Still Learning

I am attending a professional conference next week, and I am excited to learn from experts and peers in the areas of editing, writing and design. I still remember my first professional conference many years ago—I was super-nervous because even though I had the title of “editor” and produced a magazine that the target audience appreciated, I had come to editorial work through a different career path and I was afraid that I would be found out. Everyone else seemed to have degrees in English or Journalism, while my degree was in Economics. Even though I had work experience and on-the-job training in communications, I felt “other” and “less than.”

At that first conference, I swallowed my ego, bravely asked questions and connected with peers. I learned from the keynote speakers and workshop leaders; however, the most important realization was that being willing to learn and surrounding myself with people who have a learning posture is an essential life skill. The best learning over the years has come informally, as I am willing to ask questions of my peers and to listen closely to their answers – “How do you do this?” or “Why did you decide on that strategy?” The answers may be different for me and my situations, but understanding process, thinking and possible outcomes is essential.

Great editors who have been on the job for years are still learning, because what makes them great is their openness to new ideas, new ways of work, new technologies and new media. Every new project I take on, every new client I meet with, every new media platform I test provides opportunity for learning and growth, if I am willing to ask questions and think broadly.

When Michelangelo was 87 years old, he is reported to have said, “Ancora imparo” which means “I’m still learning.” I would love to be able to say that each year, for as many years as I have life and breath.

Still Learning

I love learning new words and increasing the precision with which I use familiar words. Perhaps that is why I am a word game addict – it goes with the editorial territory. I’ll never forget playing the dictionary game with my father, who was a well-read engineer, because he would always come up with wonderful and crazy definitions for words. My understanding of the actual definition of triptych, along with some humorous variations, comes from playing the dictionary game, not any art history classes. And as my children have grown into adults, I am happy that they are literate and have great vocabularies, but I do get a little annoyed when they beat me in Scrabble.

One of the books on my editorial bookshelf is Who’s Whose: A No-Nonsense Guide to Easily Confused Words (Philip Gooden). If you have ever been nervous about using the words “affect” or “effect” in a sentence, or if you are uncertain whether you want to assure or ensure someone’s safety, then this is the book for you. Along with clear examples and definitions, he rates the “embarrassment factor” of incorrect usage. It’s the kind of book that those of us who are word people can get lost in. I might pick up the book to reassure myself about correct usage, then get distracted as I move from assure/ensure/insure to the difference between auger and augur.

While learning new words and playing word games are both fun activities (for me), the underlying reason to keep learning words is to increase precision in communication. I don’t use obscure words to impress, but often a  carefully selected word can make the difference between good prose and great prose. And when I am editing someone else’s writing, I will often comment about word choice and suggest they choose more interesting words if their writing sounds flat and predictable.

Learn a new word this week – or look up a word you are unsure of and hone your communication skills. How about biannual and biennial?

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