Karen Kassel is the Editorial Director for WilliamsTown Communications. Karen has a strong academic background and years of experience in scientific research and writing. Here she talks about how she came to WilliamsTown, why she enjoys the editorial field, and what it means to her to lead a team of talented writers and editors.
What is your academic background?
I have a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Tabor College (a small school in Kansas) and a PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. People sometimes confuse pharmacology with pharmacy and mistakenly assume that I can prescribe drugs. Others confuse a PhD with an MD and incorrectly believe I can diagnose diseases. In actuality, pharmacology is the research side of pharmacy. The research of scientists in pharmacology leads to new drug discoveries, new applications for old drugs, and new insights into the human body and disease states.
Why did you want to get involved in writing and editing?
I did scientific research for many years during graduate school and through post-docs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. During that time, I learned a lot about writing and editing from two of my mentors, and I was constantly writing for my dissertation, published papers, and grants. As a result, I developed a strong background in writing and editing educational and academic papers. When I left the research field, a career in writing and editing seemed like a natural choice. In addition, I have always been interested in helping others learn, so working with educational materials that engage students and help them want to learn seemed like a perfect integration of my talents, training, and passion.
What types of projects do you enjoy the most?
There are very few projects that I don’t enjoy, but my favorite projects are the ones that allow me to use my scientific and medical background, such as updating nursing textbooks. These projects challenge me and help me learn new things or remind me of things I’ve learned in the past. They also give me a feeling of satisfaction when I realize that our efforts to improve textbooks lead to a better learning experience for students.
I also really enjoy projects that allow me to work one-on-one with students. We have a contract to provide editing support to graduate students in the University of Pennsylvania Chief Learning Officer program. My ongoing, mentor-like relationship with these students has been a very rewarding experience for me. I provide insight into the academic writing style, answer questions about writing and organization, and encourage them to keep moving toward their goals. When their dissertations are complete, we celebrate their success together.
Do you have any tips for managing others?
Develop a good team and trust your team members to do their jobs. Being micromanaged is very frustrating, so I try to give people freedom when completing assignments. We have a great team here at WillTown. After a little training on a new project, my team members can usually complete the project with minimal guidance. However, I always make myself available to answer questions and walk them through any steps they don’t understand. It is important to provide this support as quickly as possible so they don’t get stuck.
Giving constructive feedback is also essential to managing a team. Constructive feedback should be both positive (you did this part really well) and negative (this part needs improvement). When providing negative comments, I make sure they are constructive and not destructive. Destructive criticism is discouraging and causes people to dislike working with you. Constructive criticism allows team members to improve their skills and brings their work to a higher level. As team members improve their skills, they need less oversight and can be trusted with increasingly complex tasks. By providing both an empowering environment and constructive feedback, I encourage the people on our team to submit exceptional work that makes us invaluable to our clients.
Do you have any advice for a new grad looking for a job in publishing or e-learning?
If you want to freelance, develop a strong network of clients that can give you repeat work. This will take some time and effort, but it will be rewarding once it is developed. You can find jobs on sites like the Editorial Freelance Association, or if you have connections with someone in the publishing or e-learning industry, ask if they have any job openings or any projects for a freelance writer or editor. Make sure you have good writing and editing tools available and understand how to use them. In particular, Microsoft Word and Adobe Reader (or Acrobat) are vital editing programs that you will need to invest in and learn how to use. If you want to go into e-learning, make sure you understand learning management systems, software that allows you to integrate interactive material and narration (like Articulate Storyline), and popular learning environments and styles.
If you don’t want to do freelance work and instead want to work directly for a company, develop a solid, well-written, but brief resume that will catch the attention of the person responsible for hiring writers and editors. Tailor your resume to each job you apply to, and show them that your skills are exactly what they need. Apply to every job that sounds like a good fit for you, and eventually something will open up if you persist. If you have any connections in the publishing or e-learning industry, use them to get your foot in the door. While you are waiting for a more steady job to open up, consider doing freelance work. This will help boost your resume and will let hiring professionals know that you are serious about a career in publishing or e-learning.