Academic Editing, Proofing, & Polishing

Beyond the basics of proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, and vocabulary, academic work requires a thorough familiarity with the style guide requirements of the project—whether it be AMA, APA, Chicago, MLA, or some other formatting guide—and an ability to present ideas in a clear, logical, smooth, and convincing way. My job is to see that your written document meets all those requirements.

Based on my experience editing academic books, dissertations, theses, papers, letters of application, and statements of purpose, here are some basic general challenges which I’ve found that authors often face.

You can click on any of the terms below to go directly to the relevant section. This covers:

Getting started
The classic three-part structure
Getting to the point
Chronological discussion
Saying just enough
Personal statements or statements of purpose in applications
The impersonal, indefinite “one”
Plural pronouns for singular non-gendered subjects
Contractions
Jargon
The comma
The way I proceed

Getting started

Some people approach academic writing by outlining what they want to say before they start to write.

Others just begin putting words on a page or screen and then structure their prose in the clearest way they can to meet the requirements of the assignment or project. (As the best writing is often the result of rewriting, this is not necessarily a bad thing.)

You should proceed in whatever fashion works best for you at that time.

However, before any of that, you should always look carefully at the assignment or intent of the project and be sure that you understand its requirements.

Longer work such as theses, dissertations, or books usually require a preliminary proposal. Based on that, most often, an advisor or a publisher provides feedback before an author begins to research and write.

The classic three-part structure

If you find yourself staring at a blank page (or screen) for too long, you can always depend on the classic structure in academic writing.

The cliché for this (though it is no less valid for being so familiar) is simple:

  • Tell your readers what you’re going to tell them
  • Tell them what you have to say, then in your conclusion
  • Tell them what you’ve told them.

Sometimes simply writing your introduction and your conclusion before you tackle the heart of your argument lights a path for you to follow as you unspool your ideas or explanation to support your conclusion.

Getting to the point

Be sure that your first paragraph contains a statement of your subject and what you intend to say about it. I have seen too many papers that spend their first two paragraphs about something tangential before finally  getting to their real subject in the third or fourth paragraph

Chronological Construction

When discussing historical material, you should almost always present it in chronological order. Not doing so is confusing and often forces your readers to go back to be sure that they haven’t missed or misremembered something.

In other words do not write:

In 1901 the signing of an agreement…

and follow it later in your discussion with

The Seven Years War between the British and the French in 1756-1763 served as a catalyst…

Rearrange your discussion so that what you have to say about 1756-1763 precedes the 1901 agreement.

Saying just enough

When you’re giving examples to bolster the point that you’re making, show that you know your topic, but you don’t have to discuss everything that you know. This is the reason professors who give assignments and selection committees usually impose word limits. They don’t want you nattering on just to show your extensive knowledge or experience.

I have seen dissertations where authors try to stuff every example of the case that they’re making into the text. This not only becomes tedious (probably leading the reader to say—aloud or not—“Get on with it!”), it’s unnecessary.

Usually two or three examples are sufficient to make your point. If there are more and you feel that you must demonstrate that you know about them, you can dispatch this with a simple sentence or note that states something along the line of “Many more examples abound, of course, but they are too many to list here.”

Personal statements or statements of purpose in applications

Whatever you’re applying for (undergraduate admissions, graduate programs, or even a faculty position), the selection committee is sure to receive many, many applications. Thus, you need to make yourself stand out so that the committee remembers who you are when the final selection takes place.

The committee already has your resume or CV and, in most cases, a transcript and letters of recommendation stating that you are the most remarkable or compassionate or whatever person the writer has ever met. They have these for virtually every other applicant as well. They know the basic facts about you. You don’t need to repeat them in your statement.

So what can you do?

Remember that these are personal statements. They’re meant to give the selection committee a sense of who you are as an individual. Hence, it’s often effective to start with an anecdote, some incident that affected and involved you directly.

If you can do that or part of that in dialogue—that is, some kind of back-and-forth between two or among three or more people—so much the better. Dialogue usually involves short sentences or phrases. It’s snappy and easy to read. It adds drama or comedy or pathos. In other words, it adds an immediate emotional note, and emotions and feelings stick with the reader better than facts.

