with a striped tied and white button-up shirt.
Gilbert Kelly, photo from his obituary.

It was not a brief training. We spent 7 hours a day, five days a week, sitting in a conference room while Gil and his counterpart at the William and Mary Quarterly taught us the ins-and-outs of the publishing profession. In that conference room, we did “little exercises,” as Gil called them, to test our copy-editing and proofreading skills (not synonyms!), learned how a book goes from typed words in a Word document to a weighty hardcover in your hand, and even learned about outdated technologies like linotype because Gil insisted. We took field trips to the nearby Colonial Williamsburg print shop and bindery to learn about how newspapers and books were made in the eighteenth century and visited the OI team working on a documentary editing project.

At the time, as first-year graduate students mostly in our early twenties, we complained often about this extensive training. Do we really need to know that “nauseous” and “nauseated” do not mean the same thing (and that most people use “nauseous” incorrectly)? Would I ever remember that “myriad” should be used as an adjective and not a noun (or was it the other way)? Turns out that I remember all of these things. Now that I am an editor by profession, I know that the hours spent in that conference room had an impact on my life in ways I couldn’t predict as a 22-year-old who was sure she would finish a PhD within 6 years of funding (maybe 7, but I could surely get that extra year funded somehow), and hopefully get a tenure-track job within a year or two or three at most after completing my degree.1

Omohundro Institute Logo. A red graphic of the bell tower of a building next to the words OMOHUNDRO and INSTITUTE

Instead, I left my PhD program at the end of my sixth year without the degree. Luckily for me, I had that editorial training to fall back on. Between that background and my relevant experience as an editor and later the managing editor of this here website that you’re reading now, I was hired as a Journals Production Editor at an engineering society. This is a type of editing that most writers are unaware of before their first forays into publishing. After the peer review is done and your article is accepted, there is a team of people who helps shepherd your manuscript through the process of becoming a published piece. There are copy-editors who polish your prose, compositors who typeset the piece so it looks as it will in published form, proofreaders who read these “proofs” and catch further errors. Someone has to ensure that permissions from the copyright holders have been obtained for all images being published with your article or book.

I learned about all of these things at the OI, many of them by doing. OI apprentices check every footnote and quotation in book manuscripts and WMQ articles for accuracy. In my time, we had to get a physical copy of each and every source, if possible, to look at those title and copyright pages and confirm that all citation details were correct.2 Alongside the professional editors at the OI, we read through manuscript before typesetting (copy-editing) and after (proofreading) to try to catch ways to make the prose tighter, the argument stronger, and get rid of those pesky typos.

Now as a production editor, I don’t do copy-editing myself—our journals production staff is made up of only 6 editors and we publish 50,000 journal pages a year, so vendors do this work for us—but I do copy-edit review, where we check the work of a sampling of papers before they are published. Though I have moved from the Chicago Manual of Style footnotes system used in historical writing to Chicago author-date parentheticals used by engineers, Chicago remains the style manual my employers (and I) prefer. Mainly, I am thankful everyday that, unlike so many who stumble into editing without formal training, I had Gil and his colleagues to teach me about this profession, its history, and the importance of incredibly high standards in publishing.

Black book cover with the words Dryer's English written in large red and white text.
Cover of Benjamin Dreyer’s new Dryer’s English, available from Penguin Random House.

Why am I writing this now? As I read Benjamin Dreyer’s recent Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, I thought a lot about Gil, who would have had many quibbles with what rules Dreyer chooses to enforce and which he allows can be broken.3 Dreyer, the vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House,4 has something to say about the expected (punctuation, hyphenation, and easily confused words) and the unexpected (I never expected to read a joke about “teabagging” in a style guide, but here we are)5.

I frankly loved this book. Dreyer’s writing is never boring, peppered with humor and references to everything from “Donald Trump Jr.’s perfidy” (note the difficulty of using a possessive with a “Jr.”; that was the lesson) to musical theater. For a new editor, this book would be useful in reminding you of small details you perhaps never learned in school—like that in American publishing, punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks.6 For someone like myself who does this work professionally, Dreyer’s book will go on my desk next to my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style to be referenced when needed—for both editorial advice and a laugh.

I don’t know what Gil Kelly would think of Dreyer’s English. Gil retired from the OI in 2013 and died in 2017, not long after I was hired in my first professional editing job. It is a great regret of mine that I didn’t reach out to him to let him know about the new job and to thank him for helping me reach this path. But I know that had it been published earlier, Gil would have read Dreyer’s book with relish, marking it up with his blue pencil and likely taking notes for what “rules” he should remember to teach OI apprentices. At the least I can say that if you don’t have a Gil in your life to help teach you to become a better editor, Dreyer’s English is a great place to start.


  1. Potential history graduate students who may be reading this, do not be discouraged but also it’s good to have a backup plan. Return to text.
  2. The Interlibrary Loan Staff at W&M’s Swem Library are champions, but a few years after I moved on to being a teaching assistant this practice was discontinued because of how very much ILLing it required. Return to text.
  3. Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York: Random House, 2019. Return to text.
  4. As Dreyer himself explained on Twitter, this title is not missing a series (or serial or Oxford) comma here, “executive managing editor and copy chief” is a subset of “vice president.” He fully endorses the series comma in the book.Return to text.
  5. In Chapter 10, “The Confusables,” under the entry Bawl/Ball: “To bawl one’s eyes out is to weep profusely. To ball one’s eyes out would be some sort of sports or teabagging incident.” Dreyer, Dreyer’s English, 172. Return to text.
  6. A detail I wish all writers who submit to Nursing Clio would remember as well. Return to text.

Laura Ansley is an editor, writer, and historian with degrees from Case Western Reserve University and the College of William & Mary. In her day job, she is managing editor at the American Historical Association.

1 thought on “On the Craft of Editing, Our Teachers, and Leaving Academia

    • Author gravatar

      I very much enjoyed reading your story and remembering my days as a history major at W&M from which I graduated in ’68. I ended my working career as an internal auditor in the purchasing department of a defense contractor. I still audit classes as a non-traditional, non-credit student from our local college thanks to an amendment to our state constitution, passed in the 60’s, which allows retires to pursue additional education without paying tuition. I expect there were many of us who had to become avocational lovers of Clio and find alternative vocations to pay our ways though the world.

      Jeff Taylor ’68

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