Tag Archives: academic 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!).


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.

On niches and boundaries

2012 will be my first year as a completely independent freelance biomedical writer and editor. My freelance business has been through the various stages of hobby to side work to part time job to full time job, and this will be the first year that it represents all of my income. No pressure, right? When I first decided to make the final leap to full-time freelance last summer, I was understandably anxious about income and whether I could make this work without leaving me and my family eating macaroni and cheese every night. So I took any biomedical writing/editing projects I could find, regardless of whether they were proofreading, editing, or writing; regardless of the client: academic, agency, or not-for-profit; and regardless of the topic. I soon came to appreciate two things: (1) I am not “built” for all projects and (2) my time is limited and therefore precious.

What do I mean by being “built” for certain projects? I am one of many professional biomedical writers and editors. But my education, background, and experience make me unique. The question is, what kinds of projects, clients, and topics best suit me so that I am spending my freelance time in the best possible way? By taking any projects because I felt I had to in order to stay solvent, I was getting frustrated with the jobs I could do easily but that paid too little and also frustrated with jobs that were outside my comfort zone that made me struggle and feel I was wasting time. 

There are only so many hours I can work in a week, and so I needed to find those jobs I was best trained for in order to make the most of my time. I first had to admit that there were boundaries – a difficult thing to do because it felt like closing doors and because I never want to admit that I can’t do something. But it really wasn’t about saying I wasn’t able, it was more about saying that I have to choose the best projects that fit my particular skill set. I’m sure that I needed to go through that first anxious period of accepting every job, no matter how small or out of my niche, to learn this lesson.

The other important thing I came to realize is that while taking jobs that were outside my comfort zone could be personally frustrating, it is also not good business practice. Just like me, clients are looking for the best fit for their projects so they get their money’s worth. Accepting a job for which I am not a good fit may not lead to the best outcomes – for me or the client. It is far better to learn as much information about the project up front, evaluate the project through the lens of my ability and training and schedule, and then turn it down if the project just doesn’t fit. Better that than struggling and getting frustrated and, perhaps worst of all, running the risk of letting down the client and damaging my reputation.

So now I understand my boundaries – what’s my niche? I’ve discussed this in other posts, but I’ve come to realize that biomedical grant writing/editing and manuscript editing for academic clients is where I shine. My background in research, my experience in healthcare communications, and even my stint in healthcare advertising, have come together to give me a 30,000-foot view, an objective eye, and an appreciation for the funding agency’s perspective.

I admit, I still take jobs that aren’t grants or manuscripts but that are still within my comfort zone. But grants and manuscripts now make up the bulk of my projects. As much as I hate the idea that I might be limiting myself, that I am capable of much more, I have to accept that I am one person, and physically unable to do everything. (I have to sleep at least a few hours a night!)

So those are my thoughts on niches and boundaries – now, back to work!

2011 Freelance Retrospective

Wow. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. The last three months have been absolutely crazy-busy. Which isn’t necessarily bad for a freelance. Looking back, it took me years to decide to finally take the plunge and become a full-time freelance, but only a few months to reach full capacity. As much as I love what I do, though, there is only one of me. And one of the hardest things for me to realize this year was that I do indeed have an upper limit of what I can handle. There comes a point when the brain just cannot function, let alone edit complex grant proposals, without adequate sleep. So as this year comes to an end and I start planning my 2012 project schedule, I hope I can remember the perils of being too busy, and that I will give myself a more realistic workload, even if that means even saying “no” once in a while. {{gasp!!}}

I’ve also come to realize that most of my clients are not one-project clients; again, not such a bad thing for a freelance. I am gratified and incredibly honored that the researchers I work with trust my ability and judgment, enough so that they come back to me with more projects. As I near a decade of providing editorial support for these researchers, I’m starting to realize that I have been a witness to their careers, as they are published, awarded funding, take on new post-docs and new graduate students, and shift their reasearch focus. It’s helped me to see the overall picture – the entire research program that stretches out over time and subtly shifts based on each new discovery – rather than a single research project or single manuscript. You know, I kinda like this view…I think I’ll try my hardest to keep it.

