The Fiction Freelancing series presents the individual experiences of editorial freelancers working on the genre of fiction within both the publishing sector and the independent-author market.
Here in this first post, I take a look at proofreading for trade publishers.
Other posts in the series cover editing fiction for independent authors (Part II; Ben Corrigan), editing adult material (Part III; Louise Bolotin), and editing genre fiction (Part IV; Marcus Trower).
I launched my freelance career in 2006 by specializing in social science books and journals. However, over the past few years my portfolio has become a little more diverse. This came about after I was approached by a leading independent trade publisher on the recommendation of one of my academic publisher clients. My fiction proofreads include Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Mammoth Book of SF Wars (edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates), two novels by crime novelist Diane Janes, The Pull of the Moon and Why Don’t You Come for Me?, the new edition of Donn Pearce’s Cool Hand Luke, and Christopher Buckley’s satirical gem Little Green Men.
I am strictly a proofreader, not an editor. At proof stage, the pages being read have usually been typeset and are just about ready for press; all the developmental work has been carried out; and the book has been copy-edited. My job is to focus on any final inconsistencies, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors that were missed at copy-editing stage, as well as layout problems that crept in during the typesetting process.
Getting work with trade publishers
Unless you have prior experience with this genre, either in-house or as a freelance, this can be a difficult field to access at the beginning of your career. It’s very competitive and most publishers tend to stick to proofreaders who have a background in the field and who don’t need hand-holding. Recommendation can play a huge part, as can luck. Nevertheless, perseverance might pay off so if this is something you really want to do, then you should have a go. The worst thing a prospective client can say is "no", but at least you'll have tried.
The growth of self- and custom-publishing has opened up the field somewhat, so there’s nothing to stop you marketing yourself to independent fiction authors. Ben will deal with this aspect of the business in Fiction Freelancing, Part II (next week). Suffice it to say that getting noticed by independent authors will require a different strategy to the one outlined here. You might think about:
These tactics and any others you can think of will build your experience, chunk up your CV and generate appropriate testimonials. And the more of all three you have, the more likely you are to make an impression on a trade publisher.
If you already have some professional proofreading experience and want to target paying publisher clients, consider focusing on those who publish both fiction and non-fiction. You may find it easier to get work on their non-fiction lists first; once you have in-house contacts the transition to fiction will be easier. Be sure to check on their websites first to ensure you have the necessary qualifications. Some publishers’ sites make it clear that it’s a waste of time contacting them as they have an established bank of freelances. Others have particular requirements in terms of experience and training.
The titles of the people you need to contact vary from publisher to publisher but include: production editor/manager/controller, desk editor, managing editor and project editor. A quick telephone call to the company should clarify who you need to target for each of your prospective clients. My strategy (with any publisher, trade or otherwise) is to contact this person with an initial email and then follow up with a covering letter and CV (so that they have something to hold on file).
Tackling some of the peculiarities of fiction proofreading
I find fiction proofreading much harder than social sciences academic proofreading – all the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling can go out of the window and the layout of the text might appear unconventional. If you are used to working on professional or academic projects, the work can seem daunting and in my experience generates more head-scratching moments.
Breaking convention: Sometimes a writer will decide to do away with a particular convention. A good, though rare, example the omission of quotation marks – this decision may be, for example, because the author wants to keep their reader guessing as to whether their character is thinking something or is actually saying it. You may also come across incomplete sentences. You may see phonetically spelled words that indicate a character’s accent. You may come across unfamiliar syntax and terminology when characters are speaking in dialect. Be sure you are clear before you start the job as to anything unconventional about the fiction title you’re working on and be prepared to leave well alone or use a pencil unless you are sure about your changes. Your publisher will be able to guide you on the decisions that have already been made as to how these elements should be treated.
