Medicine: The Doctor of Text

 Heather Rockman interviewed by Rachael Masri

Key words: Heather Rockman, medical editing, Israel Medical Association Journal, Manuscript & Production Editor

Heather Rockman is a doctor of the written word. She can edit any confusing scientific or medical article to generate a clean, crisp, logical text. After over three decades in the business, she is an expert specialty editor  and has valuable advice to give to up and coming editors who are considering entering the field of specialty editing.

Q: How did you become a medical/scientific editor?

I have been a medical/scientific editor for 35 years. I never studied editing but “learned on the job,” having started as a proofreader at the Israel Journal of Medical Sciences, a monthly research journal in English. (In 2000 it was bought by the Israel Medical Association, hence its name, IMAJ, Israel Medical Association Journal). For many years I edited, in addition, two quarterly journals: the Israel Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Israel Journal of Dental Sciences. For the duration of its short life, I edited the Israel Journal of Psychoanalysis. During a sabbatical abroad I worked at the South African Journal of Science. I have also worked as an editor on a freelance basis for various institutions, such as the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, as well as for individual doctors wishing to send their articles to a journal abroad.

 Q: What other projects have you worked on?

I have worked on non-scientific subjects (social sciences) and edited several books for Yad Vashem. I have also edited/proofread the occasional brochure, menu, etc. In the early 1990s I became involved in establishing ELEAS (English-Language Editors Association) in Jerusalem, whose aim was networking and running workshops (on language, grammar, etc.) I had the privilege of teaching a few courses in the Editing Program at David Yellin College.

Q: What was your initial motivation as you entered this field of specialty?

My academic education (English Literature, African Studies) has had little bearing on my career. My interest in medicine and appreciation of a well-turned phrase were the necessary elements.

Q: Describe what work is involved when editing specialty texts.

This has ranged from proofreading a manuscript and/or editing a manuscript, to the “total” process, what I’d call the full editing experience, which means handling a manuscript from its creation to its final publication. There are variations in this process. For example, in my work for IMAJ I am not an “author’s editor,” i.e., I don’t help the author write his article. I receive the articles after peer review. Being Manuscript & Production Editor, my work involves editing the articles (including tables and pictures), sending the edited version with my queries to the authors, incorporating their changes/answers (this might lead to a second pass, as a change might raise another question) and sending the article to the typesetters. The resultant galley proofs (in PDF) are sent to me for proofreading and I send them to the authors for confirmation and/or further corrections. After incorporating their changes, I sit with the typesetter and together we generate the final version, complete with cover, page numbers, contents, cross-references, etc. This last stage can of course be done online.My free-lance work with single articles or books was limited to editing, which included contact with the author. It did not involve production.

Q: Does an editor need to be an expert in the subject that is being edited?

I’m a little embarrassed by the word expertise as I have never studied science. My fear of being exposed dissipated at an international conference on scientific editing, where I discovered that most of the attendees were liberal arts graduates like myself. The “expertise” most certainly develops with experience. Other necessary requirements are:

  • Attention to detail; e.g., the painstaking checking of periods and commas in reference lists, checking cross-references.
  • Alertness to logic (or lack thereof), incorrect facts, missing information, or contradictory information. Insufficient information is not uncommon because the author, so familiar with his/her own field, presumes the reader is equally knowledgeable; thus the editor has to “wear the cap” of the reader and ask the author to clarify or add information (this applies more to non-scientific material).
  • Simplicity of language, especially in medical/scientific editing. The increasingly complex and technical nature of this field demands crystal clear writing. The facts and ideas must be conveyed without unnecessary verbiage.
  • Keeping in mind at all times the five “C” mantra: consistent, comprehensible, concise, coherent, correct. I would add: keep it lean and clean, and cut the clutter.

Q. How do you get paid?

Not mentioned above is the variation in time and effort involved: one article can be a breeze while another might take days. There is an official rate – by page, number of words, galley sheet, (24,000 characters) – or the employer will determine the fee. However, the editor must factor in the amount of work and time involved and charge accordingly. This should be discussed before taking on the job (even though you won’t know until you’re actually doing it).  (Or, like me, you may be salaried.) I have both priced myself out of a job and worked for a slave’s wage. You will have to find your way.

Q: Is it all worth it?

You’re unlikely to become rich, but it is a fulfilling profession; you can do it at home, in your own time; delve into interesting subjects and increase your knowledge; improve your skills along the way; and feel gratified at a well-written sentence – at a job well done.

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