Explainer: preparing to be professionally edited

There’s a lot of confusion out there in PhD land about the role of professional editors. A dissertation document is basically a book. In the professional publishing world an editor would automatically be employed for this size of project. Editors can be expensive, but in my experience, totally worth the spend. However, this is not a decision you should make at the last minute. To get the most for your money it’s important to be prepared for the editing process.

I want to thank Karin Hosking for sending in this excellent explainer. Karin Hosking is a Canberra-based editor, proofreader and research assistant. She specialises in thesis editing and particularly enjoys working with students and academics from non-English speaking backgrounds. Her LinkedIn profile is here and she can be contacted via email at chezkaz@gmail.com.

Every document deserves an extra set of eyes! Some students ask a friend or relative to proofread their thesis for them, some cross their fingers and hope for the best, and some use a professional editor. Most of the students who use my editing services are from non-English language backgrounds, and in some cases the editing is subsidised (or fully funded) by their school or college.

The purpose of editing is to remove distractions so that your research is communicated clearly and effectively. Will you use a professional editor for your thesis? If so, what do you need to know about the editing process?

Don’t leave it till the last minute
Recently I received an email from an international student at the ANU. Her thesis supervisor had recommended she get her work edited (in her words: ‘my supervisor … told me I need an active editor who can rewrite many of patchy sentences and coordinate closely with me’), and another advisor at the ANU had recommended me. However, she wanted the work done immediately. The thesis was due for submission in one week.

I replied that I couldn’t help in her time frame (most good editors are booked out weeks, if not months, in advance) and suggested a few other local editors, though my guess is that they wouldn’t have been able to help at such short notice either. It’s disappointing to receive last-minute requests from people I’d like to help but can’t. So, please leave enough time for the editing process. You’ve been working on your thesis for years; please allow your editor two weeks with it. Editing requires intense concentration so works best when spread out rather than squashed into a small amount of time.

Editing ≠ rewriting
Australia’s universities put their heads together a few years ago and agreed on a set of guidelines for editing research theses. You can see them here. The guidelines outline ‘the extent and nature of editorial services that professional editors can provide when editing research students’ theses and dissertations’.

Most universities have their own variant of the guidelines (for example, at the ANU) but essentially they spell out what professional editors may, and may not, do when editing theses. We are allowed to check spelling, grammar and consistency; we are not allowed to rewrite, reorganise or reformat your work. We’re also meant to make suggested changes into your document but then return it to you in pdf format so you can consider whether to implement each change rather than just accepting the edits.

How to prepare for editing
Ideally the editing process should take place right at the end of the writing process. After you’ve written all the chapters, after you’ve prepared the front matter and end matter and references, after all your supervisors have given feedback and you’ve incorporated their suggestions. It is also more efficient if your editor gets to work on the whole thesis at once, rather than chapter by chapter.

What else should you do to prepare? If your university, school or college has a style guide or manual, please provide a copy of this to your editor. A style guide lists the institution’s preferred ways of dealing with things like layout, quotations, referencing, punctuation, spelling, figures and tables. While you should already have used the style guide in preparing your thesis, it will be a handy source for the editor to check anything that looks doubtful or odd.

You should also prepare a style sheet for your editor. A style sheet is a short document summarising any ‘rules’ you’ve followed in your thesis that you need the editor to be aware of. For example, did you consult a particular dictionary? How should numbers and dates be expressed? If you’ve used any unusual words in your thesis (indeed … who doesn’t?) make an alphabetical list of them so your editor knows they’re meant to be there and, say, knows whether they should be capitalised or hyphenated.

We’re here to help
Where can you find an editor for your thesis? Word of mouth recommendations are common. Maybe your school, college, or research supervisor knows a good editor. Maybe a friend who has already submitted their thesis can recommend one. Many editors are listed on editing societies’ websites such as this National Australian resource list or local lists, like this one for Canberra. Most will be happy to provide a no-obligation quote if you provide a sample chapter or two, an estimated word count, and an idea of your time frame.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions … we are here to help!

Related Posts

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Should I get an editor for my thesis?

13 thoughts on “Explainer: preparing to be professionally edited

  1. Gillian Ray-Barruel says:

    Thanks, Karin. I’m a Registered Nurse with a PhD in English Literature, and I’ve been editing part-time for over 10 years (mostly health related work), in addition to working full-time.
    I’m also an academic thesis editor, and I agree with the suggestions you make in your article. Many students underestimate how long it can take to do a thorough editing job. In addition to the student’s thesis and university style guide, I request a copy of the student’s EndNote library.
    On another note, have you done the IPEd accreditation exam? I’ve considered doing it, but haven’t done so yet. I’m wondering if you have thoughts on this?

    • Karin says:

      Hi Gillian … yes, I have passed the IPEd accreditation exam. I’m also a BELS-certified science editor (http://www.bels.org/). I’ve found that passing the two exams has helped in two ways: I feel more confident about my skills, and some (though not all) potential clients prefer their editor to be accredited. Plus, it’s a fun challenge … the IPEd exam is a LOT of work to get through in a relatively short time! Good luck with it.

      Best wishes

  2. Martin Davies says:

    The editing of PhD theses is a vexed issue as it depends what constitutes ‘editing’.

    Supervisors – good ones anyway—edit to some extent as part of their brief, but this is not the same kind of extensive editing that a professional editor would do. ‘Proofreading’ is different again. (I like to say that in the case of editing one reads forwards looking for ‘sense’; but proofreading may be done backwards—i.e., from the last page to the first—looking for residual errors.) Most students need ‘proofreading’ as well as ‘editing’ (i.e., someone to find all the mistakes that escaped the editing process, but they also want help with overall clarity, structure and ‘sense’/meaning as well).

    No university permits paid proofreading *in theory* at least (it has to be the students’ work), and some even allow editing only in ‘exceptional circumstances’. See for example, the University of Melbourne’s statute:

    7.3. Assistance from third parties, whether paid or voluntary, will only be permitted in exceptional circumstances and must be limited to editorial intervention in accordance with the following standards of the The Australian Standards for Editing Practice:
    • Standard D: Language and Illustrations
    • Standard E: Completeness and Consistency.
    7.4. Any third-party assistance provided to the student in the preparation of the thesis must be declared in the preface of the thesis.

    To what extent should an editor help a student with ‘language issues’? This is what the “Standard” says:

    “Professional editorial intervention should be restricted to copyediting and proofreading. This type of advice is covered in Parts D and E of the Standards. In relation to matters of substance and structure (Part C), the professional editor may draw attention to problems, but should not provide solutions. Examples may be offered in order to guide the student in resolving problems.”

    So an editor can only draw attention to language issues, and not fix them–they can only copyedit, looking for mistakes and residual errors.

    I suspect these are rules honored in the breach rather than the observance, and a lot of extensive paid editorial support happens anyway. Many students could not get through without it. Still, in most cases it is against the rules as a lot of extensive editing and proofreading reflect the skill of the editor/proofreader and not the student. It becomes a case of: ‘who’s work is it?’

  3. Udesh says:

    Wonderful article! I have a doctorate in Biomedical Engineering and during my candidature I helped a lot of fellow colleagues to write, proof-read, organize or provide ideas on structure of their research articles. Although this post is majorly related to thesis editing, it provided me with an alternate job prospect, as a professional Editor. Cheers!

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