Author style: Care needs to be taken when proofreading a fiction title so as not to interfere with the author’s style. This relates back to the issue of convention breaking. Yes, your author uses split infinitives and comma splices. You may not like them; you may think the sentences are clunky to read. But that may be their way, and it’s not necessarily the proofreader’s job to correct this – a judgement may have already been made by a copy-editor and in-house desk editor in discussion with the author. Again, you should leave well alone unless you are sure of what you are doing. Don’t spend too much time with your head in your hands, wondering whether to inflict your red pen on the page; instead, use pencil. If you see a similar problem cropping up repeatedly and you’re not comfortable with putting it down to "author style", call up the project manager.
The brief: Working for any publisher client (trade or otherwise) requires that you stick to the brief. Ask your in-house editor what they expect from you and how far they want you to intervene. You’ll probably be working on page proofs so the degree to which you intervene will be determined by your client. Some want minimal correction at page-proof stage; others may wish you to be pedantic.
Read first; proof later: One tactic I find useful when I proofread fiction is simply to read two or three chapters before I do anything else – I’m not looking for mistakes; I’m simply getting a feel for the plot, the author’s voice, which characters are being introduced, and taking note of any unconventional styles I come across. This helps prevent the "head in hands" scenario.
Things to watch out for
Enjoying the job too much: One of the dangers of proofreading fiction is getting so wrapped up in the story that you end up reading the book rather than proofreading it. Force yourself to keep your pace steady rather than rushing ahead in an effort "to see what happens".
Inconsistency: Make a style sheet so that you’re clear about things you need to be checking – characters’ names and consistency in how they are spelled are particularly important and mistakes not only make the work look sloppy but also render the story confusing to the reader. Ask the publisher for a PDF of the proofs; strip the content into a text file and run word-frequency/concordance software to generate a word list. You can scan the list for all proper names and see if there are inconsistencies.
Style: As with any proofreading project, regardless of genre, take care to adhere to the publisher’s preferences: -ise/-ize endings, US/UK spelling (grey/gray; colour/color), terminology (elevator/lift; sidewalk/path) and punctuation style.
Missing line spaces and other layout issues: Watch out for changes of scene that are not indicated by line spaces. These breaks can easily get lost in the typesetting process and can make things very confusing for the reader. You may also be confronted with other aspects of unconventional layout, such as the way dialogue is displayed, some of which would ordinarily be considered incorrect. Always check with the client or and query in pencil. Amending with pen could have serious implications for pagination.
Dialogue: Particular care needs to be given to the management of dialogue in fiction proofreads. One of the most common errors is missing closing speech marks around dialogue; another is misunderstanding how punctuation within speech marks is to be treated – this varies according to publisher style.
Treatment of different types of speech: Some clients may prefer to treat speech in memories, dreams and thoughts differently from conventional speech – use of italics and the omission of speech marks are common in these cases, so be sure that you understand the conventions being used and mark up accordingly and consistently.
A word of warning – Are you proofreading or editing?
One of the trickiest things you may come across is that of being commissioned to “proofread” when actually you’re being expected to edit (one of my colleagues calls this “proofediting”). Some trade publishers are doing away with the copy-editing stage of the process, or doing the editing in-house to save on the cost of a professional freelancer. The proofreader is not always aware of this. The result is that some proofs could arrive on your desk that are not of a standard you are used to working with.
This presents potential problems from several angles ...
Perception of your role: If you haven’t been told explicitly that the proof pages have not been copy-edited, you may end up making false assumptions about what is required of you. This can lead to under-marking in the belief that such a level of intervention is inappropriate at proofreading stage. Your client is expecting one level of service, while you are providing something different.
Practical issues: Proofreading badly written and unedited manuscripts that have already been typeset is a difficult task. There is less space on typeset pages in which to mark up. Where the proofs need heavy intervention, this can be problematic – while the focus should be on amending each error as you find it, instead you could be drawn towards concentrating too much on how to manage the spatial issues. Take care not to miss obvious, small errors because your attention is being pulled in another direction.
