September 25, 2014

Are you an editorial hypocrite?

Why do some academics still sniff at the idea of using a professional editor?

Some in academia believe that without rigorous standards the integrity of their rarified product is at risk.  I argue that this is not only untrue, but harmful to the productivity of many academic writers. I’m not the first one to raise these questions, but I have a few pretty good arguments that I hope will convince you to use a professional editor if you feel the need.  Let’s look at the myths that keep academics from using an editor
  • The editor might give you an idea, so it’s not original. I’m tackling the big one first.  Try this on for size:  it’s not where an idea comes from that matters. After all, you get ideas from all kinds of places – colleagues at conferences, from your friends, peers, the guy next door, your professors, in classes. People are noting ideas from each other all the time.  No idea belongs entirely to anyone.

    What matters is the originality of an argument and its precise expression, the persuasiveness of a thesis based on the evidence presented.

  • The best work gets done by one isolated individual. Creative writers in MFA programs expose their work to relentless workshopping, and yet no one questions whether the final draft of a story, poem or novel belongs to that writer alone. In many disciplines, particularly in certain areas of the humanities, personal creativity and originality are at stake, and yet collaboration (which is not what editors do) is understood to be part of the process.

    How is the issue different for a writer because he or she is an academic? If one’s position is that editing is synonymous with collaboration, then why is that argument not universally extended to any kind of writing?

  • We’re so smart that we can do our own editing.  Intelligence and writing ability are not necessarily correlated.  Also, in some circumstances, employing an editor is a necessity: In multi-author works, for example, a disinterested party is essential to smooth out transitions and create a consistent tone. Without that, the paper will feel like a series of chapters by different authors instead of the joint project it was intended to be.

  • I don’t care if English isn’t your first language; that’s no excuse to hire an editor.  So many brilliant and creative academics come to English-speaking countries to enjoy our excellent educational system.  Most English-speaking people are not even fluent in one other language, particularly when it comes to language. After all, people who came to their new country 40 years ago can make small language mistakes.  (I should know; I’m engaged to one!)  

    Even native English speakers get confused about their own language.  For example, prepositions.  People are now starting to say, “I’m excited for…” instead of “I’m excited about.”  In many cases, when English is an academic’s second language, not employing an editor would be a tragic mistake.  

  • Because some people use writing help unethically, we should ban any kind of help with writing.  Of course, there are right ways and wrong ways of using editorial help. It’s never acceptable to hire someone to do the writing for you, or to plagiarize published sources.  But let’s not get carried away because some people do the wrong thing.  Let’s bring an informed understanding of what legitimate editors and writing coaches actually do. 

  • Dissertation advisors or faculty mentors provide enough help, so academics don’t need editors.  No comment needed.
It’s unrealistic to expect academics to be experts at everything, if you value academic excellence, then it’s hypocritical to discourage the use of professional editors.

Is it OK to use a professional editor?  Where do you stand on this?


At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Clare Xanthos said...

I believe that it is okay to use an academic editor (I am one:)), provided that the editing doesn't turn into rewriting. I think that this might be an issue with "developmental editing," which I don't do.

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Gina Hiatt, Ph.D. said...

Thank you for your comment, Clare. I believe that developmental editing, if done the right way, can help the writer become more clear about his thinking.

I've found, as a coach, that when academics describe their research or their argument, etc. to me, that just by asking "dumb" questions, I help them move forward in their thinking. By dumb, I mean I know nothing about their topic, but my questions move their thinking along.

I might ask, for example, "But why did you choose to study the architecture of that particular street in Madrid?"

This is so basic, and unlike what anyone who was an expert would ask. But by explaining to a beginner often helps them see what they haven't written.

I agree that an impatient developmental editor (or a dissertation supervisor) could make suggestions or ask leading questions. That's only possible if the person knows enough about that person's field.


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