The Book industry thrives on good authors, who thrive on good readers. So if you are an avid book reader, you not only have an eye for good stories but also understand the pulse of the market.
Varsha Naik, our next pathbreaker, Book Editor, collaborates with writers, reading and assessing their novels (fiction or nonfiction), to help shape their stories and add valuable inputs to enhance the narrative, resulting in a satisfying outcome for all parties involved.
Varsha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about dabbling in Advertising and Journalism before realising her inclination towards descriptive writing and good command over English language, subsequently leading her to a career in Book Editing !
For students, sometimes even a childhood hobby can lead to an enriching career when you end up doing something you enjoy as well as being paid for it.
Varsha, tell us about your background?
I grew up in Muscat, Oman. My parents are a doctor and an engineer. I studied in one of the CBSE board Indian schools – Indian School Al-Ghubra. Since our subject choice was rather limited at that time, I took Computer Science in 11th and 12th standard. However, it was obvious to most people around me that English was my strong suit. There are several people who, as I look back, had a pivotal role to play in making sure that reading and writing became an essential part of my core being. Of course, my parents never hesitated to buy me books and always encouraged me to read, and over time I learned to prefer it to television. My paternal grandmother used to read to us stories from the Mahabharata and Ramanyana and even Panchatanra tales, which we recorded and relistened to endlessly. My paternal grandfather encouraged the habit of letter-writing and insisted that I write to him after every holiday about what I did, even the mundane stuff. While I don’t believe he was consciously grooming me, it set the foundation of putting pen to paper and making that the way to communicate what I wanted to say. Throughout school, I found English to be the easiest subject and one that did not make me nervous at all. While I was never a class topper, I fared well with the language and read endlessly (under the covers, past bedtime, in buses/cars, on vacation, at home) and discovered an increasing sense of comfort in it. You could say, it gradually became my thinking language, though I am fluent in Hindi as well. School excursions were a large part of our learning life, and I formed the practice of writing about each excursion as a memory and to share in school and among family and friends. As I look back, I think this was the start of a career I never imagined for myself.
What did you study after school?
When I was about to turn 18, it was time for the big decision – what to study in university? In all honesty, I had no clue what I wanted to do. So, I followed the advice of friends and family and applied to study business at five universities in America. After the process of admission forms and essays and reference letters, I was accepted into four universities for the course I had chosen. However, in one university, I was not selected into the business school but found a spot waiting in my second choice – Journalism. How or why I put that option down in my admission form, I do not remember clearly, but I believe my sister had some influence in encouraging me to do so. Incidentally, it was also her who convinced my dad to let me go to this university and pursue journalism and then try to switch into business the following semester. And so, in the fall of 2003, I landed up at the University of Texas at Austin to study Journalism at the College of Communications.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
The very first lecture on journalism was in a large hall with 300-400 students, and as I sat in that class and heard about what it takes to be a journalist, I knew I was hooked. I soon told my dad that I had decided that I wanted to stick to this career and not go into business. He was hesitant as they didn’t have many contacts in this field that could help later on, but I had made up my mind, and I said I would find my way. And I found my mentor the same week when I attended my first writing lab (a smaller group of students from the larger class, to get into the actual writing of news stories).
Professor Robert Mann, or Coach Bob as he instructed us to call him, changed my life forever. Though I have lost touch with him, I think of him often and give thanks for all his guidance and the time he invested in me. Under his watchful eye, I learnt how to write crisp, factual and engaging news stories and worked my way up from a C at the start of the semester, to an A by the time the class was over. But it was not so much about the grade, as much as it was about the enormous leaps of learning that happened. Coach Bob taught me about life, politics, seeing the world through new eyes and basically turned my life on its head. The next year, I joined my university newspaper, The Daily Texan, as a general reporter and worked with them for about a year. It was my first experience with deadlines, taking detailed phone messages and coaxing information out of sources to ensure that my stories were balanced and unbiased. I was thrilled and nervous the whole time, and I believe that is what kept me grounded and honest. I started off covering a lot of stories related to state politics, policies and bills and quite enjoyed getting to see how that circuit functioned. Coach Bob suggested to me that I should work in my home country to have a more wholesome experience, and so I spent the summer of 2005 interning at The Week magazine in Bangalore, where I had my first taste of feature writing. By the time I went back to America, it seems, destiny knew it had other plans, and more feature writing stories seemed to find me. It started with stories related to India, that were given to me because of my obvious familiarity with the place. But what no one realized was that I was an NRI, and so, despite being Indian, I saw things differently from other youngsters my age who had grown up in India. In a way, I was able to bridge the gap between India and America for many readers, because I had lived my whole life in that gap, and saw both sides with a unique perspective.