Skillset: Unless you are a trained copy-editor you may not have the skills to do the work the client wants – copy-editing and proofreading are different jobs and you may not feel you are up to the task.
Fairness: Even if you are a trained copy-editor, you may feel that you are being expected to do the job of an editor but for proofreading rates.
If you find yourself in such a situation, contact the desk editor immediately and ask about the copy-editing work that was done on the manuscript. Try to get as much detail as you can on what is required at proofreading stage. Then make your decision as to whether you feel comfortable dealing with the work. This puts you in control and will prevent problems further down the line.
What’s the pay like?
Trade publishers tend to pay lower rates than their academic counterparts. The higher rates tend to be offered by science, technical and medical publishers, who often commission editors and proofreaders with relevant qualifications in the field. Fiction rarely requires specialist knowledge of any particular kind; additionally, there are lots of people who want to proofread this genre. While it’s difficult to generalize, fiction rates tend to come in at around £10–14 per hour in the UK publishing industry. Trade publishing business models often make for slim margins, and the editorial services budgets reflect this.
Having said this, I find the work hugely rewarding – it's a genuine pleasure to get up in the morning, knowing that you are being paid to proofread something you’d enjoy reading in your leisure time!
Have you proofread fiction for publisher clients? If so and there's something you want to add about your own experiences, please let us know in the Comments section.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and copyeditor. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
Louise Harnby: To kick off, Jen, tell us a little bit about Salt – who you are, how it started, where you’re based and what you publish.
Jen Hamilton-Emery: It’s 12 years now since we published our first book, and 10 years since Chris and I (Chris is my husband – together we run Salt) gave up our corporate careers to give Salt 100% of our time and attention. I’ll never forget when Chris told me he’d handed in his notice – that month Salt’s sales were £200 and I feared for our future! But it’s been the most gloriously exciting rollercoaster ride; I’m pleased we decided to do what we did. We’ve always published poetry, and for the past five years or so have also published short stories – a genre that we felt was much-neglected and deserved some championing. Since then we’ve published novels and more recently taken on some wonderful editors, Nick Royle, Roddy Lumsden, Steve Haynes and Linda Bennett, who are developing our fiction, poetry, sci-fi and crime lists respectively, all of which launch this year.
LH: You have an international author base. How do you find your authors and what are you looking for when you read the initial submission?
JHE: Our editors are actively involved in their respective genres, reading magazines and journals, going to readings, reading reviews and so on. We are always on the lookout for new, up-and-coming talent, as well as publishing people who have already made a name for themselves through publication elsewhere. It goes without saying that we are looking for a high standard of writing, but also for books that people will find new and interesting that we can market and sell. We also run two prizes: the Crashaw Prize for debut collections of poetry, and the Scott Prize for debut collections of short stories. The quality of manuscripts we receive for these is outstanding – there is so much good writing out there!
LH: I recently read AJ Ashworth’s Somewhere Else, or Even Here, an exquisitely written book of short stories that you published in 2011. To me the book felt like a perfect example of publishing with passion. John Thompson, author of Merchants of Culture (Polity Press, 2010), has written about the pressures on large, corporate presses to move away from high-risk publishing, and focus instead on so-called cash cows (celebrity memoirs spring to mind) in order to satisfy the demands of shareholders and venture capitalists who aren’t necessarily publishers at heart. It seems to me that this endangers the creative flair of the commissioning editor and limits the degree to which outstanding writers can find a voice. Salt, however, is a family-run, independent press. What does this mean for your publishing strategy and the philosophy behind your publishing vision? Does your independence give you more freedom to follow your heart?
JHE: We are very lucky that have the freedom to publish what we want. However, each commission has to have both the heart and the head in agreement. Our investment of time and money in bringing a book to market has to generate a profit otherwise we’d go bust! I’m so pleased that you enjoyed AJ Ashworth’s book – thank you. It was a winner of the 2011 Scott Prize and has since gone on to be shortlisted for the prestigious Edge Hill Prize. It is a perfect example of "publishing with passion" – she is a new writer, working in a traditionally difficult-to-sell genre. However, on saying that, some of the larger publishing houses have recently started to make a big deal about publishing short stories – we like to think that we’ve done something positive in making it a sexy genre.
