A week in the life of an academic editor

broken-pencilsBy Kerry Fast

I get odd responses when I say I’m an academic editor—from fellow editors, that is. Everyone else I say that to seems vaguely impressed, though not quite sure how to carry on the conversation from there. But other editors, even those who edit academic writing, seem to think that academics enjoy nothing more than deliberately obfuscating meaning on a topic they’re valiantly trying to sound as if they know everything about.

The truth of the matter is that academics who write well know how to construct complex sentences that convey meaning beautifully. It’s the ones who don’t know how to write that hire editors. And it is in this bunch that I find clients who make editing academic writing stimulating and enjoyable for me.

I spent hours this week removing italics from a thesis proposal and then when I had finished that job, I started all over again with removing italics, this time from a thesis chapter by Annabelle, a PhD student. I do not enjoy this part! But I did enjoy the work I did for Annabelle in other ways — hers was a challenging piece of work. Her ideas were sophisticated, but poorly expressed because English is not her first language.

Editing can be a delicate business of not putting words into someone’s mouth, but making sure that the complexity of the ideas is adequately communicated. In a phone conversation, she wanted to know why I had removed all the italics. She also wanted clarification of my comments about jargon. A half-hour later we both had a better understanding of what jargon was and how and when to use it. I appreciated the way she ended the conversation: “We’re a team now.” The hour-long conversation had been hard work on my part, but deeply meaningful.

I also enjoyed working on the article sent my way by Daria, a Polish scholar who writes articles on the Karites, a medieval Jewish sect known for its translations of biblical texts into Arabic. Her articles are always dense and filled with myriad and minute details about the translation of divine anthropomorphisms. Clearly, she’s no slouch. I know I have to be able to justify every edit I make because she goes through what I’ve done with a fine-toothed comb and, inevitably, comes back to challenge my edits. She keeps me on my toes, to be sure; but I’ve learned a lot about English from her indirectly through her queries.

One tussle we had was about repeating words in a paragraph. You cannot repeat a word within a paragraph in Polish if you want good style, she insisted. Equally emphatically I insisted that in English, repeating a word can be an effective form of emphasis and that endlessly inserting alternative words can frustrate a reader—if you mean anthropomorphism, there is no better word to use than anthropomorphism even if it shows up in the following sentence again. I’ve learned to respect her need for word variation, but I’ve also learned to rework those sentences where she repeats words in such a way that the word is needed only once. It’s the learning and instructing that both of us do in the editing process that I enjoy.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I found my work on Delia’s thesis very meaningful. Her supervisor was at her wit’s end, Delia had exhausted every ounce of energy she had to finish her dissertation and it was stuck. No feedback of any kind worked. Subsequent drafts were only getting more confusing. What made matters worse was that Delia had already hired a professional editor. Clearly, every penny she spent on this editor had been wasted. Thirty pages into the first chapter I was so overwhelmed by the confusion I had to stop. My pride kept me from calling the supervisor and saying “I quit.” I had never before in my editing career been so at a loss.

Finally, jolted by the realization that I couldn’t charge for staring blankly at my ceiling, I resorted to pencil and paper. Painstakingly, I drew the organization of the chapter in a diagram. Several hours later, the chaos was not-so-neatly laid out in front of my eyes, and I knew what had to be done. For Delia, this was not easy. It took her several days to come to terms with what I was suggesting. Her only comment at the end of those three days was, “I had no idea it was that bad.” We had reached a tentative trust and worked our way through another chapter.

That’s a week and a bit of my editing life. I could do with less italics editing, and I could do with fewer university financial departments that take months to issue a cheque. But I wouldn’t want to do without all the academics and would-be academics who don’t write that well, but honestly engage in an effort to improve.

Kerry Fast is a freelance editor of academic writing. She also devotes some time to research of traditional Mennonite groups. She is a member of the Toronto branch executive.

This article was copy edited by Joe Cotterchio-Milligan.

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