I started my freelance copy editing and proofreading business when I was 39 years old. If I had been asked a decade earlier—just as I finished earning my doctorate in organic chemistry—if I ever imagined I’d be a business owner, the answer would have been “No.” As for many newly minted PhDs, I had a decision to make: what was next for me? Not only was I looking for a position at the beginning of the Great Recession but also was my husband of two years. It was difficult to find one chemistry position. But two? Our goal was to find two positions in the same city or region, not to live separately. However, after multiple offers for one of us or the other, but never both, I decided to become the trailing spouse. Although difficult for some, I was ready for a break from bench chemistry and willing to investigate an alternative, nontraditional career.
I lasted two months. My graduate advisor had told me that not working for a year or two was too long, and he was right. I was ready to get back into the lab, and as luck would have it, a postdoctoral position opened up at the same national lab as my husband’s postdoc position. There were many great things about my postdoc experience: I got my own funding, I learned a new branch of chemistry (and microbiology and mass spectrometry, etc.), and I worked with great people. Furthermore, I learned a lot about my passions and career goals. During my postdoc tenure, I had the opportunity to lead a class review session and teach an organic lab at a state university’s local campus. By the end of the three-year position, I had confidently decided a few things. Research is exciting and rewarding, but it’s not the career I wanted. The decision to leave a research career was easier because I also had a two-year-old daughter at home. Teaching wasn’t my passion either. Leaving the bench and the classroom was the right decision for me.
For six years, I worked as a stay-at-home mom—yes, it is work! We had two more children, and keeping the kids fed, safe, and happy was a full-time job. This was a great time to pursue hobbies and find a community. Meanwhile, I was always thinking about what to do when all the kids were in school. I didn’t consider returning to research or teaching; those days were finished. I was considering nontraditional uses of my training that were flexible and preferably done at home.
Language editing intrigued me because, during the last year of my postdoc, I was often frustrated by language errors I encountered in academic papers. The fields I was learning were complex, and poor writing made learning the science even harder. This soon became my passion. I was never taught how to write a scientific paper in graduate school. I followed the format of other papers from my group and purchased the ACS style guide; but, at the request of my advisor, I had to look for online writing tutorials to learn effective writing. Furthermore, I assumed most graduate students don’t receive writing training, although writing doesn’t come easily to everyone. Could I focus this discovered passion on helping others publish their research? Yes!
There are many programs that provide training for language editing, copy editing, and proofreading, such as self-paced online certificate programs (Poytner) to actual enrollment at a university (UC San Diego) to obtain a degree or certificate. With my background in science and my experience in academic writing, I decided to try an entry-level, self-paced program that wasn’t too expensive or extensive. Within a year I had finished the course, joined the Editorial Freelance Association, gotten a freelancing/contractor job with an editing agency, and started my own freelance copyediting business--Scitech Proofreading.
It quickly became apparent that there is a need for academic copy editors and proofreaders. Many scientists are multilingual, and writing in English can be especially difficult. Many agencies that provide editing services specialize in helping multilingual researchers write and edit so that they can publish their work. Working for these agencies provides experience and opportunities to perform many levels of editing. The hardest part has been directly finding clients for my freelancing business. Here, I’ve reached out to my network for leads, made new contacts with “cold” emails, and advertised my business—much like a job seeker. I’ve been blessed with finding a few repeat clients.
I have been working as a part-time editor for three years. As a freelancer, I have control over my schedule and workload, which is exactly what I need as a mom of three kids. I’m encountering new research fields (e.g., materials science), new levels of editing and skills (e.g., macros), and how to be independently employed. It took a long time and some introspection to determine what my goals are and how to meet them. I may not always be a freelance editor, but currently this is the best fit for me.
For those considering an alternative career in science, discovering your interests is key. Research programs where you can be trained in the required skills; reach out to your network for opportunities and leads; and freelance in the field if possible. Take the time to ascertain your strengths and weaknesses, determine your interests and passions, and be realistic about your material, social, and familial needs.
