The Art of Being Edited*

Art once on display @commonroots
Art  @commonroots

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A primer on getting the most out of the editing process, this short article assumes that you’re working on a journal submission, but is generally applicable to an op-ed you might be pitching, sample chapters for a book proposal, etc. I am also assuming you’ve already found an editor, but I’ll talk about that a little bit. As always, I take questions and additional recommendations—I’m positive I’ve overlooked, oh, about a hundred things. A hundred seems about right.

Getting Started

  1. When is it time to get an editor involved?  If someone else has told you that your piece needs an editor (this will sometimes occur at the final stages of a dissertation), it’s clearly time, but otherwise, it’s subjective. The best time, from the editorial point of view, is when you have gotten to a solid second draft.
  2. What does your editor need?  The full manuscript, including the bibliography, should travel together wherever possible. This is particularly the case where you have multiple authors and your editor will be working to “cover the seams” (that is, to make sure there aren’t three distinct voices throughout or three different citation styles poking holes in the reader’s experience). If possible, send the author’s guide from your target journal, as each has its particulars, and your editor can more easily let you know if you’re missing a required title page or reformat your bibliography entries as needed if they have this information. Your editor also needs a timeline; if you’re hoping to get your edits in under two weeks, expect to pay a rush fee, as the editor will likely need to reshuffle priorities.Be sure to include preferences, if you know them: are there words you hate? Phrases you think are key to your writing style and should not be excised? And if it’s at all possible, send the “Twitter” version of your paper: what’s the key point in 2 sentences or so? This is a great guide for your editor.
  3. What do you need from your editor?  An agreed-upon timeline and format (that is, do you prefer paper markups or a word .doc with track changes) are key, as is an idea of what you can expect to pay. And if you have a great deal of technical information in your piece, you will likely need to confirm that your editor is comfortable in your field (this is rarely applicable for all but the most technical scientific or mathematical writing). In some cases, you should also ask if they have any conflicts of interest, particularly if your paper is on a topic that might be considered controversial (and might disagree vehemently) or if they have a full-time job working for a journal in your field.

Letting Go

You’ve got your editor, you’ve got your paper, you know where you want to submit it, and hopefully you feel good about your argument—after all, the editor can only work from what’s on the page, unless they happen to be an expert in your field (and really, this isn’t a good place to have an expert; that’s what peer reviewers will do for you!). Now it needs to be spiffed up, but of course, you’ve birthed this lovely, wonderful, insightful, and sure-to-change-the-field piece! It has pithy sentences and adjectives honed to perfection! You’ve… got your ego attached. Let’s send off your article with a mantra:

I care more about the finished product than the first draft.

I care more about the finished product than the first draft.

I care more about the finished product than the first draft.

Now go get a cocktail and stop thinking about this paper. The less you stew, the better. It will come back to you. It will be better. This is great! Think of it as sending your loving dog off to be trained for a week or so… it’ll be your dog when it returns, it might just have some boundaries. That’s a good thing.

Receiving—and Learning from—Edits

The e-mail arrives: your manuscript, with edits. What’s that mantra?

I care more about the finished product than the first draft.

Right. Try to care more about the finished product than the first draft. An edited paper has a better chance of getting accepted! An edited paper shows that you’re serious and professional about this process! An edited paper will make you look good! An editor is an invisible helper-elf!

Dive in. Some editors will send you a revision memo of sorts, while others will delve right in with comments sprinkled throughout the paper. And trust me, when you open your paper, with all those track changes, it will look a fright. You will immediately suffer a blow and must steady yourself to read on. The best possible thing to do is HIDE THE TRACK CHANGES. For right now, go into the reviewing pane and select “final.” This doesn’t dispose of the changes, it just lets you see a final draft as the editor has prepared it. Their comments will still show up (and will, usually, point out where your citations and your bibliography don’t match, as well as any areas where the editor is nervous they may have changed meaning in smoothing a sentence or paragraph).

Now, sit back and read this paper. What do you think? Does it sound like you? Is everything you wanted in there still there? Are there places your argument’s been screwed up in translation? Take some notes, but really, just read. If you’re feeling daring and have made a few tweaks here and there, save the document as a new one and accept all of the changes. Let it sit for a day or two.

When you go back again, look at your clean copy and start editing it yourself. Forget about that first draft somewhere in some folder. This is your new, nearly finished piece! There are sure to be new typos—editors always introduce a new error here and there. Fix them, move on. Finish your paper. Make note of edits that didn’t feel “you” so that you have more information for working with the same or a new editor next time. Submit your paper.

The final step is learning from this process. What you’ll notice is that your editor can’t teach you anything about, say, sociology. He or she simply isn’t qualified. But if you go back now and open up that fully track-change-defiled document, you can start looking at each individual change the editor recommended, and you can start to learn from it. Do you make consistent mistakes? Here they are, fixed. How did they get fixed? How will you not make them again? Do you always use several adjectives, but notice that your editor limited you to just a couple? That’s something to note. And so on. This isn’t an exercise in beating yourself up, but in trying to see your own writing through someone else’s eyes. Every paper you write and every paper you have edited will teach you. The key is in being receptive to the lessons.

*By a woman who finds having her work edited terrifying.

About Letta Page

I am a disarmingly earnest editor, translator of academia, nonfiction revisionary, and domesticated roustabout. More professionally, I might say: I am the senior managing editor of Contexts, founding associate editor and producer of The Society Pages, and a sociology editor, jargon-slayer, and “book doula” for hire. My specialty is in helping authors identify and hone their arguments in ways their target audiences can both understand and use. In this way, I’m a translator, consultant, writing coach, and editor all in one. The senior managing editor of Contexts magazine (the public outreach journal of the American Sociological Association), I have more than two decades’ experience in academic editing across a range of disciplines. I’ve edited and written copy for publications from Oxford University Press, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, W.W. Norton, the University of Chicago Press, Cambridge University Press, Stanford University Press, and many others, including dozens of journals. Today, I specialize in sociology and, as a sort of fun “palate cleanser” (trust me, when you’re editing books on neoliberalism and genocide, it’s always good to have a fallback), I write copy for organizations like Stand Up! Records. I also have a background in the visual arts and was a founder of First Amendment Arts (now Co-Exhibitions) in Minneapolis, MN. I hold degrees in history and classical studies from Boston University and an art degree from the University of Minnesota, and I enjoy most of the things you can imagine Rose from The Golden Girls counts among her hobbies. I received the University of Minnesota’s Public Sociology Award, for outstanding contributions to the discipline and public conversation, in 2019. My truly lovely husband, Josh Page, is a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota, as well as a food writer and founder of Meal magazine. He’s a great writer, and I’m so happy to work alongside him in print and in life.