by Joe Fruscione
For the first installment of this series, I talked with three editors doing Humanities or Social Sciences-based work—in other words, my comfort zone. Since I’ve been telling current and would-be post-acs to expand their networks and get out of their comfort zones, I’m taking my own advice in writing about something far afield from my training in literary studies: STEM editing.
There’s some overlap between my typical copy editing and proofreading work and that which these and other STEM editors do regularly: getting details right, trimming text, fixing grammar and style, finding extra spaces and other typos, and “translating” complex work for a wide audience. The most successful freelancers typically have connections outside their chosen field(s). If you’re exceptionally good at proofreading or making text more concise, a client might want an editor with a different background and knowledge base. I’ve been chosen to edit pieces on religious history, business leadership, international development, and defense contracting because I brought an objective, detail-obsessed set of eyes to the projects. Just as you should try to avoid self-selecting out of certain jobs, your background shouldn’t necessarily dissuade you from applying outside your field. For instance, STEM client dealing with projects for a wide audience might appreciate the sensitivity to language and audience a former Rhet/Comp professor can offer.
Mededitor (another colleague from Editing Twitter) writes, commissions, assigns, and edits articles about science, medicine, and the business of medical practice. (He also has a great Tumblr on language and usage.) This includes forays into law, finance, regulation, and similar matters. For him, “this work demands a well-rounded body of knowledge and isn’t a field one would enter directly. Rather, these skills took a fair amount of time to acquire through general editing work and journalism.” As I did with Benjamin Dreyer in my previous piece, I asked Mededitor about any experiences or concerns he’s had with academics transitioning into STEM editing:
My greatest concern would be that the person would lack experience in editing the work of others. Knowledge of the field of medicine isn’t really required to edit medical materials. With an Internet connection, everything can be researched and checked. What is needed most is the ability to take turgid, clumsy, and unfocused prose and turn it into polished, coherent material. The errors most often encountered aren’t mistakes in fact. They are problems of composition. However, academics from disciplines in the Humanities who have extensive backgrounds in grading and correcting student essays may have developed skill in this area.
If you have these kinds of transferable skills, you might be a promising fit for an editing job with a STEM client seeking accessible, polished writing for a variety of readers. Teaching writing-intensive courses for undergraduates and graduate students, collaborating on a research project or presentation, editing a collection, and similar projects all may have required evaluating and revising others’ work.
A fellow post-ac editor whose academic background has helped advance her career, Viviane Callier is a Senior Science Writer at a consulting company that supports such federal agencies as NIH and the EPA. She writes a lot of meeting summaries, teleconference minutes, and technical reports, as well as does some freelance writing. For her:
My scientific background definitely helps me understand the meetings I attend. The material is highly technical in some cases, so I rely on my scientific knowledge to understand the presentations and discussions. My background also helps me understand how the committees and review panels that I support work. The main difficulty is learning how to write for a variety of audiences. Sometimes, the audience is a group of scientists, but sometimes the document is public and anyone (with or without a scientific background) should be able to understand it. Some clients prefer detailed summaries, whereas others prefer a more synthetic, big-picture view. Understanding what each client wants is key.
A post-ac STEM job might entail making complex arguments and research accessible for an uninformed audience. Viviane has “had to ruthlessly purge academic jargon” from her own professional work, as well as work on “tighter deadlines” than she did as an academic. Whether your academic background was in STEM, Humanities, or something else, you should be prepared to work with tighter turnaround times and deadlines; I’ve heard from a handful of professionals that some post-acs have struggled in making the transition to careers with less flexible deadlines. If you’re good with deadlines and timeliness, stress such abilities in cover letters and interviews.
Closer to home for me is Jill Thomas, an editor at the U.S. Department of Justice who comes from a Humanities background. Jill primarily edits for consistency and understanding: “I approach each piece as a general reader, meaning if I don’t understand it, then someone else won’t either. We ultimately try for plain language, which can be difficult to obtain in some STEM fields.” Jill’s work echoes what Gwendolyn Beetham does in translating academic work for a broader audience. For Jill:
My preferred editing style is Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method, which strives for clear and concise sentences. I work for a statistical agency, which requires editing numerous tables and figures. For these, I refer to published reports and use context clues across the report to edit for consistent information. Each table and figure must be able to stand alone separate from the text, so it falls on me to ensure that each component has been included.
Such editing work is possible for post-acs from various backgrounds. When applying for jobs outside academia, it’s always helpful to know how employers view those of us transitioning careers, which can help you frame a cover letter, present yourself in an interview, or revise your LinkedIn profile:
I look for the ability to communicate clearly and compromise, as well as a meticulous eye for detail. Editing is a lot like teaching, as the interaction between author and editor is very similar to the interaction between student and teacher. It’s a dance to strive for clarity while not stepping on the author’s toes. My teaching background helped me understand that how I approach the author with my edits impacts how likely they will be incorporated. Queries are generally better than demands, and praise is sometimes necessary to make the author comfortable with your suggestions. If an author doesn’t like an edit but you feel strongly, then suggest working together to come up with a compromise.
Jill’s interaction with her authors echoes the developmental editing Liana M. Silva and others do. As writers, we’re always supposed to know and consider our audience; as editors, we should make sure we know and consider our authors, too. Some may need more guidance or encouragement than others—perhaps in the same ways our students once did, too.
Regardless of your field, make sure you keep connecting with professionals from different disciplines and career levels—both these three editors and others doing similar work. That dissertation you may have written in a Women’s Studies or History department may, in unexpected ways, have prepared you to edit or proofread something in a subject area you thought you’d never be reading. As a post-ac, you have many of the adaptable writing and editing skills different kinds of employers value—regardless of how close or far away you are from your comfort zone.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll be writing about editors who’ve worked with scholars and graduate students inside academia, as well as addressing potential successes and struggles for academics who’ve worked with editors. Feel free to contact me if you’ve worked with an editor on a scholarly project.