or: Why the Best Critical Reader for Your Academic Paper Probably Isn’t an Expert in Your Field
When writers seek out editors, they usually have some excellent search criteria in mind: experience overall, experience editing in their writing genre, availability within their timeframe, reliability, communicativeness, budget, and so on.
One piece of criteria that I sometimes see in job listings from authors, though, is something like “Must be an expert in < name a field here >.” This field might be as broad as psychology or economics, or it might be as specific as accounting-based valuation models or religious perspectives held by the Romantic poets.
When I respond to these job postings, I do my best to explain why I think I’m the editor for the job despite my lack of expertise in the author’s (sometimes very) specific field of research. I confess that I seldom get those jobs.
Let’s use the dissertation as the focal point for this discussion, though most of it applies just as easily to papers written at an earlier level of education and those written later in one’s career.
A doctoral dissertation or thesis is the paper written to establish the writer as an expert in one particular topic within his or her field of research. It’s the writer’s contribution toward advancing that field of research by introducing findings, theories, or concepts that are brand new to the field. One of the ways in which a graduate student identifies a completely new topic is by specializing. A dissertation addresses a sufficiently narrow topic in great depth (as opposed to discussing a broad topic superficially).
My dissertation research serves as an example as well as any.
It addressed gender in virtual worlds, which had been done. It addressed feminist theories of the body, which had been done as well. And it addressed gendered forms of violence and the definitions thereof, which had of course also been done. What had not been done before I did it was combining these three subtopics and developing a theoretical concept I called noncorporeal embodiment. I own that contribution; that’s my expertise.
I’d have been out of luck if I’d been seeking a dissertation editor who was “an expert in gender, virtual worlds, theories of the body, and gender-related violence.” I might not be the only person at this point who studies those things, but how many others of them just happen to be professional editors? Editors who would have been available when I needed them, who work within my budget, and who happened to have seen my job listing right when it was there?
Put simply, if you have narrowed your dissertation topic down enough to be an adequate dissertation topic, then there is no one in the world who is an expert on it aside from you.
But what about having a more general expertise in one’s field of study?
Surely it’s not too unreasonable for a sociology student, for instance, to seek editing from someone with a sociology background?
No, that’s not necessarily unreasonable. At that point, though, the relevance of expertise depends on what kind of editing you’re receiving. The heavier the editing, the more the expertise will come in handy.
Here are some examples of comments I’ve left on pieces I’ve edited:
Women’s studies: "Although there is always room for more discussion of heterosexism, heteronormativity, etc., I have the feeling that for a gender-aware audience, it might be necessary to take the approach a bit farther in application. Here are some additional thoughts about developing a deeper discussion: a) revisit your dissertation work within the framework of examining heterosexism and heteronormativity in the women's groups you studied; b) address how heteronormativity is maintained even within contexts that are purportedly anti-homophobic; or c) take the subject of your recently accepted paper and examine not only how sexism and heterosexism intersect with each other but how ablism intersects with both."
I provide these to illustrate that while I can make more concrete suggestions in the case of the women’s studies client, I can still offer some in-depth feedback on papers in fields I have no academic background in at all. The difference is that the less I know about the field, the more likely I am to make disclaimers like “if my understanding is incorrect, please revert the changes.” But I still make changes, and I flag them for the author to review. That feedback will often be enough for the author to know how his or her work is being read and to make the revisions necessary for improving clarity.
So if you don’t need an expert in your field, what do you need?
Instead of thinking in terms of hiring an editor who already knows what you’re talking about, think in terms of hiring one who should reasonably be able to understand what you’re talking about.
Dissertation committees often have one member who is an “outside reader,” a faculty member from a different department—or even a different university—who reads the dissertation, attends the defense, and may (depending on the university’s policies) have a say in the outcome. Different people understand the role of the outside reader differently, but my interpretation has always been this: he or she is there to make sure that your main argument—if not your details—are explained clearly enough that the dissertation will have meaning to a well-educated reader with no background in your topic.
That is what, in my opinion, defines clear academic writing. It expects the reader to be sharp enough to understand the connections the writer makes but is still responsible for laying those connections out.
Imagine, then, that your editor is your outside reader. Such an editor will be in the position to identify where you’re relying too much on “understood” knowledge that is really only understood in your immediate scholarly circle. She’ll be able to call attention to where you’re using undefined jargon without realizing it so that it can either be defined in the text or clarified contextually. And she might be able to make suggestions for future research that someone within your field would be less likely to come up with.
Ultimately, the only expert on your research is you, so embrace that expert status and look for people who can help you write what only you can write.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.