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Volunteer to Boost Your Career

I applaud Vivek for his efforts to organize Indian editors through this website and through the newly formed Indian branch of Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). I hope that many Indian editorial workers will step up and volunteer their time to make these successful.

I come from a culture in which volunteering for a charity or a professional association is common, but I’m living in Egypt, where such activities are tightly restricted by the government. While volunteering to help the needy is at least understood by those around me, whenever I talk about donating my time for a professional organization, I’m asked why I or anyone else would do it. People here see others in their field as competitors rather than as colleagues from whom they can benefit.

I’ve gained hard and soft skills and connections by offering my services to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and professional associations. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but I do think that volunteering can help anyone’s career.

Years ago an NGO that was lobbying at the UN asked me to donate time to help write and edit critiques and alternative language for a conference document. This work extended for several months. Eventually the NGO asked me to join them in New York as one of their representatives at a large UN conference. I practiced listening, taking notes, and thinking on my feet (which still needs work), learned a lot of new language, and because this happened at a time when the Internet was quite new in Egypt, I learned basic Internet skills, which later led to a position at a large website when a friend of an NGO member asked me to join the staff.

I particpiate in several forums for editors and indexers. I’m more likely to ask than answer, but over time other forum members have recognized my niche skills (basic Arabic and transliteration) and sometimes contact me off-list with a particular question for me or a referral for a gig.

For four years I was an unpaid contributor to a forum for English language learners. At my work I was an editor of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) textbooks and answered grammar questions from teachers and students on our company website. When I had to research a particular point of grammar for one website, I could often adapt the answer to use on the other. The answers on the company website had to agree with what was taught in our books, whereas the other forum was more general. Volunteering on the forum—including learning from other contributors—helped me in my work.

I’ve learned that volunteering is the best way to benefit from membership in an organization. As a member of the American Society for Indexing (ASI), I proofread the newsletter. The departing managing editor gave me a recommendation on LinkedIn. I also volunteer as a peer reviewer, which gives me insights into how (or how not) to write an index, and again, I got a recommendation from someone who benefitted from my comments.

When I joined the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its Technical Editing Special Interest Group, I immediately offered to copyedit the newsletter, which, I learned, was on hold. A month later the new managing editor had to quit, and I was asked replace her. So far in that position I’ve learned to use WordPress (and decided to put my own website on WP rather than on a competitor that was giving me headaches) and a bit of HTML coding. And I’ve had the pleasure of networking with others as I’ve coaxed articles out of them.

If you are just starting out in your career and having difficulty getting your first job or gig, volunteer your skills to a nonprofit organization—if not a professional association, perhaps a charity or a small museum. They’ll be glad to have your services, and you can gain experience to add to your résumé. However, unless you’re passionate about the work of the organization and willing to continue indefinitely, define from the start a limited time during which your services will be gratis.

If you are freelancing, volunteering—especially in person rather than online—can provide much-needed socializing.

Of course, volunteering is not always easy, especially if you’re an organization officer. Unlike in a work situation, there’s little you can do if other volunteers don’t do their jobs. You’ll have to develop your people skills, and sometimes the “learning experiences” will be bigger than you anticipate. But overall, volunteering can help you as much as those you serve.

In what ways have you volunteered and how did it help your career?

AElfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer living in Egypt, doing business as Mischler Editorial and managing Corrigo for the STC Technical Editing SIG.

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