Pat McNees on writing and editing as a career
Here's a mini-bio of my life as a writer-editor and life story professional. It all started in second grade, when I told Judy Wolf's father "I can spell hippopotamus. Can you?" There's a little bit of a know-it-all in most editors, but some of us decide fixing other people's writing isn't enough, and take up writing, too. For me, curiosity and storytelling are also big drivers, so I spend a lot of time helping other people and organizations tell their life stories.
I've had a wonderful career combining writing and editing and created this site to help others find similarly interesting work, or similarly helpful writers and editors -- to hire, to learn from, to become, or to hang out with.
I was hooked on editing at UCLA, where my Freshman English teacher left a badly written writing sample on our desk at the start of each class and asked us to edit or rewrite it. I could hardly wait to get to class (and recommend this as a way of making Freshman English less boring).
In graduate school at Stanford, I graded papers for Wallace Stegner's American fiction course and began editing professors' books and papers (who knew one could get paid for this?). I loved the seminar I took with Irving Howe on The Idea of the Modern, and invited Irving and the seminar participants out to my tiny cottage in the country for an end-of-semester party.
Graduate school (especially eighteenth-century literature) was NOT my thing, so after two years I accepted a free ride to New York City in a single-engine plane, thinking I'd lead the life of Holly Golightly.
In book publishing, I got a job working for Joan Kahn (a fireball of a mystery editor, who took me to lunch at the Algonquin) and Elizabeth Lawrence (literary editor, and my first mentor in publishing) at Harper & Row. As a superfast typist, I got my secretarial duties out of the way fast, and was handed a manuscript to read, a first novel from a British author named Dick Francis. Women entering publishing then often took the secretarial entry route, whereas men tended to come in through sales. After desktop computers came along, editors often had to type their own letters, and the secretatrial staff slimmed down.
After Elizabeth Lawrence retired, I was offered a job as editor in a new paperback department, Harper's Perennial Library, which I helped the great Tom McCormack launch--a true apprenticeship, as he taught me many tools of the trade; his other helpers were Elaine Landis (Geiger) and Sam Carmack. These jobs were as low-paying then as they still are, but Tom was a wonderful friend and mentor, who insisted that I learn the book business from every angle. (Tom went on to turn St. Martin's from a little-known press into an immensely successful publishing firm.)
Fawcett, a mass market paperback publisher, hired me to edit its Premier line, books geared to the high school and college market. During my four years there, the Premier line published about half originals (especially documentary histories and literary anthologies) and half reprints. I was a one-woman editorial department, and loved it. Much to my surprise, and his, I inherited from the previous editor a series of literary anthologies for which Irving Howe was General Editor. Having been dazzled by his lectures at Stanford, I was thrilled to work with him.
I had a well-rounded experience in book publishing at a time when the bean counters and corporate honchos weren't calling all the shots, Correcting Selectrics were the rage, and most people still bought books in bookstores or from one of the book clubs. Computers were still in the future. Ebooks hadn't been invented.
Publishing never paid well, so when my daughter was born I went freelance, adding writing to my repertoire because it was more interesting (especially the interviews) and paid better. I began by writing food and feature stories for New York magazine and when I left New York for Washington DC supported my stay-at-home Mom position by doing a lot of freelance features for the Washington Post and other publications.
Once launched as an independent writer-editor, I never turned back. But I learned that although I might do some projects for love alone, I needed a base in projects that would pay the mortgage. Freelancing for the Post did not provide a real living (and does so even less now that their freelance rates have plummeted).
I began doing the kind of work that Washington provides in huge quantities: editing and rewriting reports and other kinds of documents and writing a gazillion executive summaries, largely for the World Bank, but working freelance as well for the IMF, the U.S. State Department, USAID, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the National Science Foundation, and similar organizations. One particularly interesting (and exhausting) assignment was to write daily summaries of a four-week "virtual conference" on land and real estate reform, an online discussion sponsored atypically by the World Bank (which was not in the business of land reform) and open to the world. I also summarized many evaluations -- what people thought was right and WRONG with various organizations and projects -- which I loved, because evaluations often dealt with the nitty gritty. The project I found most worthwhile was a conference on women and water and sewerage--because in the Third World, water was often hard to come by and guess who usually walked for miles to get it and bring it back to the village. I loved the inventive ways women were figuring out to facilitate getting reliable access to water.
I had begun editing literary anthologies watching my daughter at the sandboxes of New York, and kept doing that. I also began writing books -- in particular, helping individuals tell their life story and helping organizations tell theirs.
I find the long form (books especially) more satisfying both intellectually and financially. I drifted into writing more about health care and medical research than other subjects, because the material is so interesting and important. Writing a history of the NIH Clinical Center (Building Ten at Fifty) made me a convert to the history of medicine. My next such project (which took much longer) was an interview-based history of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland. Fascinating material, a history of the field, in a way, wrapped around the history of one remarkable department, published as Changing Times, Changing Minds: 100 Years of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
One of the greatest pleasures of my career has been a workshop I lead at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD: "My Life, One Story at a Time" -- and also in Montgomery County libraries. By emphasizing that people write honestly about their lives and not for publication, I've read and heard some of the most wonderful writing ever-- because people are writing not to dumbed-down women's magazine formulas but to really examine their lives and experiences (which good writing so often does). The bonding that occurs in these workshops is a side product of exploring and revealing important insights into their lives and wrapping up what they learn in stories. (Each week they read their stories aloud to each other.) I recommend that you participate in such a group at least once in your life.
