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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

A Tool for Every Challenge: Editing for Academic Writers

Every student who has stared down the barrel of a white page with the countdown to a deadline ticking away in their head knows at least one thing—academic writing is hard.  The further a student advances in higher education, the harder that writing gets, and the challenges multiply exponentially when advancing from undergraduate to graduate levels.  These challenges are daunting and vary according to one’s specific field, so it’s helpful to know and gather tools to meet these challenges. Academic editing is one of those tools.

Nearly all advanced degrees require the candidate to write a final dissertation or thesis. The amount and type of writing required will vary depending on area and discipline. The science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM) fields focus more on lab research and technical writing than on academic research and textual composition. On the other hand, the arts, humanities, and social sciences (or AHSS) require rigorous, in-depth written argumentation and explanation of their subjects.  So, the challenges that STEM and AHSS majors face in writing will differ accordingly.

AHSS majors learn a “qualitative” approach to research and writing.  Their approach combines a systematic and critical review of secondary research with an original analysis of primary research that they gather through methods like ethnography or archival study. Because of this, they have to develop skills like interpretation, representation, cultural or social analysis, and professional dialogue in order to craft and communicate an argument that meets professional standards for publication and subsequent collective engagement by their peers.  So, the “conversational” and “literary” aspect of their field translates into writing that is very complex, conceptually rigorous, and highly developed.

STEM majors face a different challenge.  They must also review secondary literature, but the goal of their review is to identify gaps that their research project will fill—not to critically analyze the secondary literature and build a conceptually complex conversation with it.  So, their focus must be a clear, detailed accounting of their hypothesis, research questions, variables, methodology, project execution, and final results.  A “lab” is the typical site for this kind of “quantifiable” research.  The results of their research will either support or upend their hypothesis. If results confirm their hypothesis, they may publish the results—“filling” that “hole” in the literature. But if results contradict the hypothesis, they must reassess the hypothesis, research questions, and experiment, and then perhaps completely redesign the project for a second go-around. So, STEM majors will primarily practice a kind of recording-keeping, itemizing, description-driven style of writing.

In both STEM and AHSS fields, the student pursuing an advanced degree must organize and present their work effectively in writing, so that their colleagues can understand and draw from it in their own work going forward.  So, for those pursuing an advanced degree, writing skills become critical to their success—even if they have no thought of becoming professional writers.  Given that writing is a craft that takes years and sometimes decades to develop, how can busy doctoral candidates face this daunting degree requirement?  For many overwhelmed by the struggle, it can be hugely beneficial to employ the services of a professional dissertation editor.

So, what does an academic editor actually do to help you? For starters, academic writing entails many different types of writing—from the critical-analytical writing of a cultural studies dissertation, to the precise equational writing of a mathematics thesis, to the thick-description writing of a social sciences dissertation. Indeed, even within a single dissertation, the author must write some sections as information, others as description, others as analysis, and still others as argumentation.  Thus, writing a dissertation means having to write in several different styles or academic “languages.”  Because of this, it’s easy for writers of all abilities to get lost in weeds of their own writing and lose the “critical distance” they need to assess how their work is really coming together. In the midst of all that, a writer will often lose track of what it is they are trying to say. In the frustration of losing track, they can also lose perspective on their own strengths and weaknesses, collapsing their ability to troubleshoot and problem solve.  Even the highest regarded professional academic writers must put their manuscripts through rounds of editorial reading, review, and revision before they will successfully publish it in a peer-reviewed journal.

That’s where the professional editor steps in. A professional editor is able to approach your writing as pure technique—to assess it like a mechanic addressing a troubled car engine. They understand the craft, the tricks of communication and quirks of potential readers, the ins-and-outs of how writing works, and how to make different types of writing come together to form a whole, coherent, convincing document.

If you’re somebody who works independently, an academic editor can provide you with that fresh set of eyes for a final proofread and formatting polish of your dissertation before you finally deposit it with your university.  At that point, you’ve probably been staring at it for two or three years and just need an objective, meticulous brain to step in for that final, super technical review to perfect things and make sure your university doesn’t kick the document back to you at the last hour.

On the other hand, if you’re somebody who benefits from collaboration and works through your own ideas by talking them out with other people, an academic editor can be that sounding board. The editor listens to you, takes your ideas in, and then offers them back to you—enabling you to hear them yourself and to understand how they appear to your reader.  Through that ongoing editorial conversation, you can develop your writing, keep yourself focused throughout round after round of revision, and remain grounded in the ultimate goal of effectively communicating your research project to your professional community.

Besides your dissertation or thesis, another important genre of academic writing is the research grant. Grant writing is crucial as long-term research can be very costly, and the STEM fields are particularly reliant upon the granting system for both funding and recognition. So, advanced students in the STEM fields are often directed by their professors to write grants that will secure funding for their research. In addition to providing necessary funding support for research, a track record of success in grant attainment bolsters the reputation of not only a student and their professors, but also their department and research institution.  That notoriety in time begins to pay for itself, as it enables research institutions, teams, and individuals to access even greater funding pools. Because of this, it’s important to know how to propose a research project and argue for how it will provide advancement and innovation in a given industry. A professional academic editor can help you out here, as well.

Obviously, if you are pursuing an advanced degree, you are a person with ambition and take a lot of pride in your own efforts and work. That degree has got to be totally yours! You want to own it.  But with the participation of advisors, reviewers, committee members, student colleagues, family support, and—of course—academic editors, every degree and every piece of academic writing is also a collaborative product.

Nobody is born a brilliant writer. Whether they be copywriters, novelists, journalists, poets, or academics, “professional” writers develop their craft over years of diligent practice. The process is sometimes methodical and sometimes chaotic, but it is always taxing of time, emotion, and mental power.  The academic editor is there as a tool to help you to economize those resources and move firmly toward your goal.

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