This blog post is aimed at researchers who are thinking through possible exit strategies from the academy. Here are some tips on who editorial work suits, what setting up an editorial business involves, and what first steps you can take. I took these steps just over a year ago. The focus here is on researchers with a social sciences/humanities background, but much of what is written applies more generally.
What you perhaps have and know already (maybe without realizing it)
As a social sciences/humanities researcher you will already have highly developed writing and editorial skills, as well as a deep understanding of disciplinary conventions, certain historical or geographical contexts, and your areas of expertise. Depending on how long you have worked as a researcher after finishing the PhD, you may have published an academic book and worked as a journal editor, project manager, or both. All this experience will help you understand the writing and publishing process better and a good postdoc project building these skills and your academic network may stand you in good stead for a transition to editorial work.
Academic articles and books are some of the most demanding documents in terms of editorial technicalities. This means that your familiarity with them puts you in a good position for editing other kinds of documents with confidence (after editorial training). On the other hand, academic copyediting for mainstream publishers pays some of the lowest editing and proofreading rates available. This is probably because the books are often produced on tight margins, with relatively small print runs. The stakes are much higher, for example, with a course textbook. Nevertheless, when working with clients (researchers, students etc.) directly, you are likely to get decent rates at first, so one good piece of advice is to specialize first and diversify later.
What you perhaps don’t have and know (maybe without realizing it)
Most academic researchers have a fairly good grasp of MS Word (as discussed in this great book) and of academic referencing systems. As an editor, however, you will have to get to grips with MS Word on another level, finding your way around Word Styles, Find and Replace, Wildcards and Macros. You will also have to learn how to deal with clients, write and follow briefs and deal with issues that arise (such as version control, with occasional authors making random untracked amendments to documents etc.).
The way in which you approach time is completely different to at university too. At university, you expect to receive a salary and in turn spend your time completing a variety of compulsory (lecturing, writing articles) and voluntary (e.g. peer review, committees, impact/visibility) work. The “voluntary” activities (albeit necessary to progress) rely on a certain amount of goodwill and academic citizenship, and this means that deadlines can be missed and they can drag. The same goes for writing articles, with researchers regularly missing publisher deadlines. In contrast, as a freelancer, you have no salary. You simply have billable hours (e.g. an hour of editing) and unbillable hours (an hour of marketing, doing your books, writing a blog) each week. If you don’t have enough hours billed at a rate you can afford to live on, your business will collapse. In my case, this meant that I became much more organized and conscious of meeting all deadlines and ensuring I had enough work most of the time. In contrast, I recently received peer reviews on an article fourteen months after submitting it – this is a completely different time-logic to running an editorial business.
Finally, you have probably not had any editorial training – and this is crucial.
Who does editorial work suit?
The stereotype is that editorial work suits perfectionists – those among you who spend hours checking every sentence and reference before submitting a text to a journal. I don’t believe this is true and I was never one of those people. Too much perfectionism can be a bad thing as you work to a budget and need to know when to stop and say “this is good enough.” The kind of perfectionism an editorial eye requires is not innate and is much improved through practice. I believe a focus on clarity and conveying writers’ messages clearly, and a love of language and managing the author–editor relationship is just as important as attention to detail.
The tech side to editing (e.g. macros, advanced find and replace routines) suits people who like solving problems or even computer programming (no programming skills are required though). Based on my own experience, I would also say editorial work suits academic researchers who:
- Enjoy reading up on a wide variety of subjects and not just their (disciplinary) specialism
- Love writing and working with text
- Enjoy helping and serving other writers (you and your ideas are not in the spotlight)
- Have a love of language – grammar, register, style, tone, texture, punctuation etc.
- Are looking for a job they can scale up or down (many editors work part-time and it is particularly suited to those with variable time commitments, e.g. people with childcare obligations)
- Don’t want to completely cut themselves off from their academic work and network (perfect for a transition)
- Are happy working by themselves at a desk almost all day, every day
- Are not motivated to earn lots of money (but who want to be comfortable)
- Want a leisurely daily routine (no commute, breaks when you want them, home cooking etc.)
Crucially, editorial work suits researchers who like the research and writing part of their job, but are unhappy with other aspects of the academic system and career path, or who are looking for a role that can be part-time and balanced around other obligations.
How can I transition?
Start telling people you are available for editorial work. Complete your editorial training, preferably with a recognized provider (e.g. the CIEP or PTC in the UK). You can do this alongside your main job, as there are online, part-time courses available and it is best to not rush through the materials. It is probably worth doing a proofreading course, even if you want to be a copyeditor or structural editor. When you are ready, set up a website (or repurpose your academic website). Remember that the most interesting jobs will probably come via your existing network/employer at first, and so even if you want to specialize in something different, such as fiction editing, it is worth focusing on your current specialism first.
Good luck and feel free to contact me if you have any questions!