Rick Spencer

About copywriting and production of Folklorica

For four years, I assisted Dr. Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby with the production and distribution of Folklorica, the Journal of the Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Folklore Association. As an undergraduate, I was already work with Dr. Rouhier-Willoughby as a Research Assistant. I may have been working on her research into Russian Holy Springs already, as the irregular schedule of an academic journal left time to shift between projects. 

My work as Editorial Assistant usually started with formatting academically vetted articles, reports, or book reviews to Folklorica style standards. Over the next four years, between 2015 and 2019, I produced the final print-ready files, but also copyedited more frequently. Since the majority of authors were non-native English speakers, the editorial feedback was limited to suggesting changes to the language that improved readability without altering meaning. 

Each  journal was roughly 100 pages. Errorless final product wasn’t really possible with our capacity and my experience. To reduce errors and improve consistency (or reduce the time it took to ensure consistency), I set up a MS Word template that I could use to apply styles uniformly to all the copy in a single document at once.

I expected my work and working environment (templates, file structure, patterns, guidelines) to be utilized by the next undergraduate that would take the role, so designed the process for universality and created accompanying documentation. Along with archives of former journals stored in the cloud as examples, I authored an onboarding guide with all of the style information spelled out explicitly. If someone were to lose the template file, it could be recreated from these extensive instructions. The document included notes on workflow and how to keep work organized using folder names that reflected workflow. Designing for the novice requires labeling things that reflect what a stranger might know vs what an experienced user knows; using labels that describe contents more explicitly.

Like any craftsman, if I have to do repetitive work, I always try to create tools that make the next iteration of labor more efficient. Templates containing styles for paragraphs, sections, quotes, notes, and bibliographic entries were key to both speed and consistency. At one point I built up a second document that had a catalog of examples of bibliographic formats. In our basic style guide we had instructions for the most common types of bibliographic citations. My additional document simply expanded on that with some of the more esoteric examples I came across. The more foreign, or older the source material, the weirder the citation can be. So in the event of coming across an anonymous quote in an edited multivolume work from a time before ISBNs translated from Polish into Russian, I had an example of how we had chosen to format the source citation, so that we could at least try to be consistent in future journals.

The next stage of the of production was assembly. Assembly of between 10 and 20 separate MS Word files into a print-ready PDF could be a risky venture. Word can be pretty resource hungry, especially in documents with track-changes, variations in formatting, tables and over 100 pages in length. And of course, Word’s formatting is cumulative by default. Unless you introduce arbitrary gaps using page breaks or paragraph-level orphan controls, changes in one place influence layout all the way to the end of the document. Using MS field codes I was able to keep individual articles separate, but reference them from a master document for when the time came for final assembly. Sometimes the advantage of this approach was marginal, but sometimes those margins were huge. 

For instance, if we added content to a piece, it might shift the final page count up or down. Journal style required articles to start on an odd-numbered page since this helps readers navigate a book. I could add the content and any additional spacing to ensure that my articles ended on an even page, without having to open the 100 page book to do so. I could also more easily have the front matter use Roman numerals as pagination, and the rest of the journal use Arabic numerals. 

Once a journal was pretty well settled, I would gather all of the pieces into a master MS Word document and convert it into a print-ready PDF. The PDF was sized at 6×9 (which affected all of the page-level formatting). It would be sent off to a local printer who would deliver between 60-100 printed books for me to then package, address, and deliver. For this state of the work, I would have to take the Excel sheet of current Folklorica membership and then mail merge it into a different Word doc to create mailing labels. 

Working part-time on Folklorica for four years was really my first paid editing job. I learned a great deal that improved my own writing and editing skill. I also learned more about Slavic history, myth-making, folklore and scholarship. I made a treasured friend in Dr. Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby. She gave me my first open-source research work and my first work published internationally. I still help incoming editorial assistants get up to speed with the Folklorica process a little bit, or solve weird problems with MS Word.