Exploring Editorial Niches: Conversations with Editors in the Environmental Communication Field

By Małgosia Halliop

When I started up my freelance business in 2021, I was keen to connect my experience in environmental and nature education with my writing and editing background. I decided to do what has always served me well as a learner: be curious and ask lots of questions.

So, I spoke to six editors who specialize in environmental communication. Sharon Boddy, Lorie Boucher, and Carolyn Brown are freelance editors and writers, while Wendy Ho, Gayle Roodman, and Christine Beevis Trickett all work for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) but came into editing and environmental communication from very different backgrounds. Four I spoke to by phone or video; two sent me their answers by email.

I started my research thinking that environmental editing might be too narrow a niche, and came away realizing that it was actually a pretty broad umbrella, with plenty of room for further specialization. However, I learned that many editors working in this field—particularly freelancers—also include writing, research, and project management in their skills portfolios.

Below are my main takeaways from these insightful conversations.

What do you like most about your current work? What are the challenges?

There was agreement among the editors I spoke with that one of the biggest challenges in this field is taking complex concepts and translating them for a lay audience. This also requires a commitment to keeping up with scientific research and the changing terminology around topics like biodiversity and climate change.

Carolyn Brown pointed out that heavily scientific reports often cannot be translated into plain language, but still need to be accessible to public policy experts and lay people with a university-level education. In this context, key messages and headline statements can be pulled out and presented at a high school reading level. Wendy Ho spoke of NCC aiming for a high school reading level in sharing scientific research on conservation and biodiversity.

Christine Beevis Trickett commented that NCC’s goal is to make conservation information inspiring and engaging: “I think we do a good job of it, but we constantly need to challenge ourselves to question our assumptions to make sure we’re communicating as clearly as possible.”

Several editors spoke of placing themselves in the role of the eventual audience as they worked with complex material. As Gayle Roodman wrote, “I don’t have a science background, but the advantage of that is that I use my knowledge, or lack thereof, as the barometer for whether a lay person will understand something.”

The joys of environmental editing were described as connected to its challenges: the stimulation of working with a wide variety of material, the fun of always learning something new, and the satisfaction of contributing to projects that can change people’s minds on important issues. As Sharon Boddy summed up, the highest praise from a client or reader is “I changed my behaviour because of what you wrote.”

Are there special skills, experiences, or other competencies that are needed or useful in environmental editing?

Because of the complexity and range of materials in this niche, editors agreed that a commitment to ongoing learning is crucial. The depth of scientific knowledge required can vary within the field. Carolyn Brown spoke of the need to get one’s head around the complexities of climate science, including the physical characteristics of climate change, when working with technical material on the topic. Science literacy is important at NCC, Wendy Ho told me, although some of it can be acquired once in the role.

At the same time, Christine Beevis Trickett wrote that “any good communicator doesn’t need to be an expert in the field they’re working in. They need to be able to read critically…, ask the right questions, and know where to find the answers.” However, “an interest in nature or conservation is also super important.” Lorie Boucher agreed that while keeping up with research and terminology has been important in her work, she’s also found that clients respond to passion in this field—often “your orientation will get you as far as your experience!”

In my conversations, I also asked how much editors in the environmental niche engage with the design elements of the material they work with. Everyone agreed that their work includes advising on the visual aspects of readability: laying out data on the page, defining terms in sidebars, knowing when to make an image do some work, and keeping up with best practices in design and visual presentation.

What advice would you give to beginning editors looking to work within an environmental niche?

The top advice from this group of editors reinforced their earlier points: read widely in the topics you’re interested in and keep up with issues and terminology. Sharon Boddy advises aspiring environmental editors to be self-teachers and self-learners and to always be curious and humble.

Her other tips were to learn to type fast—which she credits with saving her a lot of time as a writer—and become familiar with text accessibility guidelines and standards.

Wendy Ho noted the importance of editors staying current with best practices for search engine optimization when working with web content. 