Finally, I’ve learned that having at least a few months’ pay in the bank as a cushion is not just a “nice-to-have” for a freelance. It’s essential. I simply hate waiting to be paid – the mental and emotional strain is incredibly disruptive, to the point where I start second-guessing my decision to go freelance. So next year, one of my highest priorities is to build up a proper savings account and remove that source of stress once and for all.

These are the things I have learned this year, things I will need to improve upon in 2012.

So what have I accomplished in 2011? The biggest thing is that I finally decided to go freelance full-time. I set up a proper office, with two computer screens, a kneeling chair, and time tracking software. I quickly realized that marketing myself would not be as easy (or hard) as setting myself up on ifreelance or with cold calling; in fact, cold calling would never work for the kind of services I provide. I turned instead to my blog, and then promptly discovered that I was too busy to post as regularly as I’d like! (Another thing I’d like to change in 2012). But I did gain a few new clients — who found me and decided to take a chance on me based on my blog posts, of all things. And I’ve found myself in the position of having to turn down projects. I went to the AMWA  Annual Conference in October and finished my basic skills certificate, and took a grantwriting course at Northwestern that was truly invaluable.

Goals for 2012? I listed a few above: more realistic scheduling, building strong relationships with my clients, and building a financial cushion. Others include attending the NIH grant course in Indianapolis in the spring, updating to EndNote X5 and gaining at least one more client-researcher. And taking one two-week vacation during which I will not work. At all. Even at night. I think that last one might be the most challenging goal to achieve, actually.

So that’s it. The freelance biz is up and running, a bit rocky at times, but it’s running. I think I might call 2011 a successful, busy, and tiring year for The Tobin Touch. But an extremely gratifying year, professionally speaking. I hope to get another post in before the end of the year, but if not, hope everyone has a great holiday and all good things in 2012!!

In which my career path becomes a little bit clearer…

As I had hoped, attending AMWA 2010 last week solidified some of the thoughts I touched on in my post on officially branching out into grant writing. And I’ve come to the realization that I may actually be on the right track here, career-wise. Actually, this post brings together some thoughts from older posts on marketing science and storytelling in academic writing. Not sure why it took me so long to connect the dots, but I finally did. I’ll chalk it up to lack of sleep.

So let’s take a look at my career path thus far. Seven years in grad school (and 2 summers in undergraduate research programs), where I wrote oodles–yes, oodles–of abstracts, posters, manuscripts, grants, textbook chapters, etc, etc. Then 3 years in continuing medical education, writing physician and nurse education programs and learning how to craft a complete story, insert fair balance, and meet specific educational needs of a clearly identified target audience. Now, with 4 or so years in healthcare communications/advertising, I can add the skills of marketing, messaging, identifying target audiences, developing tactics, and strategic planning to my resume. And through all of this, I have been a freelance business owner, stumbling through financial planning, business planning, tax law, and return on investment.

And where has that led me? I know you just…can’t…wait… To becoming a professional grant writer and editor! Ta Da!

No, seriously. I suppose this epiphany might be a little more exciting to me than to others. But I realized that grantwriting draws on my academic background in life sciences and my ad hoc post-graduate clinical education and combines it with the skills I have developed in crafting educational narratives (from CME) and using persuasive, targeted language (from healthcare communications). So here I am, with a background and skill set that seem to fit well with grantwriting and editing.

So what’s the next step? There is a certification for grant professionals out there, but I think that’s at least a few years off. I recognize that I still have a lot to learn, particularly about the inner workings of the funding agencies and the review process, and I will make good use of the recommended reading list we were given at the NIH grant writing workshop at AMWA 2010.

Of course, if anyone wants to share their tips or send me some resources, that would be great. Now, I’ve gotta figure out how to retool my tagline…but that’s a whole ‘nother post!

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.