LH: Can you tell us about the challenges that independent family-run publishers face in the current market and your approach to dealing with these? I’m particularly interested in the “Just One Book” campaign, which is one of the most creative and innovative methods I’ve seen from a publishing company in terms of engaging with its customers.
JHE: Many independent family-run businesses are finding these economic times tough ones to operate in. The recession hit us early on and in 2008 we launched our Just One Book campaign, which encouraged everyone to buy one book – if enough people did it, we’d sell enough to keep ourselves afloat. The response was tremendous, with people across the globe spreading the word and buying our books. Thanks to them we are here today. We took the time after that to redesign Salt – by bringing in new editors and diversifying our lists we would reach a wider audience; we also revisited our distribution and marketing arrangements, including taking on the services of a sales team.
LH: You award international annual prizes for first collections of stories and poetry. Can you tell our readers a little more about these awards and who is eligible?
JHE: The Crashaw Prize and the Scott Prize are open to anyone living in the UK, Ireland, the US and Australia and are for debut collections of poetry or short stories. We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts (we used to but were inundated and could never find the time to read them), but we saw that for many people with debut collections it was difficult for them to get their work in front of an editor. This was our way of giving them a way in to having their work noticed, and equally, for us to discover and breathe life into new talent.
LH: What about e-publishing and Salt? The by-line on your website, “the home of beautiful books”, clearly demonstrates the care you give to the design element. How does this impact on decisions to publish digitally or in print? Is digital publishing something you’re looking to expand, in full or in part, in the future?
JHE: We put a lot of effort into making our books as good to look at as they are to read and as a side-line we run The Cover Factory, providing cover design services to many of the large trade and academic publishers. We also put a lot of effort into our typesetting and properly think through the size of our books so the reader has an all-round positive experience reading them. As far as ebooks go, we’re rather late adopters. A few of our books are available in both print and digital formats, but it’s not something we’ve rushed into. However, we think now we’ll start making more of our books available as ebooks – they lack all aesthetics, but nevertheless seem to becoming more popular, so needs must.
LH: How did The Cover Factory come about, what does it involve, and who are your clients?
JHE: We’ve always had feedback about the high quality of our covers and over the years have been approached by other publishers asking if we would consider designing for them. Only recently did we decide that we would, though I’m not sure why we took so long! Cambridge University Press, Polity Press, Bloomsbury, and Taylor and Francis are amongst our clients. We enjoy the work and the challenge of working for different publishers across their various lists. You can see some of the work we’ve done on The Cover Factory's website.
LH: And finally, Jen, what exciting projects do you have in the pipeline? Who are the writers we should be looking out for in the coming months? And what are your future goals for the press?
JHE: Goodness, where to start! Well, first of all we are crossing our fingers for AJ Ashworth’s Edge Hill shortlisting, and novelist Padrika Tarrant, whose book, The Knife Drawer, has been shortlisted by the Authors’ Club. We have just published the 2012 edition of The Best British Short Stories, which is one of our highlight books, and we’re looking forward to the autumn when its sister, The Best British Poetry, is being published. Later in the year we’re launching our new crime and sci-fi series, including Blood Fugue by Joseph D'Lacey and In the Family by CA James, plus some wonderful debut novels, including The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, and the 2012 Crashaw and Scott Prize winners. Plus, to coincide with National Short Story Week, we’re publishing a star-studded anthology of stories designed to be read aloud: Overheard, edited by Jonathan Taylor. As for the future – well, we want to continue publishing the best books. And winning the Booker Prize would be nice.
LH: Thank you so much, Jen. It’s been a pleasure. There’s plenty for us to look out for. And as a lover of the crime and sci-fi genres, I’m certainly adding D’Lacey and James to my watch list!
