Good editing is about consistency and connection, says Juliet Beverly, senior editor for BrainFacts.org.
Engaging with a story in multiple ways helps ensure its accuracy and flow, while taking time to meet with writers face to face — on Zoom or in person — leads to a better working relationship.
Here is Beverly’s advice on how to improve your editing workflow.
What are your top three tips for editing stories on a tight deadline?
Beverly: My first tip is to read once from the top down. Even when on deadline, I don’t imagine a scenario where I wouldn’t have read a piece from top to bottom.
That said, as a nontraditional newsroom editor now, I would say secondly, don’t be afraid to read it from the bottom up. That is how I can catch missing pieces or transitions that might not really be there or if there are some jumps to conclusions that weren’t really making sense. I like copy to read like a math problem. And that’s a great way to approach hard news stories, too — just like little mathematical problems.
And three: Don’t be afraid to say what you don’t know and have your writer in on that input. So … make sure you immediately have that channel open, whether it’s Slack or just jumping on the phone.
As an editor, what is your process for establishing a working relationship with a new writer?
Beverly: The best thing to do is have that phone call. Even though we unfortunately are still going through the pandemic, what it did make us all do is use Zoom — and the video feature, so you can see a writer’s face and establish that personal connection. You can then have more open conversations and communicate your workflow, how you work, your best communication styles. Also, introduce them to any of the administrative portions of writing — especially freelancers because they have a whole other world that’s very different from working with your staff writers.
So, I think having a phone call or an introduction person-to-person, even if it’s just audio, helps to establish you as a human being talking to another human being.
How do you think about making technical stories more accessible for audiences?
Beverly: My entire career experience has been only for the general audience. So even though I’m an editor that looks at neuroscience, I don’t have a science background. I like to think that I am the audience that I’m trying to serve, and that I’m really sitting in for them.
I mentioned before reading a story from the bottom up. I do that a lot for translating science. There’s this little trick that I’ve been using lately. I start highlighting from graph to graph the key three or four words that really are the takeaway message from that paragraph. And then if I have a good trail of little green highlights going through the story, I know, “Hey, I’ve explained terms, I’m not stumbling on anything.” And then I have a visual stepping stone for the story.
But if I see huge gaps, where I’m like, “I don’t know what that said, I’m not sure what it means.” That means that I need to go back and talk with a writer: Let’s define terminology. Let’s make sure that we didn’t assume the reader knows what this is. And that visual really helps, and it helps to communicate with our writers without being so obnoxious with track changes.
What is the best piece of editing advice you have received in your career?
Beverly: The best advice I received was also about science writing. It was: We never write anything that we don’t understand. So I think that matters for a lot of different beats, but for sure in science writing. If you’re putting something out there that’s still not understandable, no matter if your audience is really technical, you have done a disservice to them and your publication. And I think we do have time to take a step back and make sure that we understand the products that we’re creating that are going out into the world and, with the internet, live forever.