Annual Meeting Reports

Working with Authors: Moving Beyond the Impasse

The relationship between author and editor can be tenuous. In this session, three editors shared their experiences and offered advice for working with authors.

The traditional difficulties faced by editors are exacerbated by the current electronic culture of scientific writing, according to Elliott Churchill, retired senior communication officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Center for Global Health. Churchill, who is now an independent editor and trainer, said editors no longer have the luxury of sitting face to face with authors and building a relationship, so the basics of the author–editor relationship are even more critical.

Those basics, Churchill commented, include the editor’s role as teacher, cheerleader, and quality-control officer. Churchill recommended the single overriding communication objective (SOCO) concept. To identify the SOCO, ask authors to state their point in one sentence, she said, or, for more complex topics, ask them to explain their point within 5 minutes, starting with “once upon a time . . .”.

The effective presentation of the SOCO is a responsibility shared by author and editor, but coherence is the domain of the editor alone, Churchill indicated. Coherence includes clarity, concision, and completeness, she said, as well as whether the piece is compelling. Churchill’s advice: “One size does not fit all.” An audience is made up of people who have varied values, needs, and constraints, she stated, so editors should never settle for “the readers will understand.” Editors must speak for the portion of the readership that might not understand, for example, nonnative speakers or students.

“Editors ask the dumb questions so the readers don’t have to,” remarked Tim Palucka, a science writer and technical editor.

Palucka struggles with the busy schedules of researchers. He recommended “paying homage to the science”—being humble and empathetic to scientists. He uses “please” and “thank you” abundantly, and he gives authors as much time as possible to respond to queries. Palucka finds it prudent to instruct authors to acknowledge all queries so that he can be sure that all comments have been reviewed. He gets responses that are more useful when he suggests options for changes. Palucka also recommended wording the subject line of each e-mail message to the author to be specific and encouraging; for example, instead of only hitting “reply”, reword the subject line as “two final, minor questions on your manuscript”.

Retired editor Mauricio Rocha e Silva of the Brazilian journal Clinics spoke about the challenges of editing manuscripts from nonnative speakers. He focused his talk on Latin-language countries (those where French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish are spoken). Never tell Latin authors to have a “native English speaker” review their papers, he said; this statement is considered rude. An acceptable alternative is to advise authors to seek “professional language correction” or “professional copyediting”, he suggested.

Authors in Latin countries, Rocha e Silva said, have problems with prepositions, adjective use, and definite versus indefinite articles. Editors should handle those problems gently, he recommended, because they do not greatly interfere with comprehension. In contrast, he recommended harsh treatment (rejection or nonsubmission) for typographical errors.

Passive voice is another common problem: Passive voice is a powerful tool in Latin languages, Rocha e Silva noted, but the nuance is lost in translation. Rocha e Silva recommended clear but courteous correction of passive voice. “Don’t be shy,” Rocha e Silva said. “Insert a specific instruction to French-, Italian-, Portuguese-, Romanian-, and Spanishspeaking authors: No passive voice!”

Rocha e Silva advised that editors should also suggest strong titles, help authors to develop short abstracts, and remind authors to end their introductions with a one-phrase preview of the main point and start their discussions with a “pretty” one-sentence summary. Never guess what a mistranslation means, Rocha e Silva warned, even if you have bilingual colleagues to help you. And, he concluded, language improvement takes longer for a nonnative speaker, so be patient.