Ask Susan Maitra what a typical workday is like, and she’ll tell you: “Busy.” As a full-time senior editor at the Foreign Service Journal, the monthly magazine of the American Foreign Service Association, she spends her days doing a little of everything. “We’re a very small staff, so I edit articles, commission new ones, do some writing, handle several departments and also wear the production manager’s hat,” she says. “It can be frustrating at times. But what’s good is that we really enjoy working together and are proud of our product.”
While overseeing the assembly of such a prestigious publication is certainly not easy, “working for the Journal is kind of a natural position for me,” Susan says. The magazine deals with the practice of diplomacy and international affairs, requiring an editor with a broad, globally minded outlook. Susan is just the person for the job. In high school, she spent six months studying in Lund, Sweden, returning for a full year once she had entered college. Later, Susan lived with her husband and their two children in India for 16 years.
In India, Susan worked as an editorial consultant to book publishers. “It was a completely different work culture,” she says. “There was no real English-language trade publishing industry there in the early 1980s, so professional editing didn’t really exist, either.” Her first client was an author who had published a 200-page book, which, a critic had pointed out, contained a whopping 1,534 typos. “The first thing I did was redo that book.”
Susan brought new ideas to her clients abroad. “The editing marks we use here to signal needed changes were unknown,” she says. “So I introduced my clients to my own system, based on The Chicago Manual of Style.” (Susan may have gotten there first, but now times have changed; Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, MacMillan and more have since set up shop and are flourishing in India.)
Susan mostly copyedited manuscripts, though she also helped clients with substantive editing and research. One client, an Islamic publisher, wanted to create a series for children covering topics in Islam’s history. “I showed him what you could call the ‘Magic School Bus approach’,” she says. (Remember that series, chock-full on every page with educational sidebars and factoids?) “By presenting a narrative along with large amounts of information, you can introduce material on different levels simultaneously.”
Now a “night and weekend editor” for Dragonfly based in Leesburg, Va., Susan’s life remains full of copy in need of her careful eye. She’s a pro by now: After college, she worked as an editorial assistant for McGraw-Hill, and after her time in India, had a brief stint as a technical writer. It’s a passion that’s not likely to change anytime soon: “Writing and words have always been my thing.”
Mary Dixon is writing a series of profiles of Dragonfly writers and editors.