Discovering the Field of Scientific Editing

Nancy Titus Napierala

I had no idea that technical editing could be a career path, yet that is what I learned when I took a class in this field as a graduate student at Northern Illinois University. Considering for the first time the possibility of specializing in the field of technical communication, I recalled my impression that scientific writing and editing must be highly difficult and specialized. People with traditional humanities backgrounds (like mine) are also thought to be averse to anything connected with such hard sciences as mathematics, chemistry, physics, or engineering. Yet I had already experienced another seemingly high-tech field — accounting.

After high school I didn’t go directly to college, yet I was determined to have some kind of specialized training. The only class available at my local business school was an accounting program. I was surprised to find that I had an interest and aptitude for bookkeeping. I had always been skillful at English and deficient at mathematics: how could I suddenly find myself suited to accounting? I realized the answer, which was that accounting has very little to do with the manipulation of numbers and everything to do with organization and interpretation. I began to suspect that the same might hold true for other writers and other forms of the hard sciences.

It turns out there is a healthy diversity in writing about scientific subjects. Technical writers are in demand in all aspects and at all levels of the craft, and the profession has high expectations for their output. For example, Statistical Assessment Services is a nonprofit research organization that reviews published statistical data for accuracy and annually extends “Dubious Data Awards for the Top Silly Science Stories in the News.” Amusing as this seems, no writer wants to be even partially responsible for exposing a client to ridicule.

Editors help avert such disasters by checking a document for accuracy and clarity and by applying rules of style. Some references useful to the novice editor are: Chicago Manual of Style Chapters 8, 12, and 13; Writing and Producing Technical Manuals, Appendix B; Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms; IEEE Standard Dictionary of Electrical and Electronic Terms; and Mathematics into Type, a guide published by the American Mathematical Society.

As practice turns away from the traditional passive voice and toward connecting scientific innovation with its practical application, I find it appealing that we are moving closer to the friendly simplicity of Albert Einstein’s own prose, and I like that.

Simplicity, clarity, and grace produce a skillfully expressive message, elevating a craft to an art. The art lies in the how well the writer and editor have communicated the facts, as Leslie M. Haydon says, “from the originator’s mind to the mind of the receiver.” The procedure, like all editing, follows steps from first meeting to style guide application, proofreading, checks using technical dictionaries, passthroughs, and final tune-up before delivery to the client.

Scientific periodicals demonstrate the variety and opportunity ranging from the entirely technical to the popular or the esoteric. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) publishes across the entire spectrum. One of its strictly technical journals, which sells no advertisements, is IEEE Transactions on Communications, containing mostly conference dates, jobs listings, and articles such as “Computationally Efficient and Interference Tolerant Nonparametric Algorithm.” Spectrum is another IEEE magazine full of colorful advertisements as well as editor Roger Pressman’s article on Yogi Berra’s malapropisms. Yet another IEEE magazine includes the feature story “Coming Attraction: D-cinema”, presented with large, colorful illustrations from Star Wars: Episode 1 and Toy Story 2. Recruiters filling openings for editors on this group of periodicals would require applicants with a wide range of scientific mastery. For those with an appreciation for science as art, the periodical Leonardo features an article about a musician adept with computers who composes music from the DNA code of proteins. Even though I don’t quite grasp the connection between musical construction and protein construction, the article communicates the creative joy that comes from innovating a rare and beautiful art form. If I could follow my own natural inclination, I’d set out to join the editorial staff of Science or Scientific American. Both have lengthy traditions and have been in print for more than 150 years.

Science, published in Washington, DC, and the United Kingdom, employs 34 editors and 84 reviewing editors from universities in 12 different countries and claims this mission: “Science serves its readers as a forum for the presentation and discussion of important issues related to the advancement of science, including the presentation of minority points of view, rather than by publishing only material on which a consensus has been reached.”

The Scientific American that I reviewed contains slick and satisfying subjects on hard drives; the discovery of a method of turning hydrogen gas into a metal, which is expected to bring about revolutions in electronics, energy, and materials; new discoveries about asteroids; human adjustment to overcrowding; a war-shattered cathedral rebuilt by a Nobel prize-winning biologist; an article on DVDs; diagrams with explanations on how gas pumps work; 3-D maps of the air (!); a section on science books; mathematical recreational games; a column by Alan Alda; and the lead story documenting one of the editors who visited Zimbabwe to report on the AIDS pandemic there. I notice that Scientific American advertisers are high-end, including Mercedes-Benz. The magazine is published in 12 countries, including the People’s Republic of China, and employs 6 senior editors and 15 staff editors.

Some practitioners in this field arrive after first pursuing other employment. Free-lance editor, Patricia Barnes-Svarney, began her career as a scientist analyzing water and flooding, then changed her focus to scientific writing and editing after she took a college writing class. She described the traits of a successful science editor in the Writer: “intense curiosity, interest in research, good judgment on topics, interview skills, accuracy, interpretive skills.” Barnes-Svarney first interests periodical editors in topics about which she is prepared to write, then writes the articles on commission. Although Barnes-Svarney doesn’t think her scientific background is a special advantage, she does feel that a fresh perspective often affords a more objective assessment.

The Craft of Scientific Writing, 3rd edition, by Michael Alley, is another useful book about such basic considerations of free-lance life as exercise, sleeping, and motivation. Alley insists that “to become a successful reviser you must become a good reader.”

Research and development companies also provide opportunities for technical editors and writers, because new products are hardly considered to exist until they are written up first in industrial journals, then clearly presented to the public through usable manuals, which seem to be as crucial as dependable products. Writers have taken their place on development teams where they can document the procedures right from the beginning, helping the company to meet legal requirements, realize profits, and compete with other companies. Scientific writing shares a common purpose with all other writing and editing: to communicate clearly with style and grace. Editors occupy their own central position: to guard the author’s credibility, identify the audience, and deliver a clear message. Editors also strive to be skillful, ethical professionals in a diverse and stimulating field.



  • Editorial Eye
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
  • Intercom
  • Leonardo
  • New England Journal of Medicine
  • Science
  • Scientific American
  • Scientific Communication SIG, Society for Technical Communicators
  • Technical Communication
  • World Health

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