Editing a Primer

Kristina Maria Kareh, a senior editor at the newly-launched Nature Reviews Methods Primers, shares her thoughts on Primer editing.
Published in Protocols & Methods
Editing a Primer

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At Nature Reviews, all articles are extensively edited. While other Nature Reviews editors have talked about the editing process better than I could ever do (‘Why we edit’ by the editors at Nature Reviews Physics), the nature and specific format of a Primer make it a slightly different beast in terms of how editors approach it.

Editing input comes at different points during the process of commissioning a Primer to taking it to publication. While quite some time is usually spent working with the lead author on the Primer outline, the bulk of an editor’s job starts when there a complete initial submission to work with. When a commissioned Primer has been put together, it is officially submitted to the journal by the lead author but it doesn’t immediately go out to peer review. Instead, editors are the ones who take a stab at it first.

At Nature Reviews Methods Primers, our aim is for Primers to be introductory and authoritative overviews of methods or techniques that include best practices on experimentation, analysis, and applications — we hope to reach general, non-specialist readers who are not yet familiar with a particular method.  Because the handling editor will not usually be of the same scientific background as the authors, they make the perfect general reader: they are already interested in the method and yet they are unlikely to have more than a passing familiarity with it or with the concepts introduced in the Primer.

In general, the first phase of the editorial feedback results in the most comments. The role of the editor here is not to look at grammar or sentence construction; instead, we want to make sure that all the necessary concepts are introduced and explained in both the main text and the figures, that each sentence and figure offers new information to the reader in a clear and understandable way, and that ideas and paragraphs flow in a logical manner, leading a novice reader seamlessly from new concepts to natural conclusions. The rigid structure of a Primer together with its set headings inevitably means that Primers will follow a guided flow — this can mean significant paragraph rearrangement to make the text fit the Primer mould and make sure concepts are introduced and expanded upon in the correct sections, as well as filling in sections that may have emptied as a result of an editor’s Tetris® rearrangement. These large-scale edits can be mitigated, in part, by working together with the editor on a detailed outline and making sure all authors stick to it during writing. 

Editors tend to ask a lot of questions: ‘what does this mean? Can you clarify here? Please expand on this statement for the general reader.’ The aim is not to make authors do more work, write more, or completely rewrite a section. Instead, it is to make authors take a step back at a specific place in the Primer, consider a particular sentence or a particular paragraph, and think: ‘this article is supposed to be introductory. Would I explain this concept to a new PhD student this way?’ Usually, a few clarifying words or sentences are enough to improve the flow of the article and turn that idea into something a general reader would more easily grasp.

I would be lying if I said this first editorial feedback stage was painless. It can be difficult to be on the receiving end of editorial criticism, which is compounded by the length of Primer articles. However, review editors only want the best for every manuscript they handle: after all, these reviews are usually commissioned and their authors handpicked, and the goal is to see them to publication as soon as possible. In the end, the more time spent constructively addressing editorial queries, the likelier the Primer will coast through peer review and subsequent line-editing.     

The line-edit stage after peer review is where editors look at style, sentence construction, and grammar. It is about making sure the writing is scientifically accurate and as clear as possible, and that the manuscript adheres to the Nature Reviews house style. This can be something as trivial as writing out element names to rewriting entire sentences for clarity and readability. Because a Primer is composed of multiple sections usually authored by different people, editors aim to harmonise the writing style between the different Primer sections and can be a bit more heavy-handed with their edits (in contrast to conventional Reviews articles, where being true to the authors’ voice is preferred).

When editing, editors don’t make changes lightly: all edits are specific and are always done for a reason. If authors don’t understand why certain edits have been made, or if they disagree, just reach out to the editor! Maybe the editor has misunderstood a part of the Primer; or maybe the authors have misunderstood an editor’s request. In either case, communicating is key to making constructive changes and working together to successfully see a Primer to publication.

Image by Alexander Stein from Pixabay.

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