Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Shannon Craigo-Snell is professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Empty Church: Theater, Theology and Bodily Hope (Oxford, 2014). Her forthcoming book, No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice, co-authored with Christopher Doucot, will be released in 2017. She is involved in activism as well as a variety of academic organizations.
In my previous blog post, I noted that marginalized scholars cannot rely on being likable to excel in academe — that is, we cannot expect our colleagues to hire us, grant us tenure, promote us or otherwise advance us professionally because we remind them of themselves. Marginalized scholars cannot depend on the habit of academics who reproduce themselves. Instead, I offered advice for my fellow unlikable and marginalized academics to succeed on their own accord.
In this essay, I will provide suggestions on editing one’s scholarly writing. Scholars who look, think and/or write like the dominant academics in their field often have support and mentoring to help them move from ideas to publications. For the rest of us, the path can be treacherous. Editing is one vital part of the journey. There are several different types or layers of editing, each with a role to play.
Self-Editing (a.k.a. Revising). By the time we complete graduate work, we have all learned to edit our own writing well. When time is short, it will be tempting to skip or shorten this step. Don’t! It is common for scholars in the humanities to spend as much time revising a piece of work as they did writing it. After you are a well-established scholar, you might decide to publish something quickly that has not been repeatedly revised. However, in the early phase of your career, one sloppy piece of writing could provide the excuse to deny promotion. And the quantity of your publications will not make up for their poor quality. Further, implicit bias against marginalized scholars often manifests in vague statements that an author’s work is “unsophisticated.” Poorly edited work can be used to prop up such claims.
Peer Editing. There is no replacement for having someone else read and edit your work. If I have done something regrettable — made a logical misstep or repeatedly misspelled a famous scholar’s name, for example — I would much rather hear that from a friend than from a stranger. That means it is vitally important to cultivate mutual editing relationships with peers.
I recommend finding friends or colleagues who are willing to read and comment on your work before you submit it for publication. Cultivating such relationships means more than asking a friend to read your work at the last minute before a deadline. It means being willing to drop everything and read your friend’s work before their deadline, too. Over time, you will become sharp and attuned readers for one another, able to speak incisively about each other’s work. If you were fortunate enough to begin such friendships in graduate school, cherish and nourish them. If you have not found these relationships yet, actively seek them out among colleagues in your general field.
Some people create more formal writing groups for this purpose. If that works for you, terrific. However, beware of any relationships or groups that feel competitive, as this is not helpful in editing. The ideal peer-editor is someone whose work you admire, whose judgment you trust, and who wants you to succeed.
In the early part of my career, I was too naïve to recognize the importance of peer editing and too nervous about my own unpolished work to share it widely. Then two incredible colleagues moved into offices near my own: Ludger Viefhues-Bailey, who is ridiculously brilliant on all things philosophical and theoretical, and Stephen Davis, who, in addition to being a wonderful scholar of ancient Christianity, has a gift for transition sentences and paragraph structure. When I was bold enough to ask them to read my work and comment, the quality of my writing increased significantly. Although preparing work for publication is easier and faster at this point in my career, I still always ask friends to review my work before submitting it.
Freelance editing. As a young scholar, I did not know that many of my senior colleagues employed freelance editors to improve their work. Although freelance editors are a key element to the productivity of many well-known academics, their availability and use is often not publicized. Consulting a freelance editor is exactly the kind of tip often passed to scholars in the dominant culture.
In various fields in the humanities, there are people who are both knowledgeable in the relevant disciplines and experienced editors. Perhaps they finished their Ph.D. and then decided not to pursue a teaching career. Or perhaps they worked for years in academic publishing and then decided to strike out on their own. By whatever path, there are people with incredible skills and knowledge who edit for a living.
For a fee, freelance editors can help you polish a paper, take the dissertation flavor out of a manuscript or smooth out a book chapter. Even more vital, some editors can look at a chunk of your work and help you discern what part of it could be shaped into an article, or perhaps what direction this work should be steered in to create a publishable book. That is called developmental editing. Typically more expensive than polishing a manuscript, that type of editing can be incredibly useful to scholars on the margins. Developmental editors know the field — including what has been published and what journals or presses are publishing work in this area — and they have the experience to help you shape, organize and present your own work well. The best way I know to find a freelance editor is to ask colleagues in your field.
The kind of shepherding toward publication that is often given to academics in the dominant culture can be purchased by anyone. It does cost money. It is part of the inequity of academe that the scholars who need this the most are least able to afford it.
Editing by Publishers. When you submit an article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal or a manuscript to an academic press, you will likely receive feedback from other academics in your field writing under conditions of anonymity. These comments can be minimal (a simple yes or no), extremely detailed and useful, and incredibly painful. If you receive comments from an external reviewer that feel harsh or hurtful, I recommend allowing yourself to feel angry and upset, then learning all you can from the comments. Even unfair and biased comments have something to teach about how an argument can be misread.
Trusted colleagues can help you know how seriously to take any given remark. In general, you do not need to respond to each and every critique by your reviewers. The publisher will want to know that you have taken the reviewers’ remarks seriously and attempted to improve your work. You can have some integrity as an author by noting that implementing certain changes would either detract from or even diminish the quality and contribution of your paper; it’s just important that you at least acknowledge the suggestion and explain why you didn’t use it.
Once a piece of writing is accepted for publication, it will likely be edited before it goes into print. However, the level of editing varies so widely that it is unwise to rely on this alone. Also, you might not know how much or how little editing will be offered by the publisher until close to publication, when deadlines are tight.
Given the pressure to publish quickly and often, multiple layers of editing can seem counterproductive. For marginalized scholars in particular, it’s not. Except for the extreme perfectionists among us, every moment spent editing is worthwhile.