Even Scientific Journal Articles Tell a Story

Words From A Scientific Editor

Graduate student shares her research with her professor

My joy of writing began at a young age, when, as a kindergartener, I wrote my first “novel”. 

It was mostly pictures.

As the years progressed, I discovered my love for dialogue, character development, and especially, description. In my box of keepsakes, I have many unedited short stories, a few plays, and several beginnings of books.

You might wonder how my adult writing world, that of scientific editing, grant—writing and medical articles, could mesh with my love of description, plot and dialogue.  That’s the funny thing about writing; it doesn’t quite matter on the subject matter, you are always telling a story to an audience.

In one article I may be showing why a seemingly random array of enzymes may actually tell a tale of postpartum depression, while in another article I’m relaying a story of a doctor who created a unique intervention to reduce diabetes among Ethiopians and Arab Israelis. 

In both cases, I need to think, ‘Who is my audience?’, ‘Why would they want to know this?’ and ‘Is it interesting?’

The last question is obviously the most difficult, since ‘interesting’ is in the eye of the beholder, or, in this case, the eye of the reader. Yet, my litmus test has become, ‘Is it interesting to me?’ If I drift off when reading my own draft, I know I need to start over. 

This may sound a bit odd. 

After all, I’m just editing other people’s words or drafting their ideas into sentences.  Why do I have to find it interesting?  This is always the question of ghostwriting, and academic editing. Should your voice, as the editor, even be in the article? This is the tricky part of scientific writing that is not as evident as it is in other kinds of writing.

For example, if I would edit a novel by a young Russian woman, I would be careful to keep her tone, sentence length, vocabulary, instead of my middle-aged American personality. In journal articles, the authors still have a voice, albeit subtler. I have more leeway to create flow, cut down unwieldy sentences, but I still need to tell the author’s story, not my own.  

For example, several years ago I was asked to re-write a paper on a specific oncogene, and its possible functions in the human body.  Although I studied biology back in the previous century, I had no in-depth knowledge of oncogenes.

The author had all the relevant information there, but he was assuming that the audience already knew the plot. My job, as an academic editor, was to arrange the storyline, to break down the various roles of the oncogene, and explain how it fits into various systems within the human body. 

In the end, I learned a great deal about oncogenes, but, perhaps, more importantly, I translated the biological details, on behalf of the author, into a coherent tale of oncogene presence, function, and possible purpose. I convinced the author that instead of trying to preach to a choir of geneticists, he should open the minds of the doctors, and demonstrate the clinical use of biomarkers. The article went from being rejected five times to being accepted to a significant medical journal.  Same content, same author, a different story.

That’s why ‘interesting’ is so important. I need to be able to translate the experience of the author into a structure that a large audience can understand and appreciate. It’s that interpretation that fascinates me, interests me, and keeps me in scientific editing and writing, ostensibly for others, but also, for myself.


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