Update: Since this interview took place, Alison Moore's The Lighthouse has been short-listed for the Man Booker prize. The Parlour's fingers are crossed!
“Can you proofread my thesis by tomorrow?” – Editorial Freelancing in the Student Market
A note from Louise: This guest article from my colleague Dr Shani D’Cruze is a thoughtful assessment of the dissertation/thesis market for editorial freelancers. It reviews the reasons for the growth of the sector, the possibilities and potential problems for the proofreader and copy-editor (including ethical issues), and the guidance offered by education institutions and professional societies.
As someone who not so long ago supervised and examined student dissertations and theses, and now offers to proofread and copy-edit them, I was interested when I found the online discussion board for the Society of Editors and Proofreaders preoccupied by the professional and ethical issues that student clients raise for SfEP members.
Although especially perfectionist students and those with dyslexia or similar conditions do seek professional editing and proofreading advice, the main constituency for proofreaders’ or copy-editors’ services are students for whom English is not their first language. (The issues are also somewhat different for students with dyslexia, for whom external proofreading can come under the rubric of “special needs” and, on a case-by-case basis, these days may be negotiated through their university.)
The growth of the international student community
The number of international students in UK universities has been rising for some time. The global dominance of English (and American English) as the language for political, administrative and academic communication – and the status of a degree from an English (or American) university – ensures that despite recent increased difficulties in obtaining visas for some students, the growing opportunities to earn a UK university qualification by studying outside the country, and concerns in some quarters that increasing student numbers will put undue pressure on resources and the student experience overall will deteriorate, international student numbers in the UK will go on rising, helped, not least, by a recent initiative from the prime minister (John Morgan, Times Higher Education, 19 January 2012; Eliza Anyangwe, Guardian, 16 April 2012; Claire Rodwell and Kyle Thetford, Cherwell, 3 May 2012).
In 2010–11, 428,225 students in UK universities (17 per cent) came from outside the EU. International students comprised 70 per cent of full-time taught postgraduates and 48 per cent of full-time research postgraduates (IKCISA). In 2012 there are 67,000 students from China and 39,000 from India studying in the UK, and numbers from these countries are set to increase (Sean Coghlan, BBC News, 13 March 2012).
The reasons for the universities’ readiness to recruit more overseas students are not hard to find. It has comparatively little to do with altruistic impulses towards the globalization of knowledge: these days UK universities can’t afford to be altruistic.
It’s about hard cash. UK higher education has been struggling for some years against declining levels of government funding, and increasingly the funding they receive is allocated according to assessments of “excellence” in research and teaching. Today, while fee levels for UK and EU students are capped, universities can charge other students as much as the market will stand (Graeme Paton and Heidi Blake, Telegraph, 12 February 2010).
The challenges facing international students
Earning an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in your second (or third) language has its challenges, and so does providing a supportive learning environment for non-native English speakers.
Universities want to be able to award good, academically sound degrees to the international students that they recruit: academic staff and departments are for the most part committed to providing a good learning experience for their students and the university as a whole is driven by the imperatives of maintaining “quality” and “excellence”.
Nevertheless, as professional proofreaders and editors can testify, it’s no easy matter to write in fluent academic English when it’s your second language, even for someone who can handle everyday communication with ease.
As an academic editor (and as a copy-editor) I’ve worked on many occasions with accomplished scholars, both postgraduate and faculty, whose research skills and conceptualization were far better than mine, but whose written academic English needed extensive editing to make it effective (sometimes to make it intelligible).
The challenges facing proofreaders and copy-editors
Judging from discussions on the SfEP discussion board, professional proofreaders and copy-editors have mixed views about working on students’ theses and dissertations. Some stick to the position that if it's meant to be the student's unaided work, and that is very strictly interpreted, there isn't any role for a professional proofreader.
