A couple of weeks ago, Jill U Adams (bio) posted a compilation of “first clip” stories. As we were gathering them on the SciLance list, we also acknowledged our deep gratitude* toward the editors of those pieces who, seemingly inexplicably, gave us our first breaks.
It began like this:
Kendall Powell (bio): I’ll never forget the simple generosity of David (Malakoff, then at Science) giving me that short assignment–it really speaks volumes about the science writing community that it’s so willing to give students a helping hand into the profession.
Jennifer Cutraro (bio): Yes, I’m sure mine was too. I’m eternally grateful to Dave Grimm (at Science) for that foot in the door. Same with my first clip in the (Boston) Globe, which came about directly as a result of the overwhelming kindness of Beth Daley.
Folks jumped in with more examples. We thought we’d take a minute to recognize the many ways that we are grateful to our editors: for first assignments, for Zen-like perspective at key moments, and for taking the time to help us get better. Here are a few of our thank-you notes.
Jill U Adams (bio): I feel so so fortunate that my first editors at The Scientist– Paula Park and Brendan Maher — were the sort who would point out when I’d done something well, in addition to pointing out all the places that needed tightening up, or more visual language, or weeding out jargon.
Alison Fromme (bio): While I was a grad student at Washington State University, I wrote a few articles for the alumni magazine. When I told my editor, Tim Steury, that I planned to go freelance after graduation, he offered me a couple of assignments going forward. It was a small but very important gesture that boosted my confidence as an independent freelancer.
Bryn Nelson (bio): During my internship at the Salinas Californian in 1999, a complicated meeting about the collapse of a local group of healthcare providers ran late and I raced back to the newspaper office with a growing sense of panic about meeting my deadline.
Sensing my distress, my editor, Catharine Hamm, sat me down and told me about her own experience to help put things in perspective. When she was an editor at the Kansas City Star, a man entered a local restaurant and set himself on fire – just before deadline. “We got through that then and we’re going to get through this now,” she said.
Suddenly, my healthcare story seemed far more reasonable. She sat beside me and encouraged me to begin by stripping my narrative down to its key elements, and her calm lesson on story assembly minutes before deadline has stuck with me ever since.
Helen Fields (bio): Betsy Carpenter, an editor at U.S. News & World Report (my first internship and first job, where I got SO much awesome education in the form of editing) sat down with me after I’d turned in a draft about some interesting archaeological findings and pointed out that I’d done the story the wrong way around. I started with the reasons why it probably wasn’t really what the archaeologists claimed it was, and only at the end got around to the evidence in favor. She sent me back to do it again: tell the story, then the caveats. I was so grateful that she took the time to diagnose the problem and explain it to me, rather than just rewriting it herself.
Amanda Mascarelli (bio): In 2004, when I was a master’s student in journalism, I did a month-long internship during the summer at Nature in London. I was walking to a pub after work with Jim Giles, who was then a news editor at Nature. I was telling him that I felt self-conscious about my work needing so much editing and I asked him if some writers ‘arrive’ at a point where they hardly need editing. He responded with something that I’ve never forgotten. He basically said that writing is a two-person job, and that it’s not really meant to be a solitary activity — that writing always benefits from having another pair of eyes, another perspective, even for the very best writers (I’m paraphrasing, but this was the gist). That might sound pretty basic, but for some reason, it was really a breakthrough for me. I started seeing edits as being complementary to my work, rather than threatening to me as a writer.
Robin Mejia (bio): Dave Gilson at Mother Jones cut one of my stories in half… and made it work. I learned a lot from that. When I found out we were going to have to cut it, I’d wanted to do it, but Dave convinced me to let him take the first pass. He cut a lot of technical details that I would have kept, but in doing so kept important context and narrative that I would have dropped because I was so close to the story that the context seemed obvious. In the end, the material he kept was far more important for readers than the technical details I’d worried about losing.
Would you like to thank an editor?** Please add your stories in the comments.
*Despite what editors may have inferred from our amusement park for science writers.
Image credit: Jessica Marshall