Category Archives: Editing

What I do

I have been meaning to do this post for a while, but finally got down to it after reading an excellent post describing substantive editing, and another post on the importance of building off your unique set of skills and background. For some reason, I’ve often struggled to describe exactly what I do, beyond saying I am a biomedical editor. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just fails to capture the nuance. I could get really philosophical about what it means to be an editor, but Rich Adin over at An American Editor has done a far better job at this than I ever could, so I will direct you to his excellent posts here and here. His characterization of the twin pillars of editing–mechanics and thinking–really struck me.

So back to my purpose. How do I describe what I do? Of course, what I do differs based on my client, so I will focus on what I feel I do best – scientific grant and manuscript editing. There are really several different levels of editing going on here.

1) Basic editing: Checking spelling and grammar, fixing awkward sentence structures, simplifying the language, and checking verb tenses and parallelism. This is a part of the “mechanics” pillar of editing.

2) Substantive editing: checking the flow and logic. How is the story being told? Is it clear what has been done and what needs to be done? It is clear what hypothesis is being tested and why? Are the right headers being used to help the reader through the document? Obviously this is part of the “thinking” pillar.

My goal here is to make the paper or grant proposal something that the reader wants to read, that the reader actually enjoys reading, rather than just skimming the abstract and figure legends. As a graduate student, I read many, many, many papers, but there were only a few that sucked me in because they were just written so well. There was a clear explanation up front about why the research was being done, each experiment in the results section flowed logically into the next, and the discussion put all the data in perspective, in the context of what is already known. I almost felt like I could see the authors at the bench, working through the data, designing the next experiment. Those are the papers I want my clients to publish. The same thing goes for grants – if anything is confusing or convoluted, the grant reviewer is going to pass it over. I edit grant proposals so that they are as clear and logical as possible, so that the reviewer immediately understands and appreciates the problem that needs to be solved, sees that the proposed aims will answer a clear set of relevant questions, and agrees that the methods used and people involved are up to the challenge.

3) Content editing: Another one for the “thinking” pillar. This is where my unique background fits in, where I can look at the experiments and the results and think about what conclusions are being drawn and whether they are being communicated accurately. Is the experimental design sound? What are the caveats? Are the statistics appropriate? Are the proposed experiments going to test the stated hypothesis? Have the data proven or disproven the stated hypothesis?  How do the data compare to what’s been done before? What are the implications for future basic or translational research? For research grants, I also draw on my background in promotional writing – will the science as presented convince the reviewer that this is a worthy problem (or gap in knowledge) to tackle and that the proposed experiments will provide the data needed to solve the problem?

4) Formatting: This also falls under mechanics – it’s making sure that the manuscript follows the journal’s editorial rules, and that the grant proposal follows the structure stipulated in the funding announcement. There are a ton of rules and regulations for preparing federal grants, and even more embedded in specific funding announcements.

So that is what I do…and now I can just direct friends and family here when they ask (hi mom!).

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The Pricing Saga

I’ve been a full-time freelance writer/editor for a few years now, and a part-timer for a decade before that. Feels like I should have the pricing issues worked out, right? Nope. At the moment it feels as if I have hit a wall – pricing is tied to the growth of my business, and as a single editor, I have a finite amount of time. I have to make every hour count. So if I am going to have an income that increases with the cost of living, I have three options: bring in other editors who can take on the overflow; raise my hourly rate; or start using project-based fees.  I now recognize the need to address this issue or watch my income stall (or worse, watch my business wither away). Here is the argument that rages in my head:

1) The question of branding

There’s a great pair of posts over on An American Editor that discusses the pros and cons of staying a “solopreneur” or becoming part of a group of editors. I know this depends on the kind of editing you do, so I’m still working through this. Up to this point, I have been selling myself and my skills as my brand. Should I expand my brand to include other editors and their skills? But the bigger obstacle is administrative. I can’t even fathom how I would handle my projects plus management of other editors’ projects and payments. I would definitely need to hire some kind of virtual assistant, and then there goes any extra income I would have gained by becoming a multi-editor company.