This has been argued to be particularly the case in arts subjects where the quality of expression is so closely integrated into the creation of meaning and argument. A bad experience with a non-paying or overly demanding student customer can also deter professionals.
The PhD student expecting to find a proofreader for their 80,000-word thesis a week before their final deadline is not that uncommon. Others from the SfEP find that student clients tend to question every change or correction because of their lack of familiarity with academic conventions.
Above all, students are perhaps the category of clients who are least willing to pay the rates recommended for this kind of work. Nevertheless there are now growing numbers of freelancers in search of work, and this together with the increasing number of overseas students in UK universities means that more of this kind of work will be commissioned, done and (hopefully) paid for.
There are also, of course, a growing number of agencies offering to “improve” students’ work. Some of the services offered far exceed what universities or indeed most professional proofreaders and copy-editors would see as legitimate intervention in work due to be submitted for assessment.
Free-market rules apply to the offer and purchase of such services, of course, and it’s up to the universities to police any consequent academic dishonesty. The problems are probably greater in undergraduate work, where students are being assessed on a series of smaller assignments.
Does proofreading improve grades?
From my own past experience as a marker or examiner I would be surprised to find that proofreading (as understood by professional colleagues) made a worrying difference to a student's grade. It might lift a miserable piece of work to what a colleague of mine used to refer to as a “good fail”, or maybe add a couple of percentage points to the grade for a sound or good assignment, but that's about it.
Where students submit purchased off-the-peg essays or assignments re-written by commercial agencies, the abrupt change in the writing style usually makes the dishonesty obvious. My experience lies in the Humanities and Social Sciences; I can't speak for scientists.
For (longer) postgraduate dissertations and theses it’s even more unlikely that extensive academic dishonesty through re-writing by a commercial agencies (or anybody else) would go undetected. Supervisors see samples of students’ writing over the whole period of the project and guide them in the development of the research and the structuring of the written dissertation. Any sudden last-minute change in fluency or “voice” would be highly suspicious.
A postgraduate thesis or dissertation depends upon extended and detailed research. Examiners are assessing that project as a whole, including its design, originality, how it contributes to academic knowledge in its field, its findings and how they are evaluated and discussed.
The standard of academic writing and presentation is important, but a conscientious and diligent research project will be evident to examiners despite awkward, ungrammatical prose in the final dissertation.
At the same time, the work of a proofreader in cleaning up (not re-writing) the thesis, done professionally and responsibly, is as much a service to the examiners and to future readers as to the student, whose hard work in planning, researching and shaping the argument is then better revealed in the written work. The crucial issue is transparency and clear guidelines.
The US and Australian approaches
In the USA the use of outside services seems more generally accepted, providing the extent of the intervention is disclosed. In Australia, a formal and extensive code of practice, the Australian Standards for Editing Practice (ASEP) (see Guidelines for Editing Research Theses download) is embedded in universities’ degree regulations.
Across the country therefore, students, supervisors, examiners and universities know what to expect and what level and what kind of intervention is acceptable. For example, the regulations for Macquarie University [3.1.2], referring to the levels of editing specified in the ASEP, state that supervisors should be aware that a student is using a professional editor, and that the intervention should be restricted to the detail of the text in language and illustration (Standard D) and completeness and consistency (Standard E). Any advice on structure (Standard C) should be provided only as exemplars (HDR Guide).
ASEP require that editing or proofreading should be carried out on hard copy so that students themselves have to consider each editorial suggestion and make the required change themselves. They also specify that the editor’s name and a statement of the service provided should be appended to the thesis.
The UK approach
In the UK, universities each set their own approach to the proofreading and copy-editing of students’ work. A quick straw poll of my academic colleagues and contacts showed that most had little knowing involvement with externally proofread theses. It can’t necessarily be assumed, however, that students were not availing themselves of outside services, only that they weren’t consulting with their academic supervisors about doing so.
