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Careers for Scientists – Editor & Proofreader

Looking for a new direction in your career? Well you’ve come to the right place. This is the second interview in our new series of articles that focus on careers for scientists.  We’ll be looking at jobs that are off-the-beaten-track (and sometimes on no track at all) and ones that are certainly not on the standard career guide for graduates.

To kick off the series, Nick interviewed me on my new job as Editorial Manager with Bitesize Bio and I’ve been doing the same with people who have really interesting backgrounds and a career that we’re sure you’ll be keen to read about.  This week I spoke with Michael LaRocca, one of our new staff writers for Bitesize Bio.  Here’s what he had to say when I talked to him about his work…

Michael, you describe yourself as an editor and a proofreader. And what exactly is it that you do?

Authors email me their documents. I look at them with a “fresh set of eyes” and improve whatever needs improving. Lengths have ranged from 75 words to over 100,000 and topics are likewise all over the place. My improvements range from typos to overhauling for clarity – just whatever I think is needed.

I live in Asia, which is 12 hours ahead of EST. That gives me two advantages. One, people in the Americas can send me documents at the end of their business day and get the corrected version the following morning (but not for 100,000 words). Two, the lower cost of living in Asia helps me keep my prices down.

Would you tell us a bit about your background?

The long version would take ages. The short version includes 20 years of working with technical, academic and business documents; 40 years of writing fiction; 10 years with an engineering firm in the US; 4 years lecturing in the medical department of Chiang Mai University in Thailand; and several years of experience in an artificial insemination laboratory.

What do you like about your job?

I’ve always been addicted to reading, so there’s that. Working at home has definite advantages for a certain personality type, namely mine. I prioritize what I do without having to convince anybody to agree with me. There’s no busy work around here, no need to impress anyone but myself, no quarterly evaluation where I have to justify my existence to someone who may not be fully aware of what I do. I absolutely improve everything I edit or proofread, every single time, and can take pride in how well I do that. I haven’t driven anything with a motor since December 1999.

Technical editing is a hot career choice for many scientists who are looking to move away from the bench. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to make this move?

The work is very enjoyable. As a scientist, I’ll assume you’ve worked on a manuscript so much that you feel “I can’t even see it straight anymore.” Then you get an outside opinion and suddenly it all makes sense. Remember how grateful you were to that editor? Imagine making people feel that grateful to you all day every day. That’s pleasure.

(This is how I react when someone edits one of my novels).

On the other hand, how do you get started? I honestly have no idea. I know how I got started. A friend introduced me to a friend who was hiring. Chiang Mai University’s teaching hospital was my “in”, and the doctors and medical students there recommended me to colleagues. Do you have a network like that? If so, can you use that network without acting like or feeling like some pushy salesman who’s using your friends? Be honest with yourself.

Looking back on what you have done in your career, which bits help you most in your job now?

Being thrown into situations where I had no clue what I was doing or supposed to be doing. Is that vague enough for you? I learned scientific procedure from the engineering firm. I learned medical procedure from the AI lab on an all-Latino hog farm where nobody spoke English. I learned advanced English language skills through the Advanced Placement program in high school plus 40 years of hammering away at novels. I learned editing when I was thrown in the deep end feet first, and every trial involved much error, and my boss did a runner without paying anybody.

When you were reading what I just wrote, did you think, “What? All-Latino hog farm without English? What?” I hope so.

We can all look at what our job is or want it to be, pick up the right skill set, and excel in that. But odds are most assignments will have something unknown about them. Certainly the most challenging and enjoyable will.

In editing, every job is different but I’ll always use the same skill set. Without the confidence that comes from regularly “overcoming all the weird stuff,” I don’t know that I could “sell myself” to authors who need my services, with quiet honest confidence instead of false promises and guesswork.

If I asked you for a favourite quote, what would it be?

It depends on my mood when you ask. Clarence Darrow’s never killed a man but has read many obituaries with great pleasure. Frank Lloyd Wright wants to take dangerous weapons away from fools, starting with typewriters. Jonathan Swift notes that you can’t change the wind but you can change the direction of your sails. Lao Tzu notes that nature never hurries but everything gets done.

And to sum up – what three pieces of advice would you give a scientist who is looking to move into editing?

Buy my book, buy my book, and buy my book? No, probably not.

My chosen niche is work-at-home editor. I did this part-time for several years before “quitting my day job” and doing nothing except editing from home. It’s an ideal field for such a transitional approach. Your only investment is a good computer system, which I bet you already have, and your time. So test the waters first. Be sure that this type of work is right for you, and that you feel confident about trusting it as your sole career, before you make that commitment. Also, you might find it easier to specialize more than I do. So my first piece of advice is probably common sense.

Number two, ask yourself how well you communicate your scientific information and endeavours to people outside your field. If you don’t have that skill, develop it. Whether you choose technical editing or technical writing, you’ll need it.

Number three is blindingly obvious. Do you have the English skills to make the transition? The most brilliant engineer I’ve ever worked with will never in his wildest dreams be an editor. Fortunately, he knows it. That’s how I got my first editing job. More specifically, if you’ve got some weak spots in grammar – and we all do – become aware of them, and learn how to correct them. If those weak spots are really all that you feel is holding you back from editing or proofreading, then you should do well as an editor and proofreader. All the other skills, like salesmanship or accounting or self-motivation, are easy enough to pick up as you need them. But maybe the inherent ability to improve someone’s written communication without hating your life is something you’ve got to be born with.

If you want to know about a particular person’s work experience that is perhaps a little bit different from the norm, just let us know – we’d love to interview them for you.  Watch this space…

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