Paraphrasing Paul Beverley, Advanced Professional Member CIEP and macro guru, macros are programs that, like apps, do something. Since I don’t know anything about coding, I will keep these comments brief. If you can imagine a macro to do a particular task, you (or someone who does know coding) can probably write one to do it. I started using macros when a LinkedIn connection mentioned Paul Beverley and macros helping with the editing process. Once I started working with macros, I quickly realized how macros can improve my accuracy and efficiency. So, here is how I use macros in my copy editing and proofreading.
I have three phases of editing and macros come in handy in each of them. In the first phase, I use macros to set the language of the entire document, highlight potential article usage errors, pull out potential spelling errors, and so on. Usually a hard and fast rule applies to these types of errors and I can quickly mark them for later or make decisions on them right away. For example, the journal article must be written in UK English; or certain field-specific words aren’t found in my dictionary, so I look them up to confirm spelling and then use a macro to highlight the truly incorrect words. Macros allow me to do this quickly and efficiently; they give me a sense of how much editing will be needed in the document and what I errors I need to be on the lookout for.
In my second phase of editing, I consistently use a different set of macros. My current favorites include “InstantJumpUp/Down”, “PunctuationToTimesSign”, “WhatChar”, and “CommentJumpInOut”. If I’m not if a special character is the correct one, I use the “WhatChar” macro to find out. Do I need to go to the next instance of a phrase? I use “InstantJumpDown”. These are assigned shortcut keys so that I can almost exclusively use the keyboard instead of the mouse—thereby avoiding repetitive strain injury (more on that in another blog)—allowing me to quickly edit throughout the manuscript.
My final phase is clean. I run the usual spellcheck and find and replace tools. I use a macro to tabulate my comments so that I can double check them for consistency and errors. My favorite macros at this stage are “HighlightFindDown” and “UnHighlightAndColour”. Instead of paging through the text, I can quickly go to a highlighted section and then remove that same color within the rest of the paper.
There you go! These are the Paul Beverley macros that I find helpful and use for almost every editing and writing project. Not only can you get these macros free from Paul Beverley, but he has a YouTube channel on how to use macros. Now go out there and learn how to use these powerful tools!
Why do you need a proofreader? Here are four reasons: typos, grammar, diction, and syntax. This blog is about those innocent mistakes—typos. In any field, typos, short for typographical errors, can cost time and money, but in research and science, typos can cost you credibility as well.
It is difficult to plan, write, and publish scientific papers. Not only do you need to organize your research logically, but you also need to submit the manuscript to an appropriate journal and satisfy peer review critiques. Typos are distractions to your audience and can cause delay in publication. Even worse, typos, no matter how innocent, may cost you credibility with your audience. Why, you may ask? Surely everyone makes these mistakes, right? Yes. But the meticulous author will go through the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb to try to catch these errors. A researcher may be considered lazy if the manuscript is riddled with typos. Furthermore, this perception of laziness in the writing process may shift to a conception that the scientist was also lazy during research. At best, typos cause delay or distraction, but at worst they can be embarrassing or hurt your reputation.
Here's an example from my own life that shows how a simple typo may have cost me credibility as a capable researcher. Although this example isn’t from a paper I wrote, it shows how a small typo can cause big embarrassment.
I was presenting my research at a job interview. Most of the slides were made months before and had been presented at group meetings more than once. I was in the groove; describing the why and how of my doctorate research. Everything was going well, until an audience member raised his hand and said, “Did you know you have a typo on that slide? Your group mates should have caught that.” What typo? Where? I stumbled; it took me a few moments to even find the typo. I had written a chemical formula wrong: LiAl4H instead of LiAlH4. One simple mistake and my whole presentation was thrown off.
Did this error cost me a job offer? Probably not; I made a few other mistakes that day. But it was embarrassing, and it did not convey the message that I was prepared for my interview.
Proofreading is an extremely important step for scientific and technical writing. We all make mistakes and a proofreader’s job is to find those remaining typos. If you don’t have the budget for a proofreader, make sure every author has read through the text thoroughly and ask a peer not involved in writing to take a look. Even if you think you don’t have time, don’t skip this step. Leaving easily fixed mistakes in your manuscript may cost you more than you expect.