Tag Archives: science 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?

Balancing freedom and security in a freelance career

I’m one year into my freelance career in biomedical writing and editing, and I just passed my two-year blogiversary. So, I suppose it’s time for me to take a look back and evaluate my progress.

In general, freelancing boils down to balancing the need for financial security with the freedom to plan my own day. Freelancing is alternately terrifying and satisfying. Every month I manage to make my income goal, but at the beginning of each month it’s not always clear that it will happen. Summer is particularly anxiety-inducing; most of my clients are academic researchers and their summers are fairly quiet. I fill in the blanks with writing jobs from Japan – not the highest paying gig, but when my schedule is looking light, I’ll take it to fill the gaps.

The satisfying part is that I am a successful  business owner. Even if it is a tiny business of a single employee. Somehow, I am making this work, and that’s kinda cool.

I’ve also learned that even though I am a night owl, it is neither wise nor physically possible to sustain that schedule. It was a holdover of how I had been doing freelance while working full- or part-time during the day. Night was for freelance jobs. It took me a year to get used to it, but I now write and edit during the day, working a full day with short breaks to walk the dog, work out, and eat lunch. Sounds boring, like I switched one office job for another, but the reality is that my schedule is my own. I have time. No more taking my lunch hour to rush out for an errand and then rush back to the office. No fighting weekend crowds at the supermarket. I can take my kids to appointments, I can join them on field trips, and I don’t have to keep track of how many vacation days I’ve used. And I definitely do not miss the daily commute to and from downtown Chicago.

The rollercoaster continues. Sometimes pride in my business wins over self-doubt over finances, other times the fear of financial insecurity wins out over the benefits of freedom and time.

In the end, though, I ask myself one question: “Do you like what you are doing?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Biomedical writing and editing continues to be intellectually challenging, requiring me to creatively merge science with language to communicate complex concepts. It is also personally satisfying to use my particular skill set to help my clients and to have the opportunity to learn something new with every project.

So, that settles that, I think.

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!!

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.

Marketing Science? Eeeew!

How dare I? Right?

I’ve been wanting to write about how my experience in CME and healthcare marketing has made me a better academic writer, but this post has been really challenging for some reason. Maybe because it treads into that no-man’s land between the pure, untainted world of lofty scientific endeavor and the seemingly sly, underhanded world of marketing and advertising. So this post rambles. You’ve been warned.

When I climbed down from the ivory tower and started working as a medical writer in CME, I quickly had to learn about marketing science. CME is not marketing, you say? Come on now. There is a reason that CME is seen (at least by some) as tarnished – even indirect contact with pharma appears a bit…unseemly. But however you might feel about CME, that was where I first learned about key (educational) messages and crafting a story that starts in science and ends in patient care.

Stay with  me now…I swear there’s a point in here somewhere.

Two recent posts on grant writing got me thinking about the topic of storytelling and marketing in academic writing.

The first post was by Prof-like Substance, who explained exactly how your grant proposal gets reviewed. (Kinda reminded me of “I’m Only a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock.) But the part that got me was this:

“Undivided attention to your proposal is probably unlikely. What have you got that is going to capture my attention and keep me from answering that phone or email? Is your proposal going to make me tell one of my grad students to come back later with their problem?”

Ah – you mean grant writing takes a little bit of marketing…Ugh. How gauche! Good science doesn’t need to be sold, yes, yes, I know.  But it’s, like, über-competitive out there, dude – we all know that. Furthermore, the NIH seems to be refocusing on the “H” with their new grant format, and it’s become crucial that researchers find a way to communicate—and succinctly at that—how their particular bit of research might be ultimately applied to improving human health. The story’s origin is certainly the breathtaking science, but within that very limited research plan section, the rest of the story has to be laid out in a compelling and logical way that takes the reviewer all the way to the bedside. Even the best scientists, who might have the most amazing, innovative ideas that will lead to breakthroughs that simply revolutionize healthcare, may not be able to communicate their ideas in a way that compels a reviewer to stay riveted to the page. Or compels a funding agency to help support that absolutely groundbreaking research plan. (I think the only superlative I left out was “earth-shattering.” Darn.)

Then I read “The Art of Grant Getting” over on Naturally Selected, which spelled out four obstacles to getting a grant funded. Take a gander at obstacle number four:

“4. That “marketing” your work is somehow underhanded or bad. Let me assure you: all truly successful scientists (or at least those with funding) know a thing or two about marketing.  They may not label it “marketing” but the name doesn’t matter.  That’s what it is.”

The post at Naturally Selected went on to list some strategies to overcome obstacles to successful grant funding – one of which was KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Rule number uno in marketing. So it may seem icky to have to “market” your science, but even a grant proposal must have clear, key messages that target a specific audience. In the end, funding agencies want reassurance that they are investing their relatively teeny tiny budget allocation in the best, most innovative, most impactful research that will advance human health.

So, I suggest that marketing science doesn’t somehow imply deceit, but rather a process of careful thinking about how to tell your science story so that it gets heard. Call it marketing-lite, I guess. It’s necessary, not icky. I think the shorter NIH grant format actually forces researchers to dig themselves out from the minute details of each and every proposed experiment, and asks them to take a step back to identify the overall research direction, the long-term goals, and the larger potential impact of their work. (I realize that I’m probably placing myself in the minority by admiting I like the new format, especially because the change was so drastic, and put much less emphasis on the experiments themselves. I guess I really have turned to the Dark Side.)

And that brings us back to my original point – why my experience outside academia, in CME, healthcare communications, and (gasp!) advertising, has made me a better academic writer and editor. Eight years away from the tower, I have been able to wade out of the experimental weeds and step back to appreciate the larger themes of innovation, impact, and plication to health in a grant proposal.  Man, that tower is really really tall – climb down here and take a look.