Lessons Learned from Academic Editing

mr pish mortarboardLong ago, before I’d thought about writing (and long before the internet and eBooks), I needed a spot of extra income. It had to be a job I could do from home at night, what with the whole single-parent thing, so I took a course in proofreading and copy-editing. Those were the days of the marvellous red pen and lovely squiggles in the margins…yeah, I took to it. I worked mostly with academic departments and non-fiction publishers in England, learned my trade, advanced to pukka editing and earned my extra pennies.

Years later, when similarly in need of a boost to the earnings, I thought about going back to the red pen. I was, however, resident in North America by this time and completely unaware that this might pose a problem beyond the bonkers spelling. I applied for a proofreading job at a local advertising company and toddled along to do their ‘little test’. Who knew? They used different squiggles! I failed utterly and decided that my editing days were over.

That has all changed now thanks to computers. Happily, in the 21st century all you need to know about is MS Word’s Track Changes, and how to make comments and you’re away. So, I’ve been editing again, indie authors to start with, and then a dabble back in academic circles. After the latest Ph.D. thesis left the desk I remarked to a pal, ‘Oh I do love academics, they have no ego.’ I immediately felt bad, I love my author clients, and most of them have no ego either, we all just want the best possible product. So was the difference just in my head? An assumption that academics are less concerned with style and more about accuracy? I set to pondering the differences between the work of editing fiction and academia and realised that they are in what I do, not how the writer responds. Thinking about it has not only helped me become a better editor, I think it may have helped me as a writer too. So, here are a couple of things I am going to bear in mind from now on:

Spotting behaviour patterns.

With academic work I can always tell when the writer is tired. I can almost visualise them slumped over the keyboard, head in hand, snaffling a sip of the glass of wine they’ve promised themselves for later on and thinking, ‘Just write the rest of this section, then you can stop.’ The sentences get longer and longer, the tenses mix and match, the ten-word purpose of the study gets pasted into every clause, sometimes twice, just to make sure it’s all specific enough and the result is an unreadable mess. I tend to pop a comment in the margin, ‘You were tired when you wrote this bit?’ The hapless student is so impressed that I can see into their head that they work through the dozens of suggested changes without complaint.

I can spot similar patterns with fiction writers but for different reasons. As the pace of the action picks up and things get exciting, dangerous or steamy…the writer picks up speed too. As the writing gets faster it changes, and not always for the better. Sentences get longer, clauses merge into each other, little words are lost in the hurry to get it all down. Until recently I have just filled the margin with notes suggesting breaking sentences for more impact, adding lost words, fixing tenses and querying muddles, but even the nicest author can grump a little when they see a whole page of notes. Why don’t I add, ‘You got a bit excited here 🙂 ’ to explain what’s going on? Maybe I will.

Untangling muddles.

When the meaning of a sentence is unclear, if I’m working with a fiction author I tend to pop, ‘Not sure what this means…’ in the margin. For academic work, because everything has to be so precise, I offer alternatives, ie ‘Do you mean that you put the flange-guzzler into the dinkle sprocket and then everything exploded, or that the gungewarbler was ready to go anyway and the other things were just nearby?’ Generally the reply that comes back is neither of those two options but it is both clear and written in the author’s voice. Now I realise that I can offer the options I’ve read into an unclear sentence without trampling on the author’s style, I will be a little less tentative with my lovely fiction people.

Editing led me to writing, and writing has led me back to editing. I would encourage anyone who does either to have a go at the other, there’s so much to learn about the business of words and you can even make some money.

Author: Carolyn Steele

Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her latest book grew from the blog Trucking in English, and you can learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Academic Editing”

  1. Carolyn, I had to laugh at this. It takes me back to my job for a national observatory where I proofread papers for engineers. It was very odd, because they wrote in English, all the words were English, yet when they strung them together, it all sounded like Martian to me. I had to sometimes struggle to just find the verb in the sentence (and sometimes there wasn’t one!). But thinking back, you’re right–I was much more precise, more pointed in my suggestions and questions to the engineers than I am to my writer friends. I will remember this next time I’m on an editing job. Thanks for a very fun and thoughtful post.

    1. And of course, you need an on/off switch in your brain for tolerance to pages of passive. My first ever proofing job was for accountancy exams, which are probably similar.

  2. Gave me a giggle as I edit an International digital magazine and of course I am not thinking about the fact that there are several contributors from Europe my American happy self is ‘correcting’ words left and right. Naturally this is slicing the beauty of the language to bits, completely altering their prose. Lesson learned, language difference appreciated and we are ALL happier!

  3. Excellent article, Carolyn, I recently did my first editing job and I do believe it has already affected my writing; it has certainly changed the way I look at my writing before I hand it over to my editor.

  4. Great post, Carolyn. A few years back the college where I worked tapped me to help edit during the (painful) accreditation process. Academic writing is a whole different animal than fiction with the tendency toward a more passive style. I had to retrain myself when I started to write thrillers. “The gun was held by her” just doesn’t work as well in an action scene 🙂

    1. The passive voice seems to be everyone’s biggest bugbear when switching from academic writing. It takes some losing when it’s always been the correct thing before, another excellent reason to hire an editor! 🙂

  5. Funny. Thank you, Carolyn. Yes, if you read for a while, you really can find the patterns – academic and fiction – of where the author just wants the thing over with, has run out of steam, should have gone for a cup of coffee first. I miss red pens and squiggles, though. It’s sort of like knowing a foreign language.

  6. I know I’ve run out of steam when I’m editing when little errors slip past, so I try to start the second pass at a different time of day to get full attention focussed on the bits I missed the first time. No matter how many passes you make and how many pairs of eyes read a manuscript, there’s always some damn thing lurking to cause red faces! Thank God for POD. A quick question for non-USA Createspace customers – what are your delivery times to UK and Europe like? (For book orders rather than proof copies.)

  7. Great article, Carolyn. That’s so true about the tired or excited writings. I know when I get excited, I do miss out words trying to get it all down so I always know that those bits will always have to have a thorough re-read the next day. Same too with the tired, I tend to repeat myself. However, that maybe an unconscious effort to make it look like I had written a lot of words and have my glass of wine as my treat, lol.

Comments are closed.