On some insistence from Coach Bob (more like a hard shove), I applied for a part-time internship with People Magazine. And I got in and had the wonderful opportunity to work under the editor Bill Minutaglio and learn a whole lot about what goes into understanding what makes for a good story and how to research it. While I did not write for them, many fruitful hours spent in research and collecting data for their freelance writers sharpened my skills and understanding greatly.
Things took a turn suddenly in early 2006, after the sudden death of my sister. After that, I was severely unmotivated and lost and when I found my feet again, I had no interest in writing about politics and hard news anymore. So, I redirected my internal chaos into understanding people and this, somehow, became my niche voice. I took a feature writing class with Bill Minutaglio (who was a guest professor) and I honed my knack for writing stories about real people and things, more than relay the news – understanding people’s essence and showcasing them to the world fascinated me.
But over the next two years in America, I jumped between public relations jobs and other part-time gigs, while I struggled through the last two years of college, the emotional turmoil taking a toll on me. The last few months of my time in America found me working on a very interesting project, completely by chance, which I never knew would lead me down a new path someday.
Austin City Limits is a popular live music festival in the world music circuit, but little known is the fact that it was at first a TV show recorded with a live audience. I saw an ad for a part-time job posted by the lady who was the head makeup artist for Austin City Limits, the TV show for many years. Over the years she would speak to performers while in the makeup chair, about her passion and hobby – food. She would discuss recipes and ideas and interesting titbits handed down from grandparents and family and friends. One day the idea surfaced to compile a book of recipes of all the famous musicians who had appeared on the show. She needed help to sort through all the material she had collated and ready it for submission for printing. The deal was simple, as she did not have the money to pay for the job she would provide home-cooked lunch every day that we worked. She was a fabulous cook and I enjoyed many wonderful meals with her. So, over the next 2-3 months, I worked with her sorting through all these wonderful recipes from all the biggest musician names under the sun from BB King to Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson to Sarah MacLachlan. It was a really fun project and she even invited me to meet The University of Texas Press folks who were printing the coffee table book. They offered me a full-time job, but I had decided that I didn’t want to live in America any longer and wanted to go back to Muscat to be with my parents.
FYI, the book is called Music in the Kitchen.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.
Once I returned to the Middle East, I got a job as a junior writer at an advertising agency (DDB Oman). Looking back, I think this was the place where a lot of things started shifting for me professionally and I didn’t even know it at the time. I have to say it was clear right from the beginning that I was not a very good advertising writer because there were people with much more experience who had a knack for writing snappy, attention-grabbing lines and my style was more of a descriptive one. It was not something that I was able to pick up as it was not the way my brain functioned. But things worked themselves out when my immediate supervisor let me take on a lot of copyediting and proofreading projects. I worked on many annual reports and documents that needed meticulous checking for spelling, punctuation, grammar and accuracy. I also worked on in-house magazines/newsletters for a big petroleum company and basically handled organizing and finalizing everything with minimum supervision. Little did I know it would lay the foundation for the career I am in now. I did this work for about two and a half years and once again felt like I didn’t really fit in the advertising space.
In 2011 I decided that I wanted to move back to India and work in Bombay. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I figured I would try to return to newspapers, but this time look at feature writing as my focus. It was not easy at all because I spent the first eight months unable to get a job, especially since I had never worked in India before. I finally got an introduction at DNA newspaper and met the editor for the After Hrs features pages. I was pretty much hired on the spot, given my background. I worked with a small team and we churned out a lot of content every day. It was a massive learning experience for me and I had to pick things up quickly as others had already worked in similar setups. I leant how to hunt for story ideas that would be interesting and current and also newsworthy, and that one and a half years with the busiest time as a writer for me. We had short working hours but we had to hammer out many stories not just for our own pages but for others as well. We would edit and proofread each other’s stories and everything on the front page to ensure things were error-free. This too helped sharpen my editing skills and especially taught me how to work on deadline. In 2013, I left the newspaper, essentially because of low pay and office politics, that I had no patience for.
How did you get your first real break?
