Sunday, February 1, 2009

quick thoughts on the editorial process

I'm editing some journal articles this weekend, which has me thinking about writing in general, and how information is disseminated.

One thing that is striking to me when editing someone else's work is the constant battle to make sure that I am editing the article that is in front of me, rather than some ideal, perfect paper that will never exist. Of course I wish every study had 10 times as many participants, had measured variables that are near and dear to my heart, etc. But I think in the big picture, that is not my job. My job is not to tell the author the flaws that kept them from perfection- my job is to give honest feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their paper, and help make it better.

I've heard this discussed in the context of movie reviews, and how a good critic will review the movie in front of them, and not the movie that they wish had been made. One example that sticks out for me is the "X-men" series. I think that series made a fatal flaw in casting Halle Berry as Storm, which was a role that Angela Bassett was born to play. For a long time, I couldn't get past that casting error (and it's a big one). But it's still a very good movie when viewed on its own merits, and that is the basis by which I should judge it.

I have to keep this in mind when I am reading the work of others. Even the worst articles I review represent probably hundreds of hours of work, and I have to keep that in mind. Even for papers that are fatally flawed, I am still appreciative that the authors cared enough to try and share their knowledge to the medical and scientific community.

Another important point that comes from reviewing is just how important good writing is. It is such a pleasure to read a well-written scientific paper. Unfortunately, they are pretty rare. Science writers seem to have an unyielding affection for the passive voice, amongst other things, and are too adherent to jargon. It is a shame when good ideas get lost in bad grammar.

The final thought I have is that one reason I like editing is that hopefully it makes me a better writer myself. In Stephen King's "On Writing" (which I consider the best book ever written about writing), he talks about how if you want to be a great writer, the importance of being a reader. I think that also applies to scientific writing. My helping others improve their scientific writing, hopefully I will be a better writer, and and better medical scientist.