Specialist Q&A – science and natural history editing

Specialist Q&AOur editorial industry is made up of people carrying out a huge range of tasks across many different sectors. Although we are bound by common aims – to make text consistent, accurate and clear – our chosen areas of work can differ in fascinating ways.

Liz Drewitt is a freelance proofreader, copy-editor and writer. She has answered some questions on her main specialism: science and natural history editing.

  1. Briefly, what’s your work background?

I have a degree in zoology and a master’s in animal behaviour. After several years of volunteer conservation and survey work abroad, I worked for five years as a writer for a leading wildlife charity, writing and editing content for their website as well as marking and editing student projects and helping to run the charity’s social media channels.

  1. How long have you specialised in this particular kind of editorial work, and how did you get started?

I started my first part-time freelance work in 2012, and have been freelance full-time since 2013. My first few jobs involved writing and proofreading for a couple of clients I found through friends and other contacts – one is now my main client. As my experience and client list have grown I have been able to focus more on my specialism, mainly taking on science-related work.

  1. What specific knowledge, experience or qualifications do you need?

Although general editing and proofreading skills will get you a long way, a good knowledge of biology and of scientific concepts and terminology is important, particularly for more academic books, research papers and student theses. However, I also work on more general interest natural history books and magazines, so it’s also useful to know how to communicate science in an accessible way.

Some of the main issues I look out for are mistakes in Latin names and in the use of scientific terms, problems with referencing, and sometimes more serious factual errors – all things that could easily be missed if you’re not familiar with the subject.

  1. How do you go about finding work in this area?

I’ve found many of my clients through word of mouth – for example, by being passed on by friends who work in the wildlife world, some of whom have been writing books themselves. I’ve also approached publishers who specialise in my field, as well as offering my services to wildlife and conservation groups, and have taken on a few students via my website or through personal recommendations.

  1. What do you most enjoy about the work?

I’m passionate about my subject, so it’s a way of being paid to read my favourite books! I also love learning more about the natural world, and enjoy connecting with authors who are experts in their subject and have fascinating insights to share.

  1. What are the particular challenges?

My greatest challenge is usually reference lists – they can be fiddly and time-consuming to edit, though I do get a sense of satisfaction at getting them into shape.

  1. What’s the worst job you’ve had – and/or the best?

My most challenging jobs have usually involved long, detailed academic books, as these can be complex and sometimes a bit dry. Authors and students are often keen to make their writing sound ‘scientific’, but I have to help ensure it’s also readable.

BioBlitz butterflyOne of my favourite jobs is proofreading a quarterly magazine for a wildlife charity – it’s always inspiring to read about the conservation work they’re doing. I also love working on books where I get to learn something new. Field guides are particularly useful for brushing up on my species identification skills, and I recently got to copy-edit a book that combined nature with one of my other passions – art!

  1. What tips would you give to someone wanting to work in this field?

Taking a couple of courses with the SfEP and the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) is one of the best decisions I’ve made. It allowed me to improve not only my skills but also my confidence, and has helped me to make sure I’m doing my job to the best of my ability.

If you’re into a subject like science, I would recommend using any links you have with people you already know in the field – you never know who they might be able to pass you on to. And read, a lot – it never hurts to know as much as you can about the type of material you want to work on.

  1. What is the pay like – and are there any other perks?

I usually find that the pay from publishers works out on the low side, and I almost always get offered a flat rate regardless of the time the work actually takes. However, I do get to stock my shelves with a fantastic array of nature books!

  1. What other opportunities do you think editorial work in this area might lead to?

I’m keen to take on more writing work alongside the proofreading and editing, and have plans for a nature-related book of my own. Having seen things from an editor’s point of view, I will hopefully be in a better position to improve how I approach my own writing.

Liz DrewittLiz Drewitt is a Professional Member of the SfEP, specialising in proofreading and copy-editing natural history and science. She works on a range of material, from detailed species monographs to field guides, popular science books, magazines, reports and student theses. Liz has also written magazine articles and keeps a wildlife blog, and is an aspiring wildlife artist.

You can find Liz on her website at www.natureedit.com, on LinkedIn, or chatting about nature on Twitter.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

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