Confession time. Illustrators are people, too. And by that I mean they bring assumptions to the table at the outset of every project. There’s no avoiding it - no matter how educated and experienced you are, you can’t know it all. That is why it is so critical for researchers and editors to be intimately involved in every draft of the drawings they commission and publish. This may sound like a mega no-brainer, especially if you’re an editor or art director in a field other than in the sciences who is accustomed to working intimately with illustrators to get what you want. But in my experience illustrating two popular non-fiction science books, illustrations are treated as icing on the cake and are glossed over by fact checkers and editors who otherwise comb manuscripts for errors. Illustrating Your Inner Fish is a prime example. The manuscript went through four drafts of revisions with at least two specialized scientific editors. And yet this gaffe made it through:
You’re all a bunch of savvy science readers. Can you guess the gaffe?
GUAAAAAAGH!! Left-handed DNA!!!!! How did we let this slip?! And notice I say “we?” I’m not trying to shirk responsibility here, but authors have editors for exactly this reason: to catch this kind of "typo" in the text. Why not extend this practice to the figures and illustrations as well? While Shubin’s text got put through the fine-toothed comb of four professional editors, I got precisely ZERO technical comments on my illustrations from the editors (Shubin, to his great credit, was very involved in the conception and direction of each image, but just as he got editors for his text, he should have been offered the same level of scrutiny of his figures). I suspect that part of this stemmed from the fact that it was Shubin's vision, not the publisher's, that the images would be so integral to the text. As it were, I was left to conclude that my illustrations were either spectacularly fabulous, amazing, and perfect or... Wait a sec, guys, could ya look at them, like, for reals?
From my perspective, in the absence of editorial input, I should have run this and the other illustrations by independent parties on my own - but thinking back, I'm not sure this would have been appreciated, given the confidential nature of working drafts. So in this light, wouldn’t it make sense for the editors already assigned to the job to consider the illustrations as carefully as they do the text? I'd be curious to hear others' experiences with similar projects, but for both popular non-fiction science books I have illustrated, my contact was solely with the author. I was very much removed from the entire editorial process. This works ok (after all, errors slipped through the text as well), but it could be so much better.
So let this be a call to action. If you are an editor for science publications, please, please, puh-leeeeease look as critically at the illustrations and figures your authors submit as you do at their text. And feel free to contact us directly, too. We are working as hard as your authors, trying to convey ideas cleanly, concisely, and accurately. We are not just providing superfluous eye candy.
It shames me to post this but at least I’m one of many. The Left-Handed DNA Hall of Fame keeps track of examples of left-handed DNA it finds on the web. Have a lookie. Kind of a fun time, if it doesn’t remind you of that painful gaffe you made back in 2008...