Part of the reason I've been lucky in finding work is that I have been an energetic joiner of organizations--and then a participator (sometimes serving on the board, sometimes simply volunteering). I highly recommend this, because honestly, most of my plum jobs have come through friends I met through these organizations. I've preserved my sanity and avoided a lot of wasted time and effort by being able to talk shop with fellow writers and editors. In 2010-11 I was president of the Association of Personal Historians, which, sadly, folded in 2017, after 20 years of bringing like-minded people together. I love this work with life stories and thought at some point I had invented a new field, only to discover others doing similar work, albeit in varying forms. (Its members come from many previous careers, including radio, television, film, psychology, and so on.) I particularly enjoyed the sessions on producing video at annual conferences.
One year when I was asked to speak at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists & Authors, I provided a handout evaluating various organizations for writers and editors, and it disappeared in a flash. This website is, I hope, a useful version of that handout. At some point, when I am not so swamped with work, I will provide more of an evaluation of the organizations listed here (those I am in a position to evaluate anyway--and I'll invite opinions from others).
Posted here is the wonderful advice the late Sarah Wernick had on her website, especially the So, you want to write a book section (preserved here, by permission). Sarah died in 2007, and her husband Willie Lockeretz agreed that it made sense to move those useful pieces here, rather than keep her website going posthumously. Sarah's one of the many good friends I made joining a writer's organization. I urge you: Make friends with other writers and editors. Growing up, I was always accused of being nosy. ("Why do you want to know that?") Now many of my friends are nosy, too, and some are as bad at nitpicking on grammar and style as I am.
Take classes. Acquire skills. (Malcolm Gladwell is right about practice being a key factor separating those who succeed from those who don't.) Find out what you don't know and learn it. Read as many good books as you can, before books become obsolete (may it never happen). Mingle with your fellow wordsmiths. Overcome shyness and connect with as many people as you can, because connections keep you in touch with the world and can lead to work, to information, to sources, and to friends (some of my closest long-term friends I met through work and writers organizations). And realize: this is a great profession for someone with wide-ranging curiosity, but it is a tough time economically both in book publishing and journalism, so consider your options; maybe keep your day job, till you find out what you can do that people will be willing to pay you for!
Here are some of my books:
• Dying: A Book of Comfort (an anthology that I've been told by dozens of readers has provided comfort to people who are dying, who are helping someone who is dying, or who are grieving a loss). Order directly from me and you can get the lovely, small hardcover gift edition ($17.95 includes media mail shipping in U.S.A). You can also order the print-on-demand paperback through Amazon (I am the vendor pmcnees5, and can send hardcover or paperback), which is, frankly, not as nice, although the content is the same.
• Changing Times, Changing Minds: 100 Years of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (a history of 20th century psychiatry wrapped around the story of a particularly interesting department of psychiatry in Maryland)
• Contemporary Latin American Short Stories (edited by Pat McNees and in print since 1974)
• Building Ten at Fifty: A History of the NIH Clinical Center
• My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees ("At last, a collection that shows the 'why, what, and how' behind memoir as legacy."--Susan Wittig Albert, author of Writing from Life: Telling Your Soul's Story.
• Starting Over: The Life of Herman Ernst Sheets by Herman Sheets and Pat McNees
• By Design: The Story of Crown Equipment Corporation by Pat McNees ((story here)
• New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering (Vol. 1, which I wrote for the National Science Foundation--read it online or download it free to read it later), a "bestseller" for the NSF
• An American Biography: An Industrialist Remembers the Twentieth Century by Pat McNees (foreword by Robert Kanigel)
• YPO: The First Fifty Years (a history of the Young President's Organization, by Pat McNees)
And here are photos of the U.S. Institute of Peace, the newest building on the U.S. National Mall. In 2006 I did interviews with some of the peace institute's founders.
• The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (drawn from Pat McNees's history of the NIH Clinical Center)
• Cooking with Portobello Mushrooms (Pat McNees, for Washington Post food section)
• Dating -- Again! ("Back in the Dating Game"), lighthearted practical story Pat McNees wrote for Washington Post Style Section
• The difference between a preface, foreword, and introduction and The order of front and back matter
• Global Public Policies and Programs (World Bank publication for which Pat edited transcripts and wrote summaries of floor discussions, several years in a row). Another favorite Bank project Pat worked on: Writing a series of précis of reports for the Bank's Operations Evaluation Department (which were about whether and how well (or not) particular operations performed)
• Learning Styles: Whole-Child Learning (Pat McNees, Parents Magazine)
• Shuffling Off to Buffalo Gap Dance Camp (Pat's Washington Post story about an adult dance camp a couple of hours outside of Washington DC--now a memory)
• The Truth About Dry Cleaning (story Pat wrote for Washington Post Magazine, one that draws plenty of clicks in hard times!)
• Why Janie Can't Engineer: Raising Girls to Succeed (Pat McNees, Washington Post, 1-7-2004). This was a spinoff from a project Holly Pollinger suggested me for; working with Ruta Sevo to write about STEM projects at the National Science Foundation was pure delight.) See also Why so few women work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) (and what can be done to change that).
• About Pat McNees