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Having worked at a Writing Centre in South Africa, I often receive requests from people either wanting me to edit their work or looking for advice about choosing editors. Postgraduate students, often with some sense of desperation due to looming deadlines, declare that they need an “editor”.  Here are seven key questions that can help you or your students identify what kind of help is needed to produce a closer to final version of the text.

1. Does your supervisor know you are looking for an editor? Many students contract the services of an editor without their supervisor’s knowledge.  Most South African universities do not have an explicit policy on the use of editors for postgraduate texts and opinions vary widely about whether the use of an editor is even ethical.  Check with your supervisor whether s/he would advise the use of an editor.  Failing to do this may result in major confrontations down the road.  Your supervisor may also be able to recommend someone they already work with (which is first prize!).  Alternatively, they may be able to help you create a “to do” list for your editor.

2. What kind of work do you expect your “editor” will do on your text?

  • Do  you want a comment on structure of argument and document? Many editors will comment on this, but refuse to fix it for you.  In my opinion, pointing out “gaps” or “jumps” is closer to supervision work than the kind of text work that an external editor should do on academic texts. I would be very cautious about editors who make substantial changes to the structure of text or a document.  From the student-writer’s perspective, an editor who makes substantial structural changes weakens your ownership of the work.  From the readers’ (supervisors, examination committees etc) perspectives, an editor who makes substantial structural changes makes it difficult to judge the student’s voice and perspective.
  • Do you want someone to correct spelling and grammar errors? Correcting errors is unlikely to upset anyone but what happens when it’s not an error, but a “better” way to say something? Would you like your editor to change word choices and sentence structures if s/he thinks they should be said differently? A skilled and judicious editor can make discipline appropriate changes that enhance the text while maintaining the writer’s voice and meaning.  A less thoughtful edit risks a rewritten piece that sounds nothing like the writer and is inappropriate for the discipline.
  • Do you want your editor to check general academic conventions? An editor can check in-text references against reference lists, or check for consistent use of a referencing system fairly easily and with little likelihood of straying near any major ethical lines. However, if you want your editor to check that you haven’t failed to reference something that should be referenced, you’re straying into murky waters! In the first instance, they might not have the disciplinary background to make this kind of judgement call. In the second, accurate and consistent referencing is a hallmark of sound academic writing that graduate students should demonstrate and the absence of this is cause for concern.
  • Do you want the editor to work on the appearance of your document? Some editors will typeset your document – standardizing fonts, ensuring that visual structure matches content structure etc, making the document neat and visually appealing.  This often costs a bit extra especially if you have lots of figures and images.  Check with your editor whether they will be doing this.

3.  What kind of work do you think you will need to do on the text afterwards?

If all you’re expecting to do is hit print after an editor sends you back your document, think again! Budget at least a week or two after an edit to prepare a document for a final print.  You’ll need to look over all the changes, implement or reject them and check some of those changes with a supervisor.  All that takes time!

4. How do I choose an editor?

  • Check if they have experience with academic editing
  • Check if they have edited at this level (Masters, PhD etc) before
  • Check if they have a background in the the same or a cognate discipline
  • Ask them to edit a page or two of your text and return it to you
  • Decide if you like how they deal with your text
  • Confirm, in writing, work schedules, rates and payment schedules

5. Have you worked out a timeline and process with your editor?

Please be realistic about how much time you give your editor to edit. A good/ generous rule of thumb for an editor is a chapter every two days. Faster than this and your text will neither get their best attention nor the reread with a fresh mind that most editors like to give. Proofreaders can work faster than this.

In terms of editing process, some people like to send the whole document at once and have it returned at once.  I like to develop a bit of a relationship with the people I read for, so I am happy to receive a chapter at a time and return it a chapter at a time.  This way we can build in more feedback for each other.  So if I flag a change in the first chapter I receive but the writer really wants it that way, I don’t need to unnecessarily flag it through the rest of the document.  I like to get a methods chapter early, as soon as it is written. Methods are unlikely to change and this is often the easiest chapter for writer’s to produce so it gives me a good sense of what they might want to sound like. Any grammatical or syntactical idiosyncrasies that I pick up, I can flag and the writer can fix as they write the rest.

6. Have you thought about working on hardcopy vs e-copy and the consequences of this?

Check with your potential editors whether they work on hardcopy or e-copy. E-copy seems to lend itself to quicker turnaround times after editing, but doesn’t always produce as detailed a reading, so little errors (spelling etc) may creep through. Hardcopy means printing and dropping off or printing and scanning –  either way, a slight schlep.

7.  Are there any particular conventions/ breaking of conventions you might want your editor to know about?

Create (perhaps using google docs so you can both constantly add to it) a style sheet that lists these choices.  It might be something like opting for British spelling over American, or a space or lack of a space between numbers and units, or quotes in italics or something else fairly low level.  In some disciplines there is a fair amount of leeway given so that researchers can express particular experiences in the field and it’s best to make this clear to an editor up front so that they don’t, for example, “correct” to standard English the grammar of all your interviewees.

While working your way through these questions is likely to smooth out the worst of the hitches, few editing relationships are ever pain free! Successful conclusions seem to be a result of regular, explicit and honest communications between all parties involved.