Indeed, without clear guidelines and fully resourced practice much of the work of helping students improve their written English falls to academic supervisors, whose workloads have increased exponentially over the last few years. In the good old days, when academic routine generally included time for coffee and the broadsheets in the Senior Common Room, written English coaching was generally handled informally and could be passed down the line to keen junior (not infrequently female) members of staff.
It is rare these days that even the most dedicated supervisor has the time to work closely with a student, instructing on the written presentation of research. Dedicated study skills departments have filled some of this gap. Many universities provide high-quality ESL training that aims to equip students with the English language skills they need, but comparatively few have clear written policies or guidelines about proofreading.
A member of staff in one ESL department (in a university with no written guidelines or policy in this area) described to me how regularly they fend off requests from students to proofread or edit their work.
It’s not uncommon for UK PhD regulations to contain a statement such as this: “The thesis shall include a statement declaring the work to be the candidate’s own and acknowledging any assistance received” (University of Westminster Regulations, 14.3) but such provisions are generally aimed at situations such as in the sciences where a student’s PhD research forms part of a larger collaborative project.
Often general guidelines to students seek to remind them of the importance of error checking in the final stages of thesis preparation; for example, this from Reading University: “… leave yourself enough time to have a final read through of your dissertation to pick up any lingering mistakes or typos”.
It all sounds so easy. Or this from Birkbeck, apparently drafted with input from exasperated PhD examiners: “You must make every effort to correct errors before submission. It is not the task of examiners to act as editors and/or proof-readers [sic] of a thesis.”
Essentially, of course, a PhD thesis or Master’s dissertation is a form of examination and as such should be the student’s own work. At University College London the plagiarism regulations state that “Recourse to the services of … outside word-processing agencies which offer correction/improvement of English is strictly forbidden” (also quoted in M. Macdonald, EM, Jan/Feb 2008).
However, the situation varies, even within different colleges of London University. Currently (2012) the LSE issues guidance on students’ use of professional proofreading services, which is explicit and brief (see LSE). The key section states that a third-party external editor or proofreader cannot be used to develop ideas and arguments, to trim an over-long thesis to regulation length, to help with referencing or correct information, or to translate the thesis into English. What is permissible is for a proofreader to correct spelling and punctuation, to ensure correct grammar and syntax, to clarify the writing, for example by shortening sentences and changing to the active voice, to format footnotes and endnotes, and to make headings and page numbers consistent.
These guidelines do permit online proofreading using tracked changes, but require that the student be responsible for reviewing and accepting changes.
In the present situation, this sort of effort to render transparent the proofreading/editorial help received seems the most enlightened for all parties: students seeking to produce the best thesis they can, universities seeking to maintain academic quality and a good student experience, and proofreaders and editors seeking to earn a crust but also to maintain professional integrity and standards.
Current advice and moving forward ...
Professional organizations can also play a key role. The SfEP, for example, has a comprehensive published booklet (Proofreading Theses and Dissertations), aimed principally at members but more widely available. Excellent articles have also appeared in the society’s magazine, Editing Matters.
More, however, could be done, even though this would mean more work for the organization and its officers. Universities have departments that focus on study and research skills and also on supporting international students.
Making direct contact with such departments and encouraging them to have a direct link from their own web pages to a page on the SfEP website specifically addressed to dissertation/thesis writers would (a) promote the advantages to students in using the editing services of SfEP members and (b) provide useful information for students, supervisors and examiners about what SfEP proofreaders/editors expect from student authors.
Ultimately, spreading the kind of good practice adopted at LSE or working towards the kind of editing standards adopted in Australia would seem the most intelligent and practical way to manage this growing trend.
My thanks are due to Patrick McMahon, Judith Rowbotham, Mandy MacDonald, Louise Harnby, and to the collective wisdom of SfEP members on their discussion board.
Copyright Shani D’Cruze 2012
About Shani: After more than fifteen years as an academic historian in UK universities, Shani D'Cruze moved to Crete where she combines olive-farming with research and writing, editing, and copy-editing. View her LinkedIn profile.
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