Tag Archives: substantive 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!).

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.

Outsourcing the Soft Skills?

I saw this news article on naturejobs.com the other day, about how young investigators are struggling with needing additional training in “soft skills,” beyond their years of training as scientists. With regard to communication skills:

Career counsellors say that young researchers must also be good communicators, able to explain their work to the taxpayers who often indirectly fund it. It is true that the importance of that work must be made clear; researchers should fight any perception that they are tinkerers using public money simply to satisfy inconsequential curiosities. Ideally, scientists should have public-relations skills and be able to articulate clearly and concisely to the media how their findings — however basic or fundamental — might one day make a difference to society. A little bit of salesmanship is not a bad idea.

The article goes on to suggest that researchers, rather than try to become the jack-of-all-trades or spend time training in these other areas at the expense of their research, work collaboratively with others who possess the skills that they lack.

It is clear that being able to do the science is not enough – researchers must be able to communicate their findings for it to have an impact. Certainly, researchers are facing an increasingly competitive funding and publications environment, and grant funding hinges not only on the development of a cohesive, well-developed, and compelling research plan, but the communication of that plan.

(And…this is the point where I shamelessly promote the value of a scientific editor.)

Bringing a scientific editor or editing service onto a research team can impact how data are perceived – by peers, funding agencies, future researchers, and the public. Beyond making sure that grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct, a good science editor who understands the area of research can help you communicate the overarching research goals (especially useful for grant applications), identify the key “messages,” and ensure that the research plan or research story (ie, in a journal article) are cohesive and accessible to the intended audience.

If I sound like I work in advertising, I do. I have experience in medical education as well as healthcare advertising, which, surprisingly, has helped me become a better editor for academic researchers who need to communicate discrete and sometimes esoteric data  as part of their overall research effort.

To conclude, I would suggest that researchers might benefit from the services of a trained scientific editor, specifically one who understands the type of research that is being done, the methods, the background, and the literature. That way, the  scientists can focus on the scientific inquiry rather than spending time away from the bench, training in those pesky “soft skills” like science communication.

Acknowledging the Mansucript Editor?

The Council of Science Editors recently made available on their Web site selected presentations from their 2010 Annual Meeting. I was particularly interested in the presentation from Devora Krischer, ELS, on “Banishing the Ghost: Examining the Role of Science Writers.” The controversy over ghostwriting impacts what I do every day – in most cases, I provide substantial editing and critique of scientific manuscript content, including research design, figure quality, and construction/messaging.

First, some definitions from AMWA:

“Ghost authoring” refers to making substantial contributions without being identified as an author. “Guest authoring” refers to being named as an author without having made substantial contributions. “Ghostwriting” refers to assisting in presenting the author’s work without being acknowledged. The term “ghostwriting” is often used to encompass all three of these practices.

I guess what I do falls under “ghostwriting” because I assist authors in producing a manuscript that is ready for submission to a journal.

According to AMWA’s “Position Statement on the Contributions of Medical Writers to Scientific Publications:”

Biomedical communicators who contribute substantially to the writing or editing of a manuscript should be acknowledged with their permission and with disclosure of any pertinent professional or financial relationships.

Individual journals may or may not have their own policies in place regarding the disclosure of the contributions of a manuscript editor. Typically, I leave the decision of whether or not to acknowledge my contribution in the hands of the manuscript authors. Yet many authors may be unaware of the ongoing controversy about acknowledging manuscript editors, or if their selected journal even has a specific policy.

I found Ms. Krischer’s presentation very helpful in that it emphasized the overarching goal of transparency when making decisions about disclosing the work of outside contributors. She also gave specific guidance on what types of support should be acknowledged, a sample disclosure form, and sample acknowledgement sections.

I doubt this will change my personal policy of leaving the decision up to the author. But acknowledgements are always welcome and highly appreciated, of course!