I wanted to get into publishing and work on books but really didn’t know how to go about it. It was totally by chance that I got a lucky break. A friend of a friend had casually once asked me to help out with a book his boss had written on career management since I was good with language. Eventually, the book was picked up by a publishing house and the writer very graciously called us over for lunch to thank us. I took the chance to ask him for some guidance on how I could go about getting into the book publishing space and it so happened that his wife was the country head for Harlequin Books in India.
This is where my life really transformed and saw doors opening for me. She was gracious and patient and she really took me under her wing and helped me learn the process of working on novels. She showed me what kind of feedback writers needed and what things to watch for as I read. I learnt on the go and it helped that I have always been an avid reader, reading everything from romance to mystery to crime to nonfiction. The process was very organic in the way it manifested. The practice of reading almost anything gave me a natural sense of how a story should flow and appeal to a reader. The work was intense, and we did 11 books in the one and half years of work before Harper Collins bought over Harlequin. At this point, I found myself once again without a job because they had an entire team and did not want to take me on to work with them.
The next three years were really the hardest and I struggled with one-off small projects that hardly paid, some for small publishing houses and a few with writers one-on-one. I worked on anything that came my way, from helping clean up MBA essays to tedious novels that are terribly written and paid next to nothing. I didn’t make much money at this time and it was difficult, but I was fortunate that my parents were there to back me. However, I was at an all-time low – I felt like a failure at being unable to break through the stagnation to a point where work would flow, be challenging and yet rewarding. I knew I would have to do many small, unsatisfying projects and work my way up. It took me a good three years, and after not finding success in a short-term event space hoping to make quick money, that I decided that I need to now stop running from what clearly was my skill set – writing and editing.
I was hesitant but with the guidance of my friends and my parent’s encouragement to get back to my roots, I committed myself to editing and decided to give it my all. I created a simple website, outlining my work, my background and the kind of editing services I could offer to writers. I created a little pamphlet, which highlighted my work experience and handed them out at the Pune Literature Festival along with business cards. It was a very strange experience because I’m not the type of person who is comfortable marketing my skills. But it set the ball rolling because I got a lot of enquiries and appreciation for my range of work. Old clients reconnected and started recommending me to others and slowly and steadily, good work started coming in. The minute I committed energetically to what I wanted to do, things really started shifting for me and I started getting a lot of work that came in.
Right after this change, in December 2017, I felt the need to leave Bombay and I moved to Goa three months later. While editing, I worked for a while as a book reviewer for Free Press Journal in Bombay. It was a great gig, reading and reviewing books and I really enjoyed it. I also got to write some interesting, long feature stories that were much appreciated and great fun to work on. A friend was generous enough to arrange a feature piece on me (my first ever) in the Herald newspaper in Goa that talked about the life and work I had chosen to do. It was a sign that things were headed in the right direction and I was grateful for the acknowledgment. I finally felt like I had arrived.
It’s now been three years since I’ve been in Goa and my work has tripled. I have many projects that come in and I get a lot of good responses from writers. Feedback from them is so important and it helps me to constantly learn new ways of adding value to the feedback I give them on their work. I finally found my groove.
Tell us about your current work?
Now, I want to go a little bit into what exactly I do so you can understand that this is also a career option available to you if you want to pursue it. I am a book editor. Writers come to me so I can read and assess their novels (fiction or nonfiction) and help improve it in the best way possible. The job involves three stages, and most writers engage me for all three steps. This is a better approach as one person looks at everything in a holistic manner and the outcome is much better.
The first step is developmental editing and is the most crucial – I read the manuscript for the first time and look for obvious gaps in the storytelling. These could be plot gaps where something suddenly jumps and doesn’t make sense, it could be characters that are not strong enough or need more refinement, it could be structural changes where certain chapters or scenes probably would read better if they are placed somewhere else in the story. The reason this stage is the most important because most writers are completely engrossed with their story, the characters and the plot. So, when they write sometimes they don’t often realize that something is missing. Only a new person, reading for the first time can see those gaps. When I read if I am not clear on what happens or I am confused that means it’s likely that a real reader (when the book comes out) will also not understand and these are the parts that need to be pointed out and worked on. Once identified, the writer goes back and works on those sections that need work, sometimes rewriting, sometimes cutting, sometimes adding material.
