Have you ever used a professional editor for a proposal or manuscript?

Last week, there was a Nature News piece on time-management that included interviews with several academics, including myself. The article quotes ecologist Richard Primack as saying, “I hire professional editors to help me polish my articles, grant proposals and reports.” he says. “I can do this myself, but it’s more efficient for me to pay someone to help.” This stuck out to me. I had heard of professional editing services that aim to improve the grammar of a manuscript (my impression was that these are generally aimed at non-native English speakers), but that someone in Primack’s position might use a professional editor had never occurred to me. And it made me think: should I be doing this?

It led me to wonder (on twitter) about how common this practice is, and how easy/hard it is to find good professional editors. It sparked a lively conversation, but I was still left wanting to know how common this is. So, here I’m going to do a quick poll to try to find out. Obviously this is not a scientific poll, but I still think it will be interesting to see the results.

I’d love to hear more thoughts from people who have used professional editors, who’ve considered it but haven’t, and from those who haven’t considered it before but might in the future!

17 thoughts on “Have you ever used a professional editor for a proposal or manuscript?

  1. That’s really interesting! I never used the services of a professional editor, because of 1) pride and 2) writing and editing my own papers I am able to learn more. But I’ve done some translation and editing services. And I’m not a native English speaker 🙂

  2. I’ve used a professional grant-writing consultant for a couple of proposals. Was it worth it? Well, I didn’t get the grants, so but that’s not always a great indicator. It helped to have someone reading the proposal who could look past the science and check the overall organisation, tone and fit to the call. It’s easy for these essentials to get lost when you’re focussing on the details. That I haven’t gone back is partly because I think that I absorbed most of the lessons as a result of going through the process, but also that I haven’t had time to make any large applications recently.

  3. I’m a current PhD student in geology. While I’m definitely open to using an editor when I write my dissertation, my perspective is that of an editor. It would be great if more people were open to the range of services a professional editor can provide. I hold a copyediting certificate (in addition to an MS in geosciences and a BA in physics). I ran a freelance science copyediting business for the last few years, and did not get much business. Really, I made just enough to reimburse myself for the copyediting classes. I appreciate your post and hope that it results in increased awareness of and business for science editors.

  4. Ok, scientific writing is a literary genre, which must follow established models, I agree. However, it seems that text > scientific question, sometimes. This situation is a matter of very considerable concern about cosmetic x real advances in ecology.

  5. Hi Meghan; I have had many of my papers professionally edited; my spouse is a writer & technical editor, and she always claimed she could improve the language and retain the meaning. She convinced me, and I often used her expertise. She skipped the equations, but the prose always got better.

  6. I was thinking about this more last night after our twitter discussion. I worked at the university writing center all through my PhD, and was paid via tuition dollars to help students (UG and Grad) with their writing. And I used the center myself, but it isn’t a copy editing service, and I/the other tutors never rewrote anything for someone, we’d just read over things with people and talk about how to improve.

    Not sure if that is relevant at all to this larger topic, but it was something free (well paid via tuition $) to all students, might be something for current students to look for at their universities.

      • that is a shame. Tutoring is hard work, though also very rewarding, and I am a big proponent of people being paid for their labor, otherwise you only get affluent tutors, who might not be the best at communicating with all students who come into the writing center.

      • The tutors were only volunteering modest amounts of their time. It wasn’t *at all* like spending the entire summer volunteering full time on an ecological field crew just for the experience, which is something many people couldn’t afford to do.

  7. I was going to say that I’d never even heard of using an editor (and grumble about yet another way for the top to separate themselves farther) but I realized my aunt told me she edits grant applications. Part of it is she’s outside academia now to some extent, but is familiar enough with the system that she can provide valuable advice, even to people way outside her field.

  8. Some of the larger grants, often ones that have a limited number of submissions per university that must go through an internal competition often are actually required by the university to use a grant consultant/editor paid for by the university. This has happened to me several times. Only time I’ve had editing help. Like Markus, it would be hard from my results to prove that the professionals changed the outcome.

    As far as paying a professional editor to edit a thesis, I would think that would be morally tricky as this is supposed to be your credential and representative of the quality of work you can do (can’t put my finger on why it is morally OK to have an advisor or committee member edit but not an independent professional, but that is my gut feeling).

    Beyond that, I would think it could prove worthwhile if English is really a stretch for the authors (much as editors try to ignore the language issues, it can be hard), but in other cases I’m not sure the amount of tightening the English from say 80% to 95% would be worth it – usually its the tightening of the scientific logic and story telling that needs more work.

  9. During my PhD, my department had an editor available to anyone submitting manuscripts. I learned a lot and use many of her editorial comments during my own editing work. At my current institution, we have grant writers available to assist with preparation and editing of proposals.

  10. Some R1 universities, and large research institutes, have professional manuscript editors and proposal writers/editors (sometimes more writers than editors!) on staff to do that work for the faculty. In my opinion,thatt just perpetuates or expands the gap between the big R1 campuses and the predominantly undergraduate institutions, minority-serving institutions, etc.

  11. Pingback: Guest post: Got a professional editor? | Dynamic Ecology

  12. I can contribute a few of my own cents.
    My own experience is difficult for two reasons and have had editors hung up on language and copy editing many times. In today’s publication market it is easier for editors to reject manuscripts without review if you do not submit a paper they feel is edited to their top standards. I have a two fold challenge on that front. First, like many other academics I suffer from learning disabilities, which makes the physical editing of papers challenging. The second is having English as a second language (at least in written format, having gone through the Israeli secondary school system in Hebrew with English courses for English speakers–skipping the majority of grammar for some reason).

    I tried using writing centers and have found them to fall short of being helpful. As an undergraduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology the writing labs were bogged down, and the level of the students working the shifts was not at a publishable level. It was fine for writing assignments for courses, but definitely not for grant proposals or manuscripts. They also had page limits to deal with the demand– 5-7 pages double spaced per appointment. I had a similar experience as a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The writing lab there was able to dedicate 1 hour per week for my documents, a 350 page dissertation does not work with those needs.

    As an undergrad, I learnt to get around the problem by befriending the learning disability support services staff. Using these ties, I was able to get help copy-editing from a linguistics special-ed professional. Now retired she still assists me on some projects. This is very helpful, but still hits a couple of snags:

    1. Jargon – an editor who is not in your field will have a hard time editing within context and especially empirical information (stats etc). This reflects back to what some other comments mention, scientific writing needs a scientific editor. And ecological writing style varies greatly from medical biology or other scientific writing.

    2. The volume of writing and editing is too high to allow a comfortable levels of requests. To remain competitive in today’s job market we are expected to produce a large volume of manuscripts. Asking for favors become uncomfortable, but paying for these services (out of pocket for many of us) is beyond reach for most ecologist budgets.

    I will share one last point of view. I think graduate students, myself included arrive to graduate school with significantly lower writing abilities than the previous generations had. Additionally, we are expected to produce more published products, if we hope to remain competitive. I was lucky enough to have advisers who are considered very influential in the field, but that meant that the amount of time they had to assist with the basic skill-acquisition is very limited. However, while this can be frustrating to them, any time spent going over manuscripts makes a huge difference to us young generation of scientists.

    I certainly value the time I had with Joel Brown and Mike Rosenzweig editing shared manuscripts. Especially with Mike, the art of editing is a passion he holds, and it provides inspiration. I doubt any outsider could edit a manuscript or book the way Mike does. It perhaps makes sense to communicate with our peers who are more experienced, and convey how helpful they are to us.

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