Today, our good friends over at The Open Notebook, who raise the bar on the craft of science writing on a weekly basis, are featuring a roundtable discussion about how we team-wrote The Science Writers’ Handbook. Telling stories among friends is easy, but sculpting those conversations into a guidebook was sometimes tricky. Here, we highlight a section of that conversation in which SciLance founder Kendall Powell (bio), book co-editors Thomas Hayden (bio) and Michelle Nijhuis (bio), and book contributors Stephen Ornes (bio) and Hillary Rosner (bio) discuss the joys and the angst of team writing and editing.
Kendall: Was it hard editing (and being edited by) friends?
Tom: I was deeply impressed by the professionalism and good natured acceptance of feedback and editing of all the SciLancers I edited. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t challenging — I was at every moment aware not only of potential hurt feelings and wounded egos, but also of the stinging emails we sometimes send about particularly chowder-headed editing decisions perpetrated on our outside work. Fortunately, if emails with the subject line “RANT: Hayden has ruined my chapter again!” were sent, I was left off the distribution list.
Hillary: OMG, it totally was NOT me who sent that email.
Michelle: Ha! I’ll second Tom on this — editing is a personal process in a lot of ways, and as an editor you sometimes feel like you’re sitting on the priest’s side of the confessional, seeing different writers’ first drafts and their different responses to edits. So while there were times when I felt nervous about taking friends into that metaphorical confessional, everyone handled the situation professionally and with good humor — I was so grateful for that.
Stephen: I didn’t know Tom and Michelle very well before the book work started in earnest, so I didn’t know how ruthless the editing and revising process would be. It wasn’t ruthless, though for some reason they didn’t want a 50-page chapter on statistics. (Go figure.) Both turned out to be generous, smart, and savvy, which made the process so productive. The final products far surpassed my original drafts.
Kendall: Stephen, you are now editing pieces on the book’s blog, including the multimedia pieces. Does that give you newfound appreciation for your own editors?
Stephen: Lord, yes. I’ve been lucky to work with many other good editors, and I’m doing my best to emulate their styles, generosity, and approach to making suggestions. I’m striving to be a “writer’s editor.” I’ve edited a number of multimedia pieces — slideshows and videos — and it’s fun to get a peek into other writers’ lives. When I worked with Mark Schrope (bio) on his Writing Labs piece, I kept thinking, “Why don’t I have a hammock in my office?”
Kendall: Did any awkward situations arise? How did you get through them?
Tom: I had to kill my own wife’s sidebar giving the spousal view of freelancing. Purely for reasons of space – our manuscript was several scores of pages too long, and our editor at Da Capo asked us to cut back substantially on the number of boxes and sidebars. Fortunately, Erika was a total pro about it, and I came out of the situation with nothing worse than KP duty for the next three years.
Hillary: Erika obviously read my chapter (Chapter 13: “Good Luck Placing This Elsewhere: How to Cope with Rejection”). You’re lucky.
Kendall: What has been the most fun part of the project?
Stephen: I still can’t believe it happened. After I joined SciLance, I read the ongoing threads and was treated to myriad inside jokes about books and hot tubs and wrestling with PIOs. I didn’t think these people were serious about writing a book.…
Kendall: Opening up a box and pulling out a real, live book with my name on the contributor page, nestled among those of some of my closest friends. As a writer, it really doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
Michelle: Getting to share all the little steps of process with colleagues and good friends. As a solo author, your friends might congratulate you when you get your cover or when the book goes up on Amazon, but it’s been even more fun to be able to toast one another each time we’ve reached a milestone.