Editing Science: No Single Road


When I was 17, the 1970s surge of environmentalism had me in its clutches, and my youth spurred me to create passionate texts about my beliefs. I knew I wanted to be an environmental science writer. But, unlike my friends who wanted to be doctors or painters or architects or whatever, there was no clear learning path for me to follow.

As a result, I took matters into my own hands. I bought copies of all the magazines that regularly published some kind of "popular" science: Omni, Scientific American, National Geographic, World Wildlife, and others.

I found the names of the lead editors and writers and I wrote to every one of them. In my letter, I introduced myself, announced that I wanted to do the kind of work they were doing, and asked if they would please tell me how they got to where they were. Friends and family prepared me to expect no replies.

But they were wrong. Almost everyone I wrote replied, many at length. In fact, the editors from National Geographic wrote me a group letter, summarizing their collective roads to their enviable positions! On the one hand, I was thrilled at receiving so many responses; on the other hand, I was disappointed in what the exercise confirmed: There was no clear road to these jobs, not even a uniform direction--no single aspect of training or background, no particular content knowledge, no single academic degree. Some began as researchers, others as journalists, some as accountants, others as bums (also known as travel writers). Also, thinking of their work as "writing" was much too narrow, I was told. There are writers, yes, but there are also editors, managers, production people, and others. The editors at the top had all done any number of things related to publishing along their roads to the apex.

However, through all the responses I got, one message was consistent and clear: All of these people said that they deeply enjoyed working with language. That was the only common denominator. I knew that was true for me, too, so I forged ahead.

Here's what I did. As an undergraduate, I designed my own major, which combined degrees in English and in geology; my particular interest was studying grammar and coal. Upon graduating, I found an internship writing for a bipartisan news agency that kept members of Congress informed about the scientific underpinnings of their votes on upcoming environmental legislation. There, I wrote a newsletter about water quality control issues and urban management. Although this was somewhat engaging, when the opportunity to work in research came my way, I jumped.

I first went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and then to the U.S. Geological Survey, working in labs where coal was being studied, either in terms of how it was created or how it should be used. As a lab technician, I watched senior scientists struggle through drafts of reports and publications, creating the most unreadable gobbledygook I had even seen. It drove me nuts! It was then I realized again that I was happier crunching words than crunching numbers. So, 4 years after getting my undergraduate degree, I went for a master's in a program in professional writing at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. I figured the sheepskin couldn't hurt, and I could finish the program in fewer than 2 years.

The Master's in Professional Writing (MAPW) program at CMU is one of the earliest and still best of its kind in the country. It is housed in the English department but draws from psychology, design, linguistics, and computer science, as well as other disciplines. At CMU, I became particularly interested in the impact of design on the ability of readers to navigate through texts that were dense with technical information. This was also when I first joined the Society for Technical Communication, the primary professional organization for technical communicators.

After getting my master's, I was tempted to move on to the Ph.D. program at CMU to continue studying information design. But I was offered a job that held the promise of doing this kind of work AND getting paid, so after graduation, I joined the Document Design Center (DDC), a research group in Washington, D.C. Although I was able to conduct and publish some research related to information design at that time, it was not as much as I would have liked. In the mid-1980s, the need for high-quality computer documentation was monumental, so the DDC ended up being piled high with work that it was uniquely well suited to do: Transform complicated engineering specifications into relatively comprehensible, user-friendly guides for computer systems. This work was challenging, of course, but it wasn't what I wanted. So, again, when an opportunity to change came my way, I grabbed it.

In 1986, through a series of wonderful circumstances, I was invited to teach as a Foreign Expert in Technical Communication at a prestigious science and technology university abroad (Shanghai Jiao Tong University, called the MIT of China). There, I taught courses in technical and scientific writing to Ph.D. students who wanted to publish in English-language journals, as well as courses for master's degree students who were being trained as teachers of "technical English" in universities around the country. These experiences deepened my interest in the cognitive processes of reading and writing, as I saw both profound similarities and differences in how native and nonnative speakers of English approached writing, revising, and reading technical texts.

Of particular interest to me were the similarities in the writing and revising processes among writers--regardless of language background--who had subject-matter expertise and had to write for nonexpert readers. After much internal debate, I decided to return to CMU to pursue these research interests, and to learn more about how to teach writing, which I had learned is a very, very difficult task.

During my doctoral studies, I studied the cognitive processes of technical readers and writers from different language backgrounds, as well as collaborative processes among technical editors, subject-matter experts (biologists), and graphic designers in producing instructional materials in the sciences. During this time, I became active in the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, a core group of researchers and teachers interested in studying and developing materials and methods for teaching technical communication. I also developed several textbooks focused on teaching researchers how to write and became involved with the Council of Science Editors (formally the Council of Biology Editors), a professional association fostering communication among those working in scientific publishing.

After a move to Washington, D.C., a few years ago, I began work on scientific publications in the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS), where I am now managing editor. CABS is the scientific arm of a quiet but very effective nongovernmental organization focused on biodiversity conservation in "hotspot" areas around the world. Here, I edit and write, but I also spend a lot of time helping researchers conceptualize and develop publications that will enable their scientific findings to be translated into conservation actions in the field. Our researchers come from all corners of the globe, and they write in a wide range of technical disciplines, so I find that I draw on all my experiences and training to do the work I am now charged to do.

In closing, I cannot help but hear the echoes of those National Geographic editors who told me so many years ago, that all their diverse experiences came into play, informing and enriching their work as scientific editors. So, if you are considering a career in scientific editing or publishing, I can only offer the same advice they gave me: First, make sure you have the basic ingredient of loving to work with language. Added to that necessity, I also believe that you must be a patient person as an editor of technical texts. More often than not, scientists think they are better writers then they actually are, and guiding the process of extracting good ideas from bad prose can be an interesting challenge.

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