Professional editing for the PhD thesis?

An editor is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one then you are better off alone. ~ Toni Morrison

NYC Central Park statue, by @debsnet

I am at the pointy end of thesis revision. I’ve had some lessons in revising, and even a brief local writing retreat. I’m intending to submit my PhD dissertation next month, 3 years after I enrolled. Can I get a ‘Woooot!’?

And as I quadruple cross-check my references, re-read for APA comma use, and re-re-re-re-re-read each chapter, I’m wondering if I should get an editor or proof-reader for my thesis. Of course my thesis has been read by others – my two supervisors and my mum (hooray for mums!) – but for now, despite knowing that being so close to my text might mean I’m not seeing its problems, I’m not intending to employ an editor.

I know people who have paid in the vicinity of AUD$2000, tax deductible, to have their thesis copy-edited by a freelance academic-slash-editor or an academic editing company. It costs marginally less for a simpler copy check which refines accuracy, rather than also ‘improving’ the quality of the writing.

While this post on the Thesis Whisperer blog is written by an editing company (and look at that – it’s pro editing!), there are some interesting comments there from those who have used editors and proof-readers to varying degrees.

I can see the argument for getting a thesis professionally edited. If I was writing a novel or a book through a publisher, it would be professionally edited. This would ensure that any typos or errors I am missing would be picked up. It might streamline, strengthen or dilute my writing, according to the editor’s discretion. I know of one post-PhD person who swears by her editor, saying that he made her writing better, stronger and more accurate. I know of another who used the same editor, who was annoyed at him for trying to change the voice of her writing and disagreed with many of his edits.

From my personal perspective, a few things are influencing my decision. English is my first language, I’m an English and Literature teacher, and a writer of sorts (if you consider my amateur attempts at blogging, copy writing, dissertating and the occasional dabble in poetry to be writing). So I feel like I should be capable of this task. And I want the thesis to be a work that is totally mine. Maybe it’s because, as Pat Thomson wrote yesterday, and as I mused in this post about writing the discussion chapter, writing is more than writing a text, it is writing ourselves into scholarly being. I’ve been writing myself into my researcher/academic-writer identity. I feel as though I don’t want that being-becoming-researcher ‘me’ to be shaped by an editor’s hand or moulded by a both-proverbial-and-tangible red pen, externally poised to correct and erase.

I’ve been very deliberate about the way I’ve written my thesis, and I know my style of academic writing might be considered idiosyncratic. I’m simultaneously proud of what I’ve produced, and aware that it is very ‘me’, which might be seen by examiners and readers as positive or questionable. My work might be seen as operating at the edges of PhD scholarship, of pushing against those edges a bit in an attempt to see if they move, just a little. Maybe it’s the non-conformist anti-authoritarian in me who doesn’t want to invest in this opportunity. Perhaps I see it as having my writing, and therefore my researcher-self, boxed in by the expectations and rules of someone else (even thought I know that of course a PhD conforms to rules of style). I don’t want an editor to change the voice of the text, and while a proof reader might pick up some un-picked-up typographical errors, I want to own the text, typos and all (while at the same time hoping that there aren’t any errors).

It’s perhaps ironic that I would expect my students to consider my writing advice or suggested corrections, and that I listen attentively my supervisors’ comments. Perhaps this is about relationships and trust; the unknown faceless editor, as opposed to someone who knows me and my work. And yet I know that this is precisely why the editor is able to see the text anew and without the bias which comes from being the deep-in-the-thesis-cave candidate or the have-worked-with-the-student-for-years-and-know-the-project-inside-out supervisor.

What do you think? Can you make sense of my confused and contradictory thinking around having or not having a doctoral thesis edited or proof-read professionally? Is choosing not to use an editor’s services honourable purism or deluded idiocy?


15 thoughts on “Professional editing for the PhD thesis?

  1. First things first: Woooot!
    I agree about the editor, I didn’t use one either. I do use an editor for all my published work, trad and indie, and I always will. But for my thesis – no. It wasn’t written for publication, and I too wanted my examiners to see my writing untouched by (other) human hand. When they praised the quality of my writing, I felt pleased because that praise was all for me. Equally, where they criticised parts of my work, I couldn’t even wonder whether an editor’s intervention had caused a loss of clarity. I think someone less fluent in English and/or writing might make a different choice, and I would never condemn anyone for taking that route; each to their own. But from what I know of you, I think you’re making the right decision for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Helen!

