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Science Editing and Word Craft


Recently, I took a course called "Indexing--An Essential Art and Science." I expected the course to emphasize the science aspect: the mechanics of structuring an index, the software used for the task--that type of thing. However, the reality is that indexing, like editing, is much more of an art. Although there are lots of rules to be followed in editing, such as structure and a style to adhere to, I find that the process is more of an art: the creative aspects of choosing a better word, the decision-making between good and better, and the overall polishing of a piece. I think of science editing as the scientific content combined with the art form of the process.

I love editing. I get great satisfaction from taking a document from the good stage (and sometimes "needs-a-lot-of-help" stage) to a better one. I admit to getting a thrill out of holding a published book in my hands that I helped in some small or larger way to bring to completion. Editing provides an opportunity to use knowledge and training from my educational background, along with my love of the written word. The nature of the work--usually on a project basis--allows for completion, which I find personally satisfying. Science and technical editing may be more structured and "formal" than is other editing (such as marketing materials, business communications, newsletters, etc.), but there are still opportunities to clean up a "fuzzy" area, turn a phrase into a better one, and, perhaps more importantly, provide clarity for topics that may be complex.

I have had the pleasure of editing manuscripts that deal with agriculture, biology, biochemistry, biotechnology, cancer, climatology, ginseng, and traditional Chinese medicine. Because the Internet has markedly improved speed and efficiency during the query and review processes between the editor, client, and multiple authors, the geographical barrier of distance has been eliminated. Use of e-mail and a high-speed Internet connection has allowed me to work in the world marketplace, often with manuscripts written in English by authors of various first languages. The incredible diversity in science editing is one aspect that makes it such a challenging and interesting field.

My Path to Editing

Editors come from a wide range of backgrounds. My route includes a bachelor of science degree from Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, B.C., Canada), with a major in geography and a minor in biological sciences. For a number of years, I worked as a research associate in the department of biology, spent many hours in the lab and the field, and co-authored several papers. In fulfillment of my degree, I took courses in biology, chemistry, climatology, geography, math, and physics. At the time, it seemed that some of what I learned "went in one ear and out the other," but in retrospect I am pleasantly surprised by how much of the information I managed to retain.

When working on a paper in the field of biotechnology (this wasn't even a subject area when I went to school!), I found the terms and ideas familiar. And for those times when things don't click, I have the framework to figure them out, the tools to find missing information, and the ability to pull it all together. The concepts, the terminology, the structure of science writing, the ability to conduct research, and the experience of writing labs and papers--everything that I learned in earning my science degree comes in handy now.

Why it works

One of the statements in my bio under the Editors' Association of Canada listing is the "desire to participate in lifelong learning." Science editing gives me that opportunity. Every time I edit a new manuscript, I learn something, a rare and wonderful thing in today's workplace. It doesn't get much better than having a job you love, the opportunity to learn new things while experiencing satisfaction for a job completed, and then actually seeing (and holding) a finished product!

Getting Started

Like many editors, I pretty much "fell" into editing. A colleague asked me to help edit proceedings from a conference, and I agreed. A 4-month, part-time job turned into a yearlong, more or less full-time commitment that included many aspects of editing, along with project management (working with graphic artists; sourcing printers, binders, and courier companies; and finally packing the finished volume for shipping). I loved it (I can say that now!) and learned an incredible amount. This experience, however, also taught me how much I didn't know, which in turn led to taking editing courses through Simon Fraser University's writing and publishing program. I still take professional development courses and hope to continue doing so, as there is always more to learn, new techniques and technology, and interesting people to meet.

Maintaining a Balance

Science editing has fulfilled my needs in other ways. As a mother of two children, I realized a need, like many, to balance work life with parenting. Balance is a word that is used or overused of late, but perhaps justly so, as it is absolutely essential. I felt that an editing career was something that could work for me, doing contract work from my home office, which allows me flexibility in scheduling. That led to starting a company (WordCraft Communications) and learning about creating a business. This certainly was not an outcome that I had ever envisioned during my undergraduate years in science--you never know to what unexpected and interesting places your path may take you.

Carolyn Whitehead can be reached via e-mail at

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