To succeed in today’s globalized academy, many scholars are forced to publish their research in a language that’s not their own—and often, that’s English. For those who don’t write English at a native level, this lack of linguistic proficiency can be a serious detriment. Such scholars often face an uphill battle to publish their research compared with their native-English-speaking colleagues. When journal reviewers have to focus on deciphering what a research paper is trying to say—instead of evaluating the content of the research itself—authors are at a particular disadvantage.
Academic translators and editors can help. They ensure that the quality and significance of an author’s work are not masked by errors in grammar and syntax.
But, how can editors work with scholars effectively? What indispensable skills and experience do we bring to the table?
The six strategies below offer a good starting point for becoming a successful professional academic editor.
1. Focus on specific areas of expertise or specialty.
Ask yourself: Which fields do you know best? Which do you enjoy the most? By focusing on specific areas, you can more easily keep up to date on new theories, terminology, and literature—and better help your authors.
2. Familiarize yourself with the writing conventions in your academic field or discipline.
Mechanical engineering journal articles are very different from anthropology monographs. Familiarize yourself with disciplinary conventions to ensure that your editing stays on track.
Obviously, major changes to style need to be discussed with the author, but most authors appreciate the extra effort to make sure that their writing is as articulate and effective as possible.
3. Focus on your strongest language(s).
Generally speaking, you should focus on a single language or language pair and avoid offering services in languages in which you don’t feel 100% confident. By showcasing your best work, you can develop a positive reputation as an authority in your field.
4. Help authors define their needs.
When a scholar reaches out to you, it’s important to clarify exactly what they need help with. Do they need translation and linguistic editing alone? Or, do they also want the manuscript to be formatted according to a specific style sheet? (Keep in mind that the answer to this question may depend on whether they have chosen a journal ahead of time or will only make that decision once they receive the edited text.)
Also, be sure to clarify how deeply the client wants their work to be edited. Sending them a sample section of the edited text at the beginning of the project can ensure that you and the author are on the same page.
5. Upsell other services you provide.
At the most basic level, an academic editing project could just be a matter of language and syntax editing. However, the potential often exists for editors to do much more.
Some authors may be looking for developmental or structural editing. Others may need help formatting citations and bibliographies. Moreover, editors who are familiar with the author’s field of research may be able to suggest additional sources to consult or offer ideas for strengthening the argument.
Offering additional services like these is not simply an opportunity to up your fee. It’s a way to provide added value that will enhance the scholar’s career.
6. Think of your editing work as part of the scholar’s development as a writer.
In many cases, an author will eventually improve their own language skills to the point where they require less intensive editing to make their work ready for publication. Part of your role is to facilitate that long-term process.
Keep this fact in mind. Watch for errors that authors repeat in their writing, and offer overall suggestions for improvement in addition to line edits. If needed, consult lists of common errors that speakers of the author’s native language make when communicating in English.
Specialist knowledge combined with an understanding of the publication process infuses your services with genuine “added value.” Instead of being a generic editor, you can craft a professional identity as an expert in your field—one who also takes on an advising role.
Moreover, by paying attention to the ways your work as an editor fits into a scholar’s long-term trajectory, you can develop a meaningful relationship that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of language. Your job becomes more than just editing; your job becomes helping someone succeed in their career.
Avi Staiman is the CEO and Managing Director of Academic Language Experts, a company dedicated to assisting academic scholars in translating and editing their research for publication.
Dr. Tami Blumenfield is an academic editor and anthropologist of China who has published widely on cultural heritage politics and worked extensively with Mosuo (Na) communities in southwest China.
When Style Passes You By was originally published in Tracking Changes (Summer 2019 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.