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Editing academia: Working with students

A stack of colorful binders and folders.

I loved academic writing when I was a student, and now I get really excited when I get to work with students as an editor. In the past few months, Talk Science has done formatting, copy-editing and writing coaching for graduate students in sociology, political science and education.

The Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) has guidelines for working on theses and dissertations that clearly outline everything you should consider. We follow these strictly at Talk Science, and I’ve gone through and picked out a few points to expand on with my own experiences.

The ethical issues
Student work brings with it a unique set of issues, particularly from an ethical standpoint. Students are being evaluated on their work, and their writing is meant to reflect their own ability. This is where the ethical fuzziness comes in: How much support can we give before we’re distorting the work away from being an accurate representation of the student’s skills? Where’s the line between helping and doing? One way we figure this out is by identifying which skills the student is being evaluated on: writing ability? logical reasoning? strength of their argument? experimental design? It’s likely a combination of all these and more, with some weighted more heavily than others depending on the discipline. We make sure to be clear on this before we start to make sure we don’t overstep.

Also, we only work with graduate students. At most universities, undergraduates aren’t allowed to get their work edited.

Covering the bases
We get permission from a student’s supervisor before starting any work. Each department has its own policies, and some are stricter than others, but we always talk to the supervisor.

Once we have permission, we ask the supervisor exactly what we’re expected to do. In the case of theses, it’s almost more important to clarify what we’re not expected to do, since there could be repercussions for the student if we end up doing something they’re being evaluated on. Defining the different levels of editing is key. It’s common for clients to be fuzzy on the difference between copy-editing and stylistic editing, for example, but for student writing the EAC recommends actually writing into the contract exactly what we’re going to be doing. The EAC provides a checklist, which we provide directly to supervisors so there’s no ambiguity.

It’s always important to have good records, but with student work it’s especially important to save versions at every step of the process. There’s always a chance that the student’s committee will want to see the editing that’s been done, and if we can’t provide it, we’re putting the student’s success at risk—not to mention jeopardizing our own reputation.

Suggesting other types of support
If we feel the writing needs a lot of work, we might suggest that the student needs writing coaching before their work is edited. Most universities have writing centres where students can get help from peer tutors for free, but we also offer advanced coaching at Talk Science. Writing coaching involves identifying areas the student has difficulties with and working with them to improve. Doing this well requires teaching or tutoring experience, so the writing coaching we offer is currently provided by a retired university English professor.

Querying, not changing
In other types of editing, we can go ahead and restructure a weak paragraph or change some words. In student writing, we can’t do that. Our role in this situation is more as a guide than a reviser, so we leave a lot of queries that draw the student’s attention to areas that might need revising.

This can be particularly relevant when we’re working with writers whose first language isn’t English. Unfortunately, the EAC doesn’t have specific guidelines on this, beyond what’s in the thesis-editing guide. Students or supervisors might ask us to fix grammar and idiom errors, but sometimes it’s hard to decide whether something is an error. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good resources out there that go beyond surface recommendations. We usually deal with this using a specific query.

Reining in the jargon monitor
As always, we focus on the audience. Usually, students are expected to use jargon in their thesis to show that they understand the key concepts in their field. So we resist the urge to do a plain language rewrite.

We have to watch out for words that have a more-or-less accepted definition in everyday English and a somewhat different meaning in a specific field. So if we come across a word that feels off in some way, we don’t just assume that it’s wrong. We do some research, or check with the student.We may even ask the student for a list of words ahead of time; this can be a good exercise for them as well.

Discipline-specific meanings can also come out in spelling; for example, a recent paper we worked on required the student to have a nuanced understanding of the difference between “people” and “Peoples.” In an instance like this, if we think a word might be misspelled, we note it for the student but don’t change it.

Exercising caution with citations
It’s common for copy editors to format and check references in academic papers. But in many cases, students are being evaluated on their ability to use a specific citation method, so we find out whether or not we’re expected (or permitted) to edit references. Often, we’re not.

We ask about in-text citations as well. Is it okay to fix the odd missing comma or add a parenthesis here and there? Missing these details is common for all writers, especially in long papers, and doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer doesn’t have a good handle on the citation method. But that may not be up to us to judge.

Sending some encouragement
Everyone needs a cheerleader, but this is something we’ve found to be really important when working with students. Usually, we see them near the end of their degree, and some are close to burning out after working on a dissertation for three or four years straight. Most of them are more than ready to be done. So we let them know what we love about their work and remind them that their research is important.

And we always remember: we’re being trusted with a document that really could have an impact on a student’s future. We treat that trust with care and respect.

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