Edited by Christina M. Marvin
Part 2! Earlier this month, we covered the ins and outs of science writing. This week, we continue our conversation with Siri Carpenter as she discusses the transition from science writing to science editing.
Siri is a scientist and science writer who is now the editor-in-chief for The Open Notebook, an amazing and comprehensive resource for science writers. She recently published a new resource for science writers, The Craft of Science Writing.
I'm curious about the skill transfer from science writing to editing... What writing skills make you a successful editor?
I was a freelance writer from 2002 until 2012, when Discover magazine moved from New York to Milwaukee.
When Discover announced it was moving and rebuilding an all-new editorial staff, various friends messaged me and suggested I should apply to be an editor. My initial reaction was like, “What? No! I’m a freelancer, silly, not an editor! I work from home! People with jobs have to wear shoes!” But I did decide to apply, and then I got really excited about the idea, and I was fortunate to be offered a job as a senior editor.
Learning to be an editor was quite a ride — I mean, in many ways I think I’ll *always* be learning. The biggest things I had going for me, though, were that I had excellent co-workers, and I had a M E N T O R — Pam Weintraub, who is a kind of legendary editor.
Pam gave [the new editors] this enormous gift: She said “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but I will teach you.” I will always be grateful to Pam for saying that, because in doing so, she was giving us permission to not have to hide how much we had to learn.
The reason I say that having been a writer first was so important to my development as an editor is that I feel the #1 skill that's important to cultivate as an editor is to have empathy with writers as well as reader, and to be able to act as a coach and partner. And it’s our job to work with writers not just to improve their stories in all the technical ways, but to support them when they’re at their lowest, most self-doubting point, and to be their cheerleaders all along the way.
Do you know of any resources (books, websites, communities) about science editing?
We've done a few articles about editing at TON. Here are a few links:
The Poynter Institute offers excellent training workshops on editing — I've done one and loved it — but they're not specific to science. The Knight Science Journalism program at MIT periodically offers training workshops for science editors. And The Open Notebook is hosting its first editing workshop this year. [NB: This workshop was canceled because of the pandemic, and will be rescheduled when it’s safe to do so.]
How about the other side of it... how can a science writer work gracefully with editors?
There are some basics of writer-editor relationship hygiene that I can mention, which aren't always obvious. In the realm of pitching, here are a few suggestions:
Once you're actually on assignment with an editor, my #1 piece of advice is to communicate. If your story changes, or something's going wrong, or you're going to miss a deadline, or you're just lost and need to talk it through — speak up. Of course editors love to see stories come in clean and on time and then to need minimal editing, but honestly that scenario is extremely rare. Much worse than missing a deadline is just ... ghosting. So: Communicate. Editors want to help!
When you've actually gotten edits:
b. respond to editors' questions by typing answers in tracked comments; the questions need to be addressed in the actual draft.
I think it is a challenge to figure out how hard to push back against edits as a freelancer. If you push too hard will you get hired again? But, I imagine it all comes down to COMMUNICATION.
Yeah, and just ... courtesy. Pushing back in a way that makes your case but in which you're also listening to the editor's point of view and working to understand why whatever the thing is isn't working for them is entirely different than just being mulish, or doing passive-aggressive things like ignoring/undoing edits.
If I were speaking to a group of editors about how they could work better with freelancers, I'd say 1. Understand that the writer’s job is harder. 2. Give them the courtesy of a prompt response when you get pitches. 3. Keep them apprised of any delays in the editing schedule. 4. Pay them as quickly as you possibly can.
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