2) The pitfalls of project-based pricing

I have this mental block against project-based pricing, particularly for editing jobs. I find it incredibly difficult to anticipate the scope of editing projects, and usually end up underselling myself. For those clients who have insisted on a project-based fee, I have run into two issues. The first is that my estimate is taken as the project fee, with no room to increase fees should the scope of work change. In response, I have started to produce incredibly detailed scopes of work for these projects so that I can give myself some leeway to renegotiate (and something to fall back on when the client starts asking for more than what the fee covers), but it has been a bit of a learning process. I also have to remind myself to stipulate that a portion of the project fee will be paid midway through the project, or with the first deliverable, or whatever. Otherwise my cash flow gets seriously messed up.

3) The icky-ness of raising rates

I am probably justified in raising my rates, which haven’t really changed for – I am embarrassed to admit – 8 years. The first time I tried to raise my rates, I met with so much push back that it put me off trying again for quite some time. In fact, it resulted in this particular client hiring me at the new rate but telling me to limit the time I worked on the project (so that the final fee was about the same). Ugh. Really? I am going to take your project, work on it for X amount of hours, and then, no matter what state the project might be in, stop working and send it back to you? Really? At the risk of losing a pretty regular client, I tried to work faster to get everything done in the stipulated time frame–showing the client they get what they pay for–but I am always anxious that working faster also means producing poorer quality work. Which is definitely NOT a precedent I’d like to set.

The most recent experience involved me butting heads with client’s HR and the “company policy” that could not be changed no matter how valuable my services might be, so sorry. Again, I backed off because the project was a pretty big one and I didn’t want to  miss out and wonder where I was going to make up the income.

Now, I realize that this is no way to run a business, particularly now that this business is my sole source of income. I hate rocking the boat, but I know that when I fail to negotiate, I may be perceived as an amateur who doesn’t even recognize her own value. The business side of freelancing is really doing my head in.

To raise my rates, I think the easiest way is to go back and look at all of my service agreements, find the ones with rates that need to be changed, and for those that are about to expire, renew at the higher rates. I just have to be confident that I will find new clients who will accept my rates, knowing that they are getting a quality service.

For the project-based fees, I need to write out exactly what the fee includes, and if the fee is low, then the scope of work will need to be smaller. I need to make sure that my time is spent wisely, and that my effective hourly rate doesn’t shrink down to ridiculous.

So there is the glimpse of the pricing chaos in my head. I really know what I need to do, I just need the confidence to be the savvy business woman who can do it.

Reasoning, arguing, and biomedical writing

Now that I’ve completed the Writing in the Sciences course on Coursera (and received my official certificate, yay me!), I decided to take a course called Think Again: How to Argue – along with 72,000 other people around the world. I originally signed up to learn how to argue politics more civilly with my family-who-supports-the-other-party. But as the class moves through week 2, I’m realizing how much the concepts taught in this class also apply to my professional life as a biomedical writer/editor.

For example, take “the problem of infinite regress” and “authoritarian assurances.” These concepts are the basis for some of our universally accepted writing practices, such as why it’s better to cite the primary reference rather than a review. But they also explain the larger value of skepticism, why all research results should be questioned and tested, and at what point the transition is made from experimental results to accepted fact. “When can I be assured that what has been reported is true?” “What is the standard for trusting the source enough to be assured that something is true? Is it enough that the person who is saying it is considered an authority or is citing an authority? Or is it the institution where the work was done? Or the journal that published it? Or the number of other studies that produce the same results?” The upshot — I am more aware of instances when assurances (research results) suddenly turn into givens (facts). And when this happens, why it is critical to look deeper into the literature before citing it in my writing.

If you’re not bored yet, I have one more thought: one concept that caught my professional writer’s attention this week was “guarding the premise” – making your premise weaker so that it is more likely to be true and less likely to raise objections. I think this might be the reason why scientists (including me) are taught to use the word “may” in their writing (and why the Writing for the Sciences instructor tried to beat that out of me with strong verbs and active voice).