The next stage is line editing where I, as an editor, start making changes in the manuscript, I change sentences, I cut things out, I rephrase where needed, and query if things are still unclear. I make language corrections and alter the flow of the story when needed. All changes are subject to review by the writer and we discuss any points of conflict.
The final stage is actually something that is ongoing even during line editing – proofreading. Now I am looking at standardizing the manuscript, which means making sure spellings are either British or American, sticking to certain stylistic elements – numbers spelt out or written as numerals, grammar spelling punctuation and all those little things that make sure that usage is consistent throughout the manuscript. This includes adhering to certain preferences, for example, if a particular character needs to talk in broken English then I don’t change those things.
Costing for a project depends broadly on two things – word count and language. Some writers need a lot of help with line editing, rephrasing and grammar/spellings. That means much more work for me, so that needs to be taken into consideration when I give an estimate. I’ve worked on three types of books, fiction, nonfiction and short stories and all of them have different approaches. An editing project can take up to 2-3 months depending on the amount of work needed and the number of projects I have in hand.
There are times when I say no to projects, usually if the subject material is not one that I have command over and I don’t feel like I will do justice and add value to the writer. In those cases, I try to refer them to other editor friends who have more experience in those topics. This includes manuscripts heavily focused on poetry, politics and economics. Sometimes I simply have to say no, as the work involved is a lot and the writer does not have the budget for it.
What is a typical day like?
A typical day for me is something like this. I do not work without a to-do list, because I’m usually working on multiple projects all in different stages of edit. I first check emails and see if there is anything urgent that needs to be tended to – emails, queries etc. Once I start editing I usually work for 2-3 hours before breaking for lunch. Then I work till around 6 pm when I take a coffee break. I try as often as I can not to work after that, and spend the time doing other things I want to. But it all depends on what deadlines I have and what things need to get done. This is an ideal situation, however, my days are not always like this, since other things come up. Since I work from home and I am my own boss, the main thing to adhere to is deadlines, often self-imposed, so that I get all through all the number of pages a day on multiple projects. I try to ensure that I submit things when I say I will, and if there is going to be a delay, try to inform my writers as such. Working from home is good in many ways, but it also requires much more discipline than an office job. To make sure I don’t fall behind, if I take time off in the week, I often work weekends to cover it up. It’s about a mindset, that the work needs to get done no matter what. Because I work freelance, I don’t always follow regular holidays, and that means that sometimes I work extra so that when I do take holidays or go home to spend time with family I don’t have to work much, if at all.
Early on, I found that I was burning out because I was not managing my time well. Trial and error brought me to understand and formulate a system that works for me. I plan my day according to the number of pages that need to get done per manuscript in a day. Sometimes I need to only work on one project at a time, so I will fit in more pages in a day in order to complete it and move on to the next one in the pipeline. It’s a play by ear sort of scene, with some broad outlines to work with. This is a self-created system, and definitely not the only way to work.
My website is www.varshanaik.com if you would like to take a look.
How does your work benefit society?
I couldn’t say for sure if my work benefits society, but I think my writers are often pleased with the outcome. It helps them articulate their thoughts better and out the stories they want to tell in the best way. It is encouraging when writers recommend me to other writers and often return to work on more projects. If I can help them shape their stories and add valuable inputs to enhance the narrative, that is a satisfying outcome for both parties involved. I enjoy greatly working with writers and I hope that I can continue to do so for many years to come.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I can’t really pick one example of memorable work that stands out. My experiences have had a cumulative effect on me. Each one has taught me something new about my process and about myself.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My advice is don’t stress if you don’t know what you want to do. Try to follow your instincts about what you feel you are good at and really enjoy doing. If you are sincere and work hard, you will eventually figure out what it is that suits you the best. And with time, you will find a way to monetize that passion.
Always remember, every experience even if it is not in your workspace, teaches you something you can come back to and apply in some area in your life. Sometimes personal experiences give you clarity and direction in the career space and sometimes professional experience shows you the way for personal growth. The two are linked, so never be afraid to ask questions about things you don’t understand, learn about things you don’t know.
Know that you do not only find mentors and guidance from the people you work with. If you let it, life will give you everything you need to succeed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are confused and unsure. Try new things if you get a chance and let it teach you something new.
Work hard, play hard. That’s the only way to live.
I hope that I will write a book myself someday, but I am waiting to see how things unfold. I’m not one who plans too much. Going with the flow has worked out for me quite well. For now, I am happy to continue helping others get their stories out there for everyone to read.