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Event Review: Academic Editing with Lesley Erickson

Written by Wendy Barron; copy edited by Katie Heffring

On Saturday, November 25, 2017, a group of 20 editors gathered at the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s downtown campus for Lesley Erickson’s seminar “Academic Editing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Lesley has more than 20 years’ experience as an author and editor in scholarly publishing and is currently a senior production editor at UBC Press. Her session provided a glimpse into the cultures of both academia and scholarly publishing. Throughout it, she offered strategies to address challenges both common and unique to academic editing and practical tips and tools for editors to give and get the best from the editing budget.

Scholarly publishing is different from trade publishing

In scholarly publishing, scholars have different expectations compared to authors in trade publishing:

  • Scholars publish to disseminate the results of their research, not to make money.
  • Their audience is small and consists mostly of the author’s colleagues and peers.
  • The average scholarly book sells about 200 copies.
  • In this age of the Internet and e-books, it’s rare that the book becomes a bestseller.
  • Most books published in Canada are funded by the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program.
  • Peer review often replaces substantive or developmental editing, which is not part of the scholarly publishing process.
  • Scholars use peer review to affirm that their topic is worth investigating, research is sound, thesis is convincingly argued, and the references are from relevant sources.

But academic authors are like other authors

Most academics are not trained writers, but because they write for a living, many are proud of their writing. They may resist being edited and be reluctant to admit that their work has been edited. Historians, Lesley said, tend to be good writers and have the best understanding of the editing process, whereas those writing about law tend to resist (and even resent) being edited.

Knowing the author’s field and understanding where they are on the academic ladder is essential to understanding what you can do to their manuscript and what their budget for editing is likely to be.

Many academics, accustomed to using graduate students for editing and paying them very low rates, have unrealistic expectations of real-world editing rates. The lower the author falls on the academic ladder, the smaller their budgets tend to be. Professors emeritus or emerita, at the top of the ladder, are often happy to be expertly edited and have a realistic budget.

The goals of an author and publisher may be different

Working for an author is different from working for a publisher, and it’s important to consider the client when surveying the manuscript to determine the scope of work.

If working for an author, knowing their goals and expectations for the work, and their budget and timeline, can be crucial to surveying the manuscript and negotiating the scope of work.

Lesley recommends treating all authors as first-time authors, even when working for a publisher. Take a little time to explain what editing is and what you can do for the author and their manuscript. The managing editor or production editor may have already done this, but if they haven’t, the freelance editor’s effort can go a long way to establishing trust with the author.

If working for a publisher, a careful and complete survey of the manuscript is essential to determine if the proposed budget and deadline are fair and reasonable. Know what a publisher defines as light, medium, and heavy copy editing. Production editors may overlook tables, charts, and art when setting the budget for a project, and it’s up to the copy editor to verify if the copy-editing budget includes creating the lists of tables and illustrations, compiling the credits of the back matter, and checking for call-outs in the text.

Fact-checking, Lesley said, should be done before the manuscript goes to the copy editor; it should not be part of the copy-editing budget. Bring any factual errors to the attention of the production editor, with a question about adding fact-checking to the scope and increasing the budget. The production editor may have an intern do the fact-checking so that the copy editor can focus solely on improving the text.

If you can’t be thorough while editing, be systematic

It’s helpful to remember that the reading audience for academic or scholarly work is likely to be quite small and most readers will be familiar with the concepts discussed. The editor can step back a little, focus on ensuring the grammar and syntax make sense, and let the author’s stylistic choices stand.

Time and budget may make it impossible for the editor to do two complete passes of a manuscript. In cases like these, Lesley advises a strategic approach that targets the most challenging elements of a manuscript and specific items from the two passes, such as the following:

  • References
  • Bibliography
  • Visuals (often the messiest part of scholarly publishing)
  • The mechanical edit
  • Grammar
  • Syntax
  • Usage
  • Diction
  • Factual error queries
  • Drawing attention to passages that lack clarity

Hands-on editing practice helps

Lesley put us through our paces with live exercises. She first tested our restraint by having us do a mechanical edit on a short passage, and then, she tested our thoroughness with a copy edit of the same passage.

The third exercise addressed writing good queries. The fourth was all about recognizing the various reference, bibliography, and citation styles, and the last exercise involved editing a table.

Lesley sent us home with a sample copy-editing checklist, a sample style sheet, one more practice exercise, and the answer keys to all the exercises. This treasure trove of tools will come in handy when I go back through this material to prepare for my upcoming academic editing project!


Wendy Barron made the leap from hospital administrative servitude to freelance editing in 2014. She is passionate about plain language and clear design, feminism, representation, literacy, and helping people tell their stories. She edits fiction, nonfiction, academic, scholarly, medical, business, and leisure writing. Wendy volunteers too much, and her favourite arrangement is when someone else does the cooking and cleaning.

Katie Heffring is currently completing the Editing, Plain Language, and Technical Communication certificates at SFU. With four years of experience in the publishing industry and her love for editing and writing, she decided to pursue a career as a freelance copy editor and proofreader. She is also a volunteer copy editor for Vancouver Island’s “Take 5” magazine.

Image by Pixabay.

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