Needless to say, this class has gotten my mind going on the anatomy of an argument and how humans reason. I guess I should have taken more philosophy classes when I had the chance as an undergraduate?

Giving the vision a voice – program/center grants

Been busy with several large center grants lately, so I thought I’d write a little something about what that’s like.

Essentially, center grants–or program grants–bring together multiple investigators, each with their own project and research goal, into a single overarching program. Each project stands alone as its own R01, but must also link to all the other projects and to the overall program.

There must be cohesion among the individual grants, with a shared vision that is communicated clearly throughout the entire submission. Ideally, the individual grants should overlap, with data from each grant feeding into the others, with each project using the planned core resources, and with an overall administrative core and leadership that can hold everything together and move all the investigators toward the shared program goals.

For all the grants I work on, primarily R01s and private foundation grants, my clients expect me to make sure all the components are present–that the significance, the innovation, and the approach are appropriately and completely described, that the aims are clear and scientifically sound and not overly ambitious, that all the other required pieces are present and complete. Ultimately, they want me to make sure that the reviewers will see what they are looking for and will score the grant well.

With a program grant, I am asked to do all these things, but also see connections between the individual project grants and the overall program, identify collaborations, and describe how each project ties into the overall goal that everyone is striving for. There is the purpose–the “why”–for each research project, and then a little further out, there is the “why” of the program. I must keep the larger “why” front and center, staying above the weeds and seeing the whole program and how the pieces must fit together and interact.

Of course, I am not handed a bunch of grants by individual investigators and told to make a program out of it. I work closely with the program director and in some cases, a grants administrator, both of whom are also defining the vision and shaping the overall program from all the component parts. My role is one of language–not only making sure that the individual project investigators’ grants are written well, but also that it is clear how each grant is part of a whole program.

As with any grant proposal, program grants are exhausting. But they are incredibly satisfying as well. They let me move beyond the editing and writing and into the planning, the creating, the crafting. As a communicator, program grants are a great intellectual challenge–each investigator must keep their own voice in their project grant, but must also use a shared language of the overall program. As the components are pulled together, I am making sure that it is clear to the reviewers how everything will work together and that the overall vision has a voice.

Finding a niche, and then branching out

It’s been a while – sorry for that. I’ve been pretty busy, which, for a freelancer, is a very good thing to be. Not so good for keeping up with my blog, though, since it naturally falls to the bottom of the to-do list.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I offer–as a writer, as an editor, as a former bench scientist, as someone who has some experience in pretty much all types of science and medical communications–and the pros and cons of carving out my own niche in medical communications versus offering a little bit of everything. Over the years, I have gravitated towards certain projects more than others, and I have ended up carving out a really nice little niche for myself as an academic author’s editor, helping write and refine research manuscripts and grant submissions.

Most of my grant experience has been with planning, writing, and editing the research strategy section of NIH grants – the introduction, the abstract, the specific aims, the research design, etc. In the past year, I have had the opportunity to write (and rewrite) a couple of NSF grant proposals. Now I am helping to plan out federal and private grant submissions from the ground up. While I’ve really enjoyed getting into all these projects, and they still lie within my cozy niche of academic writing and draw upon my strengths as a strategic planner and storyteller, grant writing and grantsmanship are really skills in and of themselves. There are a huge number of courses and books out there on how to write and submit an NIH grant alone!

Even though I know I am fully capable of becoming a professional grant writer, the question is, do I officially branch out? I guess it becomes more of a business strategy question than anything else. Do I add grant writing to my repertoire, to my services card, to my marketing materials? Is this an area in which I want to continue to develop expertise over the long-term?

I am heading to the American Medical Writers Association annual meeting this week, and I am taking a couple of courses that may help me with this. One is on the business aspects of a freelance career and the other is on preparing NIH grants. I am hoping that it will become clear to me that developing my grantsmanship skills is a good fit for my freelance career and business, and that this is an area where I can successfully branch out–just a little bit–from my little niche.

