Academic editing

At last evening’s EAC-BC meeting, David Harrison spoke about academic editing. His perspective was quite a bit different from mine—he seems to have gained most of his experience working directly with academic authors, often helping them prepare a manuscript for submission to a publisher, whereas I’ve worked on the other end, editing text that a publisher has already accepted.

Harrison has worked with authors as diverse as literary biographers, CGA systems analysts, expert witnesses, and public policy specialists. One client had initially hired Harrison to edit a grant proposal, so, Harrison emphasizes, academic editors can do more than work on just journal articles and books.

He says that, as with other editing, it’s important to understand the author’s purpose. Academic editors may wish to

  • create new knowledge
  • share ideas
  • challenge the ideas of others
  • support the research and findings of others
  • reach a wider audience
  • reach a more specialized audience
  • promote a cause, a policy, a theory, etc.

We must also not forget that they may also have some more practical motivations; “publish or perish” still very much persists:

  • get published in a journal
  • get a paper accepted for a conference
  • get a research grant
  • achieve tenure
  • get promoted
  • sell a book and life off the royalties
  • get invited to address prestigious audiences in  exotic parts of the world

An academic editor must also have a good handle on what the final product will look like. Fortunately, says Harrison, academic papers generally have a very predictable structure. The first time you work with a particular author or in a particular genre, look online or in a local university library for samples of the type of publication the author wants to create. Alternatively, have the author send you a sample.

Academic publishers may have very specific guidelines that they expect authors to follow—these dictate everything from article or abstract length to preferred spellings to formatting. It’s the author’s responsibility to make sure he or she adheres to these, but it’s helpful for the editor to know about them. If a particular publisher doesn’t have such a “Guide to Authors,” follow some exemplars of that publisher’s existing publications or follow an established style guide, such as Chicago or APA, but be sure to communicate your decision to the author. Keep a style sheet for each project. In fact, archive those style sheets; if you ever have repeat work with that author, the existing style sheet will save you a lot of time.

The contract, says Harrison, is very important; make sure you get the deal in writing. Share your expectations. Is the bibliography included in the cost? Is fact checking? Build in some milestones at which you can be paid. Professionalism is key. Stay within your area of competence.

Harrison could find only a handful of books relating to academic writing and editing, but he mentioned Writing for Scholarly Publication by Anne Sigismund Huff, who encourages authors to think of writing as conversation. She, in turn, suggested Making Sense of the Organization by Karl Weick, who elucidated the cycle of writing as it related to clarifying thought. If thinking is writing and writing is thinking, Harrison says, the editor’s role is to mediate that cycle.

Harrison’s presentation sparked some lively discussion about contracts—whether to charge a project rate or hourly rate; how to educate clients about the difference between an estimate and a bid; how to clearly delineate the scope of the work (e.g., specifying the number of revisions). Harrison himself quotes a project fee, saying that an hourly rate can be intimidating to clients. “Think about it from the author’s perspective,” he advised. “How would you react to someone saying, ‘I charge this much per hour but can’t tell you definitively how long it will take me?'” But what Harrison does is charge an up-front fee of commitment and then use an instalment plan for when certain milestones have been attained (e.g., first three chapters finished, halfway mark, initial edit, final revision, etc.).

The audience also asked about what to do in instances of plagiarism. Harrison doesn’t check for plagiarism as a matter of course but encourages editors to make use of the Editors’ Association of Canada’s “Guidelines for Editing Theses” as a tool to educate authors about an editor’s limitations, especially when it comes to dissertations. Jean Lawrence suggested a helpful strategy for diplomatically flagging instances of plagiarism: give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that he or she has simply left out a citation.

I asked how polished the final product would have to be in such an author-editor relationship given that the paper or book would then go through the publisher’s own editorial process. Harrison said he’s found that less editing is happening at the level of the publisher. In fact, some publishers’ “Guide to Authors” explicitly mentions that if English isn’t your first language, you should strongly consider having your work looked at by an editor prior to submission, and he’s gotten a lot of work that way. He added that he works under the assumption that he’ll be the last person to touch the manuscript from a language point of view.

Fact and nonfiction

At a recent editorial retreat, a very experienced editor was telling us about how clients sometimes question why the research for a single piece of information can take what seems like an unreasonable amount of time. “The author had provided a photo of a bridge he wanted to use and a caption for it. I searched the name in the caption, found a photo, and it was the wrong bridge. So I looked at maps of where this bridge was supposed to be and tried to find pictures of landmarks close to it…” She ran into one dead end after another, until finally, after hours of searching, she found another photo of the bridge from a different angle, and a name to go with it. “That’s the bridge. So I changed the caption, but finding the right name took the whole day.”

“What would you have done before the Internet?” another editor asked.

“Nothing. There would have been an error in the printed book.”

That conversation made me think quite a bit about the accuracy of sources we consider reliable and this whole business of fact checking in the editorial process. Editors—copy editors in particular—are expected to check facts within the realm of general knowledge; with Google, though, more and more can be considered to be part of that realm. Does this mean that more of the onus of fact checking falls on the editor rather than the author? Much has been said about the unreliability of online information, but are print sources really any better? Didn’t the past lack of Internet search engines just mean that copy editors of yore simply couldn’t spend the time to track down primary sources of information? I can think of two projects I worked on over the past year that were new editions of print-only books, where authors used the old edition as a basis for the new book and my Internet searches revealed errors in their earlier text. I can only imagine that this now happens all the time, meaning that books, if they are properly fact checked, are probably more reliable than they have ever been.

The flip side, of course, is that there such a deluge of new titles being produced now, especially since anyone can self-publish, that the majority of books can’t possibly be thoroughly vetted. And, of course, the Internet is not without its pitfalls. When I come across a term that’s not in my dictionary or a name that doesn’t appear in the Library of Congress Authorities, I do lean on Google to tell me that one spelling gives me 200,000 hits, whereas an alternative spelling gives me 1,200. And those 1,200 may very well be right, but often in those cases, “truthiness” prevails.

I sometimes feel that fact checking is more for the editors’ benefit than the authors’. Oh sure, we’re saving authors from potential embarrassment, discredit, and maybe, in the case of a misquote, a libel suit. But when we go to great lengths to hunt down the exact punctuation and capitalization of a sixteenth-century title that some ship’s second officer put together from his journal, and we end up finding a scanned copy of the original text in an online archive, it’s all about the satisfaction of sleuthing and getting it right. Maybe the reason fact checking can be particularly satisfying is that it’s so much less subjective than other facets of editing; in most cases, the goal is finding the one right answer, not, say, imposing a style decision. The hunt does take time, though, so I suppose we’ll have to subtly tease out of our authors what standard they expect us to uphold for each project. Does this author want me to spend the afternoon tracking down and watching a YouTube video of a lengthy speech to see if he’s accurately quoted a public figure? Or should I trust his research and simply alert him to the risk of misquoting?

Ultimately, even if we editors flag factual errors, authors are free to reject our suggested changes, and in the end our efforts may not matter. Most people still believe, for instance, that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” (she didn’t) and that Philip Sheridan said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” (a misquote, if he uttered anything like it at all), showing that even for the most persuasive of editors, the reader’s interpretation is beyond her control.