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Dr. O

After a frustrating year on the tenure-track job hunt, my eyes are still on the prize, and I've learned that sheer will might be the most important quality required for this career track.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

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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JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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Sounds like you're an excellent editor.  I also really enjoy the editing process and the feeling that you've helped to contribute to the development of someone's ideas into a really good piece of writing.  I agree that it's really important to let people (particularly those that are learning) make the changes themselves and develop their own writing style.  I encountered a few PIs during my graduate studies who were incredibly controlling when it came to writing things.  Although I can see their point that they want it to be the best it possibly can be so that their student gets accepted to that conference, or earns that fellowship award or gets that grant (whatever the case may be), they won't learn anything from having a piece of writing completely rewritten for them, except the belief that they aren't very good at writing.  That's why I enjoyed writing my thesis so much, my PI was more relaxed about it and really gave me free reign to develop my own style.


Tideliar
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"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."

 

IRL I run my own technical writing and editing business and that is rule number 1. Unless I am working for ESL and they really need a major overhaul...I do that very rarely and negotiate it up front too (and not just for the fee LOL)


Jason Goldman
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I've had some very *very* good editing help over the years - both in academic-type writing and in popular-type writing. Everyone should have good editors.


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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I was the editor of my college newspaper, so I really enjoy it when I get to bust out the old red pen. I was the person in the department that everyone brought their dissertations to when I was in grad school. I'm now the last stop before papers get submitted to journals.


Gerty-Z
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I need to find me a good editor. The folks I worked with for grad school/postdoc were good but writing was not one of their more awesome talents. Especially postdoc PI - HATED writing. I would hand over drafts and after about 10 m I would get "revisions". Usually a "looks good". Not so useful. Now I'M the editor, so that should be interesting. Hopefully I can do better. Great advice, Dr. O!


MeadandScience
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I'm a big fan of editors who are capable of what you describe.  Those who bring their work you you are lucky!

Khalil A.

Guest Comment

I'm not always a big fan of editors but they do have a knack of getting a piece clearly, more succinct and well... better! I had the chance of being kind of mentored by one and it's a great experience. Especially to a newbie like me.

Writers may want to check out the new guide about science communications published by Nature Education (at Scitable). It's worth it.


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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Thanks for the link Khalil. That's really useful information to have.


Will
UC Davis
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You are absolutely right, editing is a balancing act!  My old PI used to re-write every sentence I wrote no matter how good or accurate.  It left me wondering if I would ever be able to write an abstract on my own when I left the lab, let alone a grant application or manuscript.

My new PI is excellent at improving sentences that require editing and leaving the rest untouched.  I find that I am slowly regaining confidence, and I have even received a prize on the back of one of my abstracts.

Learning to edit is a really important skill to learn!


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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My current PI has this weird need to replace commas with parenthases. He does it in every paper. The last one I wrote, he would put them in, and I would take them out over and over and over. It was ridiculous!


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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My old PI and I used to have a constant battle over the two spaces versus one space after a full stop (period for any Americans). He would always take out one of the spaces and I would put them back in, I'm old school, not changing for nobody!


Will
UC Davis
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I don't understand why you wouldn't put two spaces.  It really doesn't bother anyone and it looks better!


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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Two spaces is AWFUL! My PI wanted me to do that in my dissertation and I refused. I ended up pulling out several style guides to show him how bad it is. He finally gave in because he didn't want to argue with me anymore!


biochem belle
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I don't know why any of us were ever taught that there should be two spaces after a period. It's silly and useless. Take it from people whose job it is to edit.


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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It seems to be a US vs UK thing mostly, though one space is also the more modern way of doing things.  I was brought up with two spaces so it just feels right to me, but I'm not bothered by people who demand one, a lot of the freelance work I do requires it so I've kind of gotten used to it, but I still always prefer two! Just a personal preference.


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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It just seems so disruptive when you're trying to type. Remembering the second space feels weird.


Dr. Zeek
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See, for me it is the opposite.  I was taught to put the twp spaces after the period so it is just second nature.  It always looks/feels weird to me not to put the two spaces in.


Dr. O
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I was always taught to put the two spaces in, too, and it's pretty automatic for me now. But I do think it is old school, since I originally learned to type on a typewriter.

Removing the double spacing from my last grant provided a couple of extra lines within the shortened NIH page limit. I'm very willing to adapt if it gives me more room in the new NIH format!


Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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I too was taught on a typewriter and to put two spaces after a period. If you'd asked me what I did currently I'd probably have guessed that I still use two spaces, but I just looked at my latest manuscript, and it's mostly got just one space. So apparently I've adopted the modern trend without even knowing it!

 


biochem belle
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I was taught 2 spaces, as well, but at some point in college, I learned a new (and better Tongue out) way, grasshoppers.


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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Glad I have some two space support!!  Us two spacers seem to be more flexible than you one spacers!


Namnezia
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Two spaces was used in typewriters. Word processors automatically adjust the spacing after a period so that it looks longer than a space between words. Or so I've been told...

Here's the same sentence with two spaces, it looks awkward:

Two spaces was used in typewriters.  Word processors automatically adjust the spacing after a period so that it looks longer than a space between words.  Or so I've been told...

Now, when would you use an em dash — vs. an en dash – ?


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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See it just doesn't look weird to me, if anything the one space looks weird, but since I've become accustomed to it recently it doesn't look quite so strange.  You're most likely right that it's a typewriter vs word processor thing but I've been taught the old fashioned Brit way and I'm gonna stick to it until someone complains.  It's strange because until recently I wasn't even aware that one space was acceptable, now it seems I've become passe!


Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Namnezia, I just got a little grammar crush on you! For me, the em dash--easily one of my favorite kinds of punctuation--is for breaks in thought.  The oft-misused en dash, on the other hand, is for putting ideas together!


Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Hmm...on further consideration, I think I am a little wrong about the en dash. It is not just a hyphen! According to mentalfloss.com, it should be used for number ranges and complex hyphenated ideas.


Dr. O
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Hubby started going on about the different uses of the en and em dashes after seeing this thread. I'm lost now. As much as I love writing and grammar, I don't think I'm cut out for this level of editing! Tongue out


Gerty-Z
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FWIW, I also think that the two spaces is just odd. I was also always told that the it was a thing that you did with a typewriter but the wordprocessors automatically correct. I have always been a little confused about the use of the em- vs. en-dash. I generally avoid using them to prevent mistakes.


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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Woah, em vs en dashes?!  I've just had my eyes opened to a whole new world of potential grammatical errors.  I'm such a noob!


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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We had the em vs en dash discussion in my editing room one week putting the paper together. That was a rough night!


Namnezia
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@Becca: But do you know the keyboard shortcuts for em vs. en dashes?

Actually em dashes are for separating clauses, much like parentheses or semicolons. En dahses are for numerical ranges. Hyphens are for joining words.

I personally don't like the way em dashes look, so I liberally use en dashes as if they were em dashes but put a space at either end.

Grammatically wrong? Yes. Cooler-looking? Definitely!

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