Finding the Right Academic Editor

In my previous post on “Why Scholars Should Never Write Alone,” I discussed the option of working with a professional editor as one way to improve the quantity and quality of your academic writing. One major advantage to finding the right academic editor over sending work to a colleague or joining a writing group is that you can tailor the relationship to your specific needs, such as the exact type of editing that you’re looking for as well as your personal deadlines and budget.

For example, some of my clients are prolific writers and send me new work to review on a regular basis. These clients often need heavy copyediting and a fairly quick turn-around. Others check in a couple of times a year with new book chapters or articles. In these cases, they are looking for substantive editing based, in part, on my familiarity with their previous work. Deadlines on these projects tend to be relatively flexible. Some are new clients who have completed an entire manuscript and need light copyediting–they want to ensure that their work is as polished as possible before sending it off to be scrutinized by an acquisitions editor and peer reviewers. As for budgets, some of my clients pay out-of-pocket, but a fair number utilize departmental and university monies to support their research and writing.

But what exactly is academic editing and how do you go about finding a good fit for your particular needs?

Types of Academic Editing

Good academic editors want to collaborate with their client to produce a clean, well-argued, and appropriately cited work. These editors work to enhance their client’s writing through suggested revisions and thoughtful feedback as opposed to substantially rewriting the author’s original work. Although there are certainly variations, there are two main types of academic editing: basic copyediting and substantive editing. Both serve different purposes but are not mutually exclusive.

Ideally, basic copyediting is a step that comes toward the very end of the writing process or the manuscript stage. Some academic writers actually derail their progress by worrying too early about mechanical errors, such as consistent capitalization, grammatical errors, language inconsistencies, or the creation of letter-perfect citations. However, it is once the document has been through several drafts that it is time to turn attention to issues of accuracy and consistency.

Editors typically divide copyediting into three groups:

    • language (issues of punctuation, grammar, and syntax)
    • mechanical (conformity to a specific style manual, e.g., Chicago or APA)
    • content (consistency within the overall structure and organization of the work)

For most of my basic copyediting work, I suggest revisions using Word’s “Track Changes” feature with only the occasional “Comment” to confirm that I have not affected the original meaning of the sentence, to alert the author to a recurring problem, or to query structural or organizational inconsistencies.

Substantive or developmental editing serves a different purpose than basic copyediting and ideally comes much earlier in the writing process. This level of editing deals with issues of argumentation, voice, flow, and clarity. It can also involve feedback on how to reorganize or even restructure the work under review.

An aspect of academic writing that folks sometimes struggle with is demonstrating their work’s importance beyond their specific topic. The well-known proverb that not every story is worth telling comes to mind. Whether it’s for a journal article or a book manuscript, acquisitions editors are looking for authors that clearly articulate their work’s unique contributions. Or what is often described as the “so what?” question. Looking at the work with a fresh pair of eyes, academic editors can help authors to identify and strengthen their work’s broader significance.

How to Find a Qualified Academic Editor

Although there is no shortage of freelance editors, finding an academic editor who fits your specific needs can be a challenge. Putting the question of money aside for the moment, there are three major considerations for identifying a qualified academic editor. First and foremost, you want to identify someone with experience and a reputation for professionalism. Fortunately, there are several professional organizations geared directly towards those in the editorial professions. One that I personally belong to is the Editorial Freelancers Association. If you have a specific project in mind, you can post directly to the EFA’s job list or search their directory. One of the best things about their directory–besides being free and open to the public–is that you can search by skills and specialties. Other good options are the American Copy Editors Society and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, which is geared specifically to UK scholars.

Another consideration is whether or not a potential editor has any academic writing experience of their own. Academic writing–like any genre–has its own set of rules and expectations. Therefore, it makes sense that you want to find someone with experience as both an editor and as a scholar.

A third issue to consider during your search is whether or not a potential editor has training in your specific field. I don’t think this is a deal breaker, but hiring an editor with specialized knowledge of your subject area is a definite plus. A non-negotiable, of course, is whether or not they are familiar with your specific style guide, e.g., Chicago, MLA, and APA.

A final consideration–and one that is less tangible–is to find someone who is enthusiastic about your work or at least about academic writing generally. As you begin to get to know potential editors through email or over the phone, do they convey any professional or personal interest in your topic? While no one is going to be as passionate about your topic as you are–or at least were when you started–do they bring a sense of energy and enthusiasm to the project? You don’t have to be long-lost soul mates, but it is important to have a good rapport with your editor since they will have the delicate job of finding your mistakes and suggesting revisions.

What to Ask When You’re Hiring an Academic Editor

You’ve done your research and think you’ve found someone who appears to be both qualified and collegial, but there are still some important questions to ask.

(1) If the potential editor is not someone who has been directly recommended to you, request at least two references. Even if you never contact them, an editorial professional should be able to give you the names and contact information for two previous clients.

(2) Inquire about a potential editor’s process and make sure it fits your needs. What kind of software do they typically use and how flexible (or not) are they? Do you want your editor’s changes to be tracked or permanently inserted into the document? How do you want your editor to communicate written feedback–using “Comments” in the text itself or creating a separate document?

Pro Tip: Reputable editors will provide a short sample edit (typically free) to get a sense of the type of editing that will be required for your specific project as well as to give you a sense of what to expect in terms of feedback. Do not skip this step! If this is not something that your editor automatically offers during the “interview” process, do not be afraid to ask.

(3) And for many folks, one of the most important questions: how much is all of this going to cost? An experienced editor should be able to provide a good-faith estimate in writing before the job is started. If you are truly looking for someone who is qualified and reputable, you need to be willing to pay a fair rate for their expertise. The Editorial Freelancers Association’s guidelines for editorial services is an excellent place to get a sense of what you should expect to pay. Beware of editors who offer bargain basement rates–remember, you usually get what you pay for.

Don’t forget that a good editor will be open to discussing the type of editing that best fits your specific project and will share your goal of creating a clean, clear document that showcases your best academic writing.

If you are interested in finding an academic editor who specializes in the humanities and social sciences, I hope that you will consider MargaretEdits.

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