During the final week of my summer internship with Dartmouth Medicine magazine I was asked to write a letter of advice for future interns. This activity really helped me to reflect on the principles that had been strengthened or instilled in me during the past ten weeks. Much of my education came through the most painful part in the writing process – editing. Here are a few of the words of wisdom I passed on to future science writers:
First, no one cares what the writer of a news article, science or otherwise, thinks about the subject matter they’re writing about. Of course an interest in the writing topic makes the task easier for the author and probably more enjoyable for the reader in the end, but the author’s job is to be a mouth-piece for the truth, not a commentator. Journalists are story-tellers, but they rarely ever tell their own stories.
So, this truth frequently implies that the finalized article will not be in the author’s voice. I’ve seen so many rookies who simply couldn’t cope with this truth, but as a news writer, I’ve had to reconcile myself to it. This summer, I watched my articles be conformed to the voice of the publication and realized this often brought improvement. The magazine editors knew their readers well, and understood how to communicate to them effectively. I learned to be content with a revision as long as the information conveyed was clear and interested to the reader.
Finally, science and news writers must understand what’s really worth fighting for in the editing process. My beautiful word picture or “exciting” adjectives are not worth a confrontation with those above me. However, accurate communication of the truth, of the subject’s story, and of the facts that are important to the reader is always worth fighting for. Scientific experiments are often complex, and even a few simplifications or rewordings can skew the reader’s understanding of what happened and what it means. The great thing about a publication like Dartmouth Medicine is that it places such a strong emphasis on accuracy, and I really didn’t have to fight for these values as much as I had to point out where miscommunications could lie.
So, in summary, this summer I learned that I cannot and should not go into science writing in order to “express myself.” I must go into it to tell the stories of researchers accurately and convey discoveries to audiences in clear and interesting ways. The good thing in my case is I have every confidence that scientific advances, and scientists themselves, are far more captivating than anything I could ever dream up. Truly, there was nothing I’d have rather written about this summer.