Editor’s choice

originally posted on LabSpaces

I’ve spent the bulk of this past week editing different drafts for a couple of labmates, and it’s got me thinking about the practice of editing. I actually enjoy editing quite a bit, especially when I’m not completely overwhelmed by benchwork or my own writing commitments. Editing after all is a kind of teaching, which I love. And, as with teaching, editing is an art. You have to know when to rework an awkward sentence yourself, and when it’s best to show restraint. Knowing the difference requires you know your audience (the writer) and their audience (journal/committee/grant reviewer). More than anything, editing should be a learning experience for both the writer and the editor, no matter the level of either player. Even great writers can improve how they express themselves, and young editors can increase both their ability to read critically and communicate effectively throughout the editing process.

So how do you accomplish all of this when editing? Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some general guidelines I try to follow. The biggest one – remembering that each writer has their own style, and editing shouldn’t be confused with making someone’s writing style fit your own tastes. This is especially important when dealing with younger writers, who are in the process of developing their writing chops. Finding that balance between making a draft more suitable for submission versus writing it your own way is difficult, but crucial. Instead of re-writing sections I don’t like, I point out those that are unclear, explain why I’m confused, find out what the writer wants to get across, and provide some ideas on how to approach the next draft. (Keep in mind that style should never be confused with appropriate grammar or formality.)

It’s also important to consider the purpose of the manuscript when editing. Certain formats require a lot more rigidness, while some allow for quite a bit of freedom. For instance, I provide a lot more leeway when editing a dissertation draft, which may be the author’s first opportunity to freely explore their writing style, than I do for a journal submission, which requires a good deal of structure to be considered for publication. In the former case, it can be very frustrating to let unperfected style prevent a good dissertation from becoming the best damn dissertation ever written, especially when a time crunch prevents me from really workshopping the writing into a masterpiece. However, I’ve also enjoyed the privilege of watching scientists’ writing mature over time, and I’ve learned that a patient editor always gets new requests from old students, long after they’ve made their way into the “real” world.

The editing process requires interaction and patience, which may explain why some PIs choose to take over the draft of a developing student rather than teach them how to write it themselves. But, if we want to raise the level of writing in journals, books, and grants, this process can’t be rushed. We should all to learn to edit just as well as, or even better than, we write.

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