      Your post-examination reflections make me feel better about my decision. I’ll know that I’ve earned both praise and criticism from examiners! I agree that if I was a non-native speaker/writer, or a STEM researcher, rather than a humanities nerd, I might make a different choice. Your last point is key: ‘the right decision for me’, which may be different to the right decision to someone else.

      Thanks so much for your comment and support.

      Deb 🙂


  2. Speaking as a professional editor, I understand your reasons but I would suggest that you have a look at some software called PerfectIt and run your thesis through it. It will pick up inconsistencies but *won’t change a single thing without your permission*. The person assessing your thesis may be the kind of reader who is irritated by small inconsistencies in hyphenation or capitalisation (some are more than others). If you’re sailing close to the wind in other respects, you’ll do yourself a favour by ironing those out.
    Good luck! (and Wooot!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you SO much, Sarah. I ‘ve downloaded the PerfectIt trial and it looks like fantastic software for picking up across-document consistency. What I really like about your suggestion is that I get to keep control and ownership of the decisions around language use, while having the extra ‘eye’ of digital checking.

      The power of throwing out a blog SOS: great advice like this!

      Big gratitude.


  3. Woot! Woot! I hired an editor not for my argument but only for the grammar/punctuation etc. I’m not confident in that area (though my dissertation taught me loads). It was only $600. She was connected to my uni for the international students and i had the money I’m my budget. One of my supervisors was really good at that stuff but my decision was based purely around having a fourth pair of eyes completely separate from the process. Also my lack of confidence in my own skills. It made me feel better about letting it go. Sounds like you are not in the same position as me but thought I’d say there are other editing options/reasons

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Naomi, for sharing your experience. Part of the reason I posted this was because I really don’t know what the ‘right’ thing to do is. I suspect this is different for each person. And I suspect that some theses come back to candidates which would have fared better had an editor been used!

      Also, my supervisors have said that that’s not the kind of reading they’re doing – micro checking of language and references – so I am on my own in that regard!

      I’m hoping that examiner comments will be based on the strength, or not, of my argument, method, data interpretation, and findings, as well as stylistic/overarching writing choices, rather than typographical errors. Perhaps all the more reason to have it proofed for errors and inconsistencies!

      I am going to try the PerfectIt software suggested by Sarah above which seems a good compromise.


      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, I didn’t use one but I’ve been on the receiving end of pre-thesis submission edits. That is, I edited 2 or 3. Which I probably should never do again. Because the theses I edited weren’t so much an exercise in grammatical reconstruction as a way to learn that some people didn’t know how to support their arguments with the literature. Very poorly supervised students, sadly. On the plus side I edited a chapter of my sister’s thesis and thought she’ll probably get a prize for it. It was that good.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Jess! I’m sure there is a massive range of thesis-writing-quality and style out there. I live in hope that mine is one of the good ones, although it’s so hard to tell when we are so immersed in the solitary burrow of our own work.



      • Can be isolating, thesis writing, but I read many theses in the course of my study and can promise you by the end I knew the good from the bad! Interesting comparison between US dissertations and those from other countries such as the UK or Europe: many U.S. Theses were pretty badly written. Despite their long immersion in research methods prior to creating their own project. And I wouldn’t worry about your idiosyncrasies in writing style etc: that authorial voice thingy is a powerful persuader. Examiners like well written, well argued dissertations. My hubby regularly marks theses and usually comments on the good ones. Mind you, we’re in music, which of itself is an interesting conundrum re the whole writing aspect.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that is among the so much important
    information for me. And i’m glad reading your article.
    But want to observation on few general issues,
    The web site taste is perfect, the articles is truly great : D.
    Good process, cheers


  6. Pingback: Risky business: Living on the PhD edge | the édu flâneuse

  7. Pingback: Days until thesis submission | the édu flâneuse

  8. Pingback: Doing PhD revisions: The last thesis embrace | the édu flâneuse

  9. Pingback: Diary of writing a book to manuscript completion | the édu flâneuse

  10. Pingback: Journal de l'écriture d'un livre à la fin du manuscrit - écrire son livre gratuitement - Comment écrire un livre ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s