Of course, dialogue is not mandatory, but it’s helpful to begin with an active event that gets to the heart of who you are.

The impersonal, indefinite “one”

Although academic and style guide standards have relaxed somewhat in recent years and now often allow the use of the first person “I” or “we” and the second person “you,“ there are still places where this is frowned upon.

When this is the case, many people get tripped up by the indefinite subject or object, that is, a situation where the third-person subject of the sentence is someone non-specific. They quite commonly resort to the awkward “one” as in “one may think that…” or even the possessive “one’s opinion.”

This can usually be solved by substituting “someone,” “a person” (or the plural “people”), or some similar general noun.

Alternatively, a phrase such as “it is necessary to” or “it is possible that” can solve the problem. These are probably less good substitutes, as they force the writer to use a form of the verb “to be” and put the main verb into a subordinate clause. This is a weaker construction, as the verb “to be” is always less forceful than an active verb, though sometimes this is unavoidable.

Plural pronouns for singular non-gendered subjects

Too often authors have a singular non-gendered subject but follow it with a plural pronoun as in “a writer should say that they think” or they resort to the awkward “s/he” or “his/hers” as in “speak to a member of the crew; s/he will help you.”

In many cases this is easily avoided by making the term in question plural:

“writers should say what they think” or
“speak to members of the crew; they will help you.”

Contractions

Academic writing is usually free of contractions such as isn’t, haven’t, can’t, or the like.

Jargon

Every field has its own special terms; or uses common terms with a special meaning; or abbreviates of names of specific agents, things, institutions, and organizations.

This is fine if you’re absolutely sure that you’re addressing a very limited audience of readers who are specialists in your field; or the meaning of an abbreviation is very widely known such as FBI; or UN. (If your audience is international, however, remember that abbreviations of even well-known institutions differ in other cultures and languages. In French, for example, the abbreviation for the UN is ONU [organization des nations unies], and for HIV it is VIH [virus de l’immunodéficience humaine]).

Moreover, most writing is not created for a rarified audience. At the very least you need to be sure that you define such terms the first time you use them and spell out the full names of organizations; or abbreviations of agents; or things the first time you mention them with the abbreviation; or initials enclosed in parentheses immediately following the full name.

The Comma

Commas are perhaps the most misused bit of punctuation.

The comma has a specific function in rendering a sentence comprehensible. Unless you are writing out a speech (where this may be useful), the comma does not belong everywhere you think you might take a breath or a pause when reading aloud.

Unless a dependent clause or interjection precedes the sentence’s principal verb, a comma never separates a subject from its principal verb.

Commas separate items in a list of three or more; independent clauses joined by a conjunction such as or, but, or and; or a dependent clause, phrase, or interjection or aside from the rest of the sentence.

A semi-colon separates independent clauses when no conjunction is present between them or items in a list that have internal commas. See the paragraph above for an example of this latter usage.

The way I proceed

The editing services that I offer can be a simple proofreading job or one that requires serious comments and suggestions for continuity or structural changes and everything in between. When the meaning of a word, phrase, or sentence is unclear, I provide suggestions of what it might mean so that the author can see possible alternatives and choose one or send the matter back to me with some further explanation.

I work on an hourly basis and always provide clients with an estimate of the project’s cost before I begin so that an author can say yea or nay. I can usually supply you with an estimate within a few hours of receiving a manuscript (unless, of course, you send your document in the middle of the night). As I charge only for the time I actually use, if a project takes less time than I estimate, the cost is correspondingly lower.

You need to give me an honest deadline for when you need the text back. I have never missed a deadline, and, if I can’t meet yours, I will tell you so upfront and either decline the project or tell you when I can get it done and ask whether that will work for you.

I most frequently work in Tracking Mode so that you can see every change, comment, or correction I make along with any questions that I may have. That allows you to get back to me with any questions you have about anything I’ve done. That way we finish the edit together. I do not charge for reasonable time spent clarifying an edit.

I accept payment (by check, in cash, or via PayPal) when the project is done. For very long projects, I often ask for partial payment in advance.