Wednesday 12 May, Anouk Broersma of VWN hosted a Q&A with American science writer and freelance editor Siri Carpenter about the relationship between editor and writer. Around 18 science writers, hailing from the Netherlands and from other European countries, attended. After a short introduction, Carpenter fielded many questions and a lively discussion ensued.
Text: Bruno van Wayenburg
Siri Carpenter started out as a science writer after a PhD in Psychology in 2000, In 2010, she co-founded the website The Open Notebook, a website about the art and craft of science writing (and earning your keep with it). From 2012, she was an editor at Discover Magazine. From 2018, she runs The Open Notebook almost full time. ‘So I’m now on a meta science journalist level.’
‘We run a team of freelance editors and writers, we recently published a book on the craft of science writing, and we also have courses’, Carpenter says. Science writers should definitely check out The Open Notebook, if only for inspiration.
One major thing Carpenter learned from being an editor for Discovery: ‘I didn’t realize how much editors want freelancers to talk to them about the story. If they’re stuck, if they have some crisis, if a source is being a jerk, we want to be your partner and cheerleader. As a freelancer, I often felt I should be independent, not bothering my editor.’
‘On the other hand, I didn’t appreciate how much other stuff editors have on their plates. Besides editing, there are meetings, there is fact checking, discussions about the cover of the magazine, corporate stuff, and at any time I might have been juggling over two dozen stories.’ This explains why a response might take longer than a freelancer would wish or expect.
Most important about the relationship is clear, timely, and courteous communication. ‘When you’re lost in the weeds and can’t meet a deadline, I want to know. Of course, you have to take deadlines seriously, but that doesn’t mean that they are set in stone. Often there is room to move, but we’d like to know in advance, because of our schedules and also the publishing schedules. The one thing you should not do is to go dark and not deliver your story.’
Most communication is done by mail, but when the email conversation starts to feel a bit fraught, it’s often better to pick up the phone or zoom.
How rough can my draft be?
‘There is a huge range in quality in the first drafts. Some writers ask for feedback earlier, and want to work together, which means they turn in a pretty rough draft. That can be fine, although it’s better to do it somewhat earlier than the deadline.’
As to story structures: I think it should be as simple as works for the story. When you’re telling a story, that often means chronological. There may be a lot of explanation to do, too. You can be blunt about it, and simply swap back and forth from story to explanation, or you can find more subtle ways to interweave them.
What doesn’t work, is complicating the story with lots of flash forwards or flashbacks. The reader loses track, and you waste words explaining where we are supposed to be.
Take edits like a professional
As a writer, you have to be able to take edits like a professional, that means: be courteous, assume good faith, and respond to the substance. Of course you can get frustrated when you get back your story, all bloody with comments. ‘As a freelancer I remember thinking: well this editor didn’t get this and this and this, what a moron!’
Generally, it’s best to wait a bit in that case. Go through the simple, straightforward edits first, to make the story less bloody, and let the larger points rest for a bit.
And yes, you can push back on some changes, editors are fallible like other humans. It even displays confidence and professionalism if you don’t go along with all edits blankly.
Edit my edits
‘Actually, I prefer that you respond to edits by rewriting in your own words. I find myself saying: ‘feel free to edit my edits’ about ten times a week.
‘What you cannot do is just drop the edit or only say: I liked my version better.’ Also annoying: don’t answer questions or comments in track changes but rewrite.
And One last peeve: ‘when you hand in stories with filenames ending in ‘final’, it makes me think: ‘we’ll see about that’. It sort of shows that you don’t know how the process is supposed to go.
Sometimes, despite everybody throwing their best at it, a story just doesn’t pan out. It can be a combination of the story, the writer, the editor, the publication, or the original idea just wasn’t solid. I will pay a writer in that case, except when someone has clearly underdelivered or didn’t file a story at all. And that one time when someone plagiarized a story: I don’t pay for plagiarism.
Extra work, extra pay?
Sometimes, a writer has to do more than originally envisaged: rewrite to a new plan, or expand on the story, so the story ends up longer than intended. Since the writer has to spend more time, I may end up paying the writer more.
But that doesn’t go for all extra work. The rule is: if you haven’t fulfilled the assignment yet, you may have to put in more hours, that is the cost of doing business. But if the assignment changes, more might be paid.
From the moment your pitch is accepted, and you’re reporting and writing the story, we have a business arrangement. But as soon as you turn in the story, and the editing starts, we’re partners in one endeavor: making the story better.
Thanks, Siri, for a great Q&A highlighting our relationships.