Today we have a guest post from Richard Primack of Boston University. Last week, I did a poll asking whether readers had used a professional editor for a grant proposal or manuscript, based on a Nature News piece that quoted Richard 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.” I was surprised by that, since it never occurred to me to use a professional editor. The poll suggests I was not alone. 62% of respondents said they’d never used a professional editor for a manuscript because it had never occurred to them; 67% said it never occurred to them for a grant proposal and 68% for their dissertation. In this guest post, Richard talks more about the process.
Richard’s post appears below the break:
“Improve every opportunity to express yourself in writing as if it were your last.”
– Thoreau in his Journal, December 17, 1851.
What are the secrets or best practices to achieving balance between work and family life, if there is such a thing? A recent news article in Nature, “Workplace habits: Full-time is full enough,” quotes several scientists describing strategies they use for themselves and their labs.
For many people, including scientists, achieving work-life balance means getting as much work done as possible in 40 hours per week, and devoting the rest of the time to family and personal life.
In the Nature news article, I am quoted saying that I hire professional editors to help me work more efficiently in my position as a professor, textbook writer and editor. My comment inspired a post at the Dynamic Ecology blog, in which Meghan Duffy asks, “Have you ever used a professional editor for a proposal or manuscript?”
Here, I share my experiences and try to address some of the comments that readers posted in response to the Dynamic Ecology post and the associated conversation on Twitter. (Full disclosure: this post has received the professional editing treatment.)
I was first introduced to working with professional editors about 25 years ago when, as a mid-career professor, I was invited by a government official to submit a grant proposal on a tight deadline. I expressed concern about the quick turnaround, and the official offered to pay for a freelance editorial assistant for two months to help me with the proposal. And I agreed.
The editor, a former BU grad student who was an excellent writer and an expert on Latin America, helped me to get a lot more writing done in a shorter amount of time than was normal for me. I still had to put in some extra hours, but with the editor’s help, I submitted a high-quality proposal on time and I still got sleep. And best of all, the agency funded the project I proposed.
Since that time, I have continued to hire professional editors on a part-time or freelance basis to work on important projects, or projects that I can’t devote the time to finish without help. I have employed editors to help me write scientific papers, grant proposals, chapters of my conservation biology textbooks, professional correspondence, popular articles, press releases, and oral presentations. Having an editor work with me often makes the difference between meeting or missing deadlines, or handing in sloppy work or well-written papers.
In some cases, I give editors rough drafts that need substantial work in terms of writing, logic, and organization. Other times I give editors near-final versions that just need polishing. The best editors offer opinions on how to improve the writing and may make many of the improvements to the text themselves (depending on what I ask). They can adjust wording, check facts, reorganize, and improve flow and logic. They can even add new material where needed, especially when the editors are experts on a topic.
As Thoreau says: “The writer needs the suggestion and correction that a correspondent or companion is.” Journal, August 23, 1858.
In my experience the best editors are advanced graduate students, post-docs, and early-career researchers working outside of tenure-track faculty positions. The best editors are excellent writers, but often don’t take on editing as their primary job—they may do it on the side as a way to make some extra money. I always know editors before working with them, or they come recommended by people I know. I start by offering some initial work, such as editing a short research paper or popular article, and see how effective they are at editing and meeting deadlines.
The amount of time needed to edit varies depending on the length of the document, how much work the document needs, and the speed of the editor. It can be tough to predict just how long an editing job might take, and thus, how much it might cost. To guard against this uncertainty, sometimes I specify how many hours I want an editor to work on a project. With an editor I know well, I often trust their judgment on how long to work. I typically pay a qualified editor $50 per hour, though $35 might be appropriate for someone who is just starting. I pay time and half, $75 per hour, to experienced editors for rush work, which is typical for grant proposals. Most recently, a professional editor spent 10 hours helping me with a grant proposal, 2 hours on an editorial for Biological Conservation, and 4 hours on a research article.
I have used a variety of sources to pay for editing: funds from research fellowships and grants, advances on book contracts, and funds from my university, including return on overhead. In some cases, I have paid for editing using my own personal funds, including royalties from my textbooks.
While this might seem like a lot of money, in my opinion it is money worth spending. If I spend $500 to $1,000 to increase the chances of a $300,000 grant proposal being funded, or $200 to $300 to improve a paper for a top journal, this seems like money well spent.
Using a professional editor can make a big difference in the productivity of a scientist. It might strike some people as unfair, as it creates a bias that favors well-funded and personally affluent senior scientists. But I think it is worthwhile for many people. I also advocate that we make access to good editorial help easier—for example, by making it a more routine component of grants (like page charges are becoming), and through the assistance of colleagues, universities, journals, and professional societies.
Working with editors can especially help scientists for whom writing is not a strength (including those for whom English is not their first language), scientists who want to learn writing skills from professional editors, and those whose time may be better spent elsewhere on research projects.
Working with professional scientific editors is not for everyone, but I think it can help many people. Certainly, working with editors has been important in my career.
Questions for further thought:
- Is paying a professional editor for help with writing similar or different from paying a house cleaner or a baby sitter? Both are helping the scientist to be more efficient.
- If the professional editor and I each work on a short paper for 10 hours, should the editor be a co-author of the published paper? Does it depend on the intellectual contribution of the editor to the final paper?
- Questions added by Meghan: Is there a way to make professional editors more accessible to all scientists (but especially early career scientists and others who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to pay for their services)? Are there resources available at societies or universities that can help? One thing I wonder is whether there can be pots of money similar to travel funds that early career folks could access for editing.