My take on hourly vs per-project pricing

I’ve been reading a lot of tips on how to price my editing and writing services. There’s different pricing based on the level of service: proofreading, substantive editing, developmental editing, rewriting, writing. There’s various pricing methods: per-project rate, hourly rate, per-page rate, per-word rate. Everyone seems to have a rationale for using one system or another. But I think it’s clear that the optimal pricing method for one type of service might not be the optimal method for another. This is somewhat related to my struggle to define the type of writing and editing I do – is it medical writing? Academic? Scientific? Technical? Thus far, I’ve pretty much learned to stay away from bidding on projects based on a per-page or per-word payment rate, because the projects are usually woefully underpriced for the level of editing I perform.

So that leaves me with hourly and per-project pricing. I’ve been told that if I charge an hourly rate, my per-project income will actually decrease as I get more efficient, because I am getting the same project done in fewer hours. Makes sense. So once I figure out how long it usually takes me to do a particular type of project, I can just start charging a flat fee and I’ll get the same payment no matter how quickly I get it done.

Here’s my problem with per-project pricing. First, I don’t tend to have a “type of project.” Even though I mostly work on research articles, reviews, and grant proposals, every client needs a different level of service. A research article may only require proofreading, or it may need much more substantial editing or re-organization, or even some writing. Unless I see an article up front or discuss the scope of the project and what materials will be provided to me, I can’t judge how long it’s going to take and my per-project estimate is likely to be way off.

The second problem I have with project-based pricing is that it’s important that my clients know that I am giving their research articles and grant proposals my full attention, and that I am spending the time needed to make them stellar. These documents represent their life’s work on paper. There’s no way am I going to give them a cursory review just so I can keep my hourly rate where I’d like it, or so that I can move onto the next project. Per-hour pricing also lets me list out my work in a line-item invoice, so they know exactly what I did, how long it took, and how much it cost. This approach is probably not very business savvy, and the invoicing is time-consuming, but for the few projects for which I tried flat-fee pricing, my hourly rate ended up being awful, and I ate the loss because I can’t (or won’t) shift my editing process.

I do give myself and my clients the option to bill by project, however. If a client wants to discuss a per-project fee, then I’ll get more details on the particular project, length, level of service, assumptions, deliverables, etc, and figure out a more accurate project estimate. It’s a combination approach, I guess. But it works for me.

Giving in to the rollercoaster

I knew that this was going to be the hardest part of being a freelancer – the ups and downs of the work schedule. And I anticipated that it would be a source of incredible stress. I like order, organization, predictability. (Which is why I had such a difficult time after my first child was born – what a smack upside the head THAT was!) When the work load is light, I get anxious and start new projects (like, um, a blog, for instance), and when the work load picks up, like it did in the past couple months, I feel like I can’t catch my breath. When I come to a lull in the schedule, I look around me as if I am coming up for air. Then I dive right back in.

The learning curve for setting reasonable deadlines for projects and prioritizing them in a sane manner has been less steep than I’d hoped. But my personal scheduling prowess is only part of the problem. My work really centers around grant deadlines, and also tends to be heavier during the school year, since my clients are primarily academic researchers. I recently finished editing three back-to-back R21 proposals, with the October 16th deadline looming. July and August – pretty slow. Everyone is sharing their work at meetings, taking time off, and preparing for the next school year.

I’ll admit though, part of the problem is me – I really, really love what I do. I love editing, helping researchers organize their thoughts on paper, helping them create a persuasive story around their research. I find myself getting into a grant and looking up a couple of hours later, amazed at the time. I also tend to say yes to everyone. Why in the world would I say no? What it comes down to is giving myself enough time to work on all the projects I want to, and work on them with the level of intensity I want to.

So far, I’ve been able to take on all the projects I’ve been given, with very, very minimal shifts in deadlines. But I’ve learned the importance of setting reasonable deadlines and prioritizing up front, and accommodating with grace any project changes that might result in a steep rise on the rollercoaster (click, click, click). I may have very little say on the actual ups and downs, but I do have access to the brake when I need to slow it down.