Copyediting Work You Can’t Stand (Behind)

I can’t complain about most of my clients. I work on science papers, which many people (myself included) find boring, but I think the mission of the journals I work for is good. I’ve worked on craft books, and although I have  no interest in crafts or even find things particularly aesthetically pleasing, I am glad other people do. Creativity and science are both good.

Then there are the outliers. I helped someone with what was supposed to be a dissertation once. It was so bad that, on the advice of Dr. Cougar, I called the ombudsman of the university the student attended. I did not give her my name but explained that I felt I was being pushed to help something through that was profoundly not worthy. She helped me figure out that no actual dishonesty occurred. But it took a half-hour conversation to determine that.

The dissertation was not even senior-level work at the nonfancy undergraduate institute that houses my Second Job. The student did not understand the necessity to cite all his references and have references for all his citations. And to make it worse, there were some university politics involved.

I did what the student paid me to do. I formatted his references and left notes where I thought he should add more or less. I corrected many of his errors. I wrote one of the weirdest notes of my professional career (minus the BJ debacle) to a committee member he had encouraged me to talk to because he didn’t understand why no one would accept his dissertation.

I would like to explain how I worked with STUDENT on his thesis to illustrate my process of editing student work within academic honesty standards [THESE WORDS ARE A RED FLAG]. I pointed out places where he could add transitions, synthesize the quotes further, or reorganize for clarity. I could not write the transitions for him (as you sometimes can for other types of editing) or tell him how to reorganize. The onus of the work had to be on him. As STUDENT can attest, I asked him a ton of questions aimed at helping him think through word choice, phrases, organization, and analysis…. I did a final glance-over for formatting, but did not check to see whether all suggested changes were made.

I was lucky that my student’s committee member understood what I was saying and wrote me a nice note back. But this email was a CYA (cover your ass) way of saying exactly what part of my work I could stand behind and what part I would not stand behind. This was the same student where I had to write an email along the lines of, “I know you’re not asking me to do XX, because it is academically dishonest, but I can do YY and ZZ.”

Beginning copyeditors don’t always have the luxury to be picky about their clients. So if you find yourself in a similar situation, cover your ass, don’t do anything academically dishonest. There are a lot of rules that you can access online about what you can change and what you can’t in an academic situation. I found this resource from Editor’s Association of Canada the most helpful. Be entirely transparent about your process.

In nonacademic editing, you have a ton more leeway and can change a lot of things. You also can request to not have your name mentioned in the final document.

What was your worst editing client? What was the shadiest thing you’ve done at a job?

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2 responses to “Copyediting Work You Can’t Stand (Behind)

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