Lorie Boucher gave a wealth of advice about finding paying clients as a freelance editor in this niche: market to larger organizations, government departments, and associations, which are stable entities that understand how much things cost; connect with people in the field through their writing or webinars; follow up with your interest in the work they’re doing. Go to the conferences where your clients are, and directly pitch to your ideal clients after first reading their annual reports or other material to glean insight on their future direction. If you’re more introverted, make sure to interact on social media.

I was reminded by these conversations that most people love talking about the work they do and sharing their stories. It was fun for me to speak to people who share my interests, learn from their experiences, and note down their advice. My own advice: reach out to people whose work you’re interested in. Be genuinely curious. Ask them who else they’d recommend you speak to. Thank them warmly afterwards. And stay in touch—these are your editing colleagues! 

More about the interviewees:

Sharon Boddy: Environmental writer, editor, and researcher. She came into writing and editing with an English degree, which she completed in her twenties after working for a copyright and trademark lawyer right after high school. She got a big break as a maternity leave replacement at Newswest, and as project manager for the Commuter Challenge campaign for a local non-governmental organization, where she met several of the clients she would work with over the years, including the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Transport Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, BC Hydro, Environment Canada, the City of Toronto and others. She’s also taught plain language and urban foraging.

Lorie Boucher: Freelance editor, writer, and publications manager. She completed an English degree and tried freelancing right after university, but found it hard to establish a business straight out of school. Instead, she got a job at a small communications consulting firm. She started getting work assigned in health and environment, worked with several government departments, and eventually became the “go to” for those kinds of projects. After seven years at the communications firm, she joined the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Green Municipal Fund, then was hired as director of creative services at Canadian Blood Services. Two years ago, she launched a consulting business specializing in both environment and health.

Carolyn Brown: Science communicator and publishing consultant. She started her editing career with a journalism degree and a diploma in public administration. Working in a communications role for the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada for two years taught her that she enjoyed talking about technical engineering projects. She began to target projects in science and nature, worked on journals for the Canadian Medical Association, and moved on to managing the journals program for the NRC Research Press. Out of forty years as a writer and editor, she’s worked freelance in the science, medical, and environmental niches for the last ten. As a freelance consultant, one of her recent projects was editing Canada’s Changing Climate Report for the Government of Canada.

Wendy Ho: Content Coordinator at NCC. She studied animal biology as an undergraduate, but didn’t initially consider science communication as a career. She tried biology research, but wanted to stay in the city, and turned towards other work. After volunteering with the World Wildlife Fund for a long time, she was hired as a communications assistant at NCC. Wendy now describes herself as a “museum curator of stories” at NCC: she manages content and mines stories from scientists and subject matter experts, encourages them to be science communicators and share their work and insights in plain language; then finds ways to share the written copy, reformat, and re-distribute through various NCC channels.

Gayle Roodman: Manager, Editorial Services, NCC. She started off in advertising and marketing, and made the switch to writing, content writing, and copy editing in the early 2000s. As an editor, she first worked in the world of sport: specifically, for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. She ran the editing department for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, and was a freelance editor for the Toronto Invictus Games. After Gayle’s move to Alberta, a friend sent her a job link that led to her current role at NCC. She wrote, “Despite having no previous experience in environmental/conservation editing, I got the job. My skills as an editor (and manager) were very transferable to the role.”

Christine Beevis Trickett: National Director, Editorial Services, NCC. She completed a master’s degree in environmental studies at York University after graduating with a BA in English and the equivalent of a minor in biology. Her area of concentration was environmental communication, specifically using plain language to communicate complex environmental issues to a lay audience. She served on the editorial board for the student journal, UnderCurrents, and volunteered as an editorial intern for Ontario Nature magazine (then called Seasons). Upon graduating, she was hired as a special projects officer in the Faculty of Environmental Studies and also joined Editors Canada. She transitioned into working in graduate recruitment, completed a certificate in magazine publishing, and in 2006 was hired by NCC as its publications coordinator. She has been there since, although her role has grown and changed.

Małgosia Halliop is a writer and editor focused on projects related to environment and education. She’s worked in academic publishing, university communications, and as a nature educator.

This article was copy edited by Ann Kennedy.

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