Dr Kerrie Le Lievre is a former teacher of business and academic writing at the University of Adelaide, and a current freelance editor. She is a professional member of the Society of Editors (SA), a branch of IPEd. You can find her blog, which includes thesis-writing tips, at https://kleditor.wordpress.com/blog/.
By Kerrie Le Lievre
It’s becoming increasingly common for PhD and Masters students to employ professional editors or proofreaders when finalising their theses. However, many editors report that the students who contact them often know very little about what a thesis editor does, how to work with one, or even when to approach one.
While Australia’s Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) has some useful information available online both for supervisors and for students, these mostly focus on what happens once an editor has been engaged, and cover only a small portion of what students need to know to ensure that they can work effectively with their chosen editor. Similar information is available from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) in the UK, and multiple bodies in the USA. This post uses Australian practice as a model, but the advice given here will be useful in other contexts too.
Well before students complete their thesis drafts, they need to know what a thesis editor does, how to locate one and when to contact one.
What a thesis editor does: In Australia, IPEd has developed a comprehensive set of Guidelines for Editing Research Theses that spells out what editors can and cannot do when working on a research thesis, the supervisor’s role in overseeing the editing process, and the acknowledgments required when students use a professional editor. Australian supervisors should direct their students to these Guidelines early in their candidature, as this will both normalise the idea of using a thesis editor and ensure that students know what to expect from their editor—and what not to ask for. Supervisors outside of Australia can point students to comparable local documents, or use close oversight during the editing phase to avoid the potential problem of someone other than the candidate contributing to the thesis argument.
How to locate a thesis editor: Not all editors take thesis work, so Australian supervisors should direct students to their university’s Register of Editors, or to IPEd’s new, online National Directory of Editors (which can be searched by both state and specialisation). Those outside of Australia may need to begin checking in with individual editors early to find out whether they take theses. It’s also worth contacting university divisions such as Writing Centres, International Student Offices and Graduate Schools, as these groups often keep registers of recommended editors—and of course, other students and academic colleagues may be able to recommend reputable editors from recent experience.
When to contact an editor: Editors—even those who work primarily on theses—are frequently booked up weeks or months in advance. Students need to take this into account when timetabling the submission phase of their thesis, and start contacting editors and comparing prices in advance. Four months allows enough time to collect and assess three or four quotes, select an editor, and go through the full editing process. Three might be rushing it.
By the time they reach the completion phase of their thesis, students need to know how to contact an editor, assess quotes, and write an editor’s brief.
How to contact an editor: Email is usually the preferred method—specifically, a standard business email using clear, grammatically accurate English, paragraph breaks, and punctuation. The contact email should include the student’s name, the title or subject area of their thesis, its word count (and whether editing will include the bibliography), the type and extent of editing required, and their planned submission date. It can also save time to attach 4 or 5 pages from the middle of the thesis as a writing sample, as most editors will request one before they send a quote.
How to assess a quote: In Australia, the current market rate for editing a 75,000-word manuscript is approximately AU$2,500. Most editors recognise that students have limited budgets and that universities cap reimbursement for thesis production expenses, and thus offer lower rates for thesis editing. However, a student with a 75,000-word thesis should still expect to pay about AU$1,000 for editing. A quote of $450 for a 75,000-word manuscript is a bad bargain; $3000 is excessive even for a very fast turnaround. Supervisors outside Australia can check with local editors’ organisations for information about price ranges.
How to write a brief: Because each editing job is different, editors are accustomed to working to detailed briefs and meeting them exactly. Students therefore need to know how to spell out exactly what they want their editor to do—and not do—in the time allotted for editing their thesis. IPEd has resources available online on how to write an editor’s brief, as do other organisations; supervisors can direct students to these early in their candidacy to help them state their needs and decide what to list.
What to send an editor: Microsoft Word is the editing industry’s standard software, and the one program all editors are guaranteed to have. If their university permits electronic editing, students should send the editor a single Word file containing their complete thesis (unless they have negotiated otherwise ahead of time). If this is impossible, a PDF is the next best option. They should also send the editor a brief, their style sheet, a copy of their referencing style guide (short form), and their formatting guide if needed.
Finalising the thesis draft remains the student’s job, so they should build time into their submission plan for not only the editing process, but also their own response to the editor’s work.
Time needed for editing: In an emergency, a good editor with a clear schedule can turn around a 75,000-word document in a week or even less, but students who want a detailed and thorough edit should build a 2 to 3 week turnaround time into their submission plan.
What happens after editing: Most editors will return a Word document with Track Changes visible (if permitted) and any final author queries included in comments, along with a PDF version of the same document. Students need to make sure their submission plan includes enough time to review each edit and query individually, respond to them all, and key final changes into their document before sending it for printing and binding. This can sometimes be a confronting process as well as a fiddly one, and may take up to a week to work through. Finally, students must be aware that it is not only courteous, but often required (by IPEd, other editors’ organisations or individual universities) that they acknowledge an editor’s work on their thesis in its Acknowledgements.
By preparing students for the practical elements of working with a professional thesis editor early, and encouraging them to incorporate enough time for editing into their submission plans, supervisors can help to decrease the stress and confusion of the submission phase and ensure that students complete their thesis to the best possible standard.
Have you or your students used a professional thesis editor before? If you have, what’s your advice for organising the process and making sure it runs smoothly?