How To Edit A Thesis

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I’ve received a number of requests from clients asking me to edit a thesis. My first response is always to accept. I love reading theses. It takes me right back to my university days full of ideas and long theoretical discussions. The theories and solutions we devised over pints of beer or cups of coffee may not have stood up against a reality check, but they were fun nonetheless. Even writing my own thesis, though definitely arduous at times, was fun. Taking an idea and tracing its possible routes to a variety of logical conclusions is not something I get to do very often today.

When it comes to editing a thesis, however, a whole different set of skills is involved. The most important is communicating what role exactly the editor plays. More so than for any other type of writing, putting expectations down on paper, in a contract, is of supreme importance.

The Masters or PhD candidate is marked partially on his or her ability to write and explain ideas clearly. So, an editor can’t go in and change much. We, both editor and student, are bound by the university’s rules. Having said that, there are exceptions and differences to those rules from institution to institution.

Here’s an overview of what to expect as a student and as an editor:

  • Stick to the basics. Look for spelling errors, incomplete sentences, punctuation issues. The editor will generally be confined to doing basic proofreading. Structural problems, plagiarism and other larger issues can’t be fixed – at least not by the editor. I’m more than willing, however, to flag the problems for the writer. In those cases, I’m acting more like another reader, or like another pair of eyes.
  • University rules. Each department will typically have its own rules regarding what the thesis should look like. When I’m hired to edit a thesis, the first thing I ask for is a copy of those requirements. For instance, the department may want the student to use APA style. But, when it comes to the title page, it may require something totally different than a typical APA style title page. Ignoring those kinds of details can cause the student a load of problems and set-backs.
  • Get a contract. The Editors’ Association of Canada has a great contract on its website available for download. In it, you’ll find specifics about what the student’s advisory committee might allow in terms of editing. Usually, we’re fairly limited in terms of what we can edit. There are cases, however, where the university will allow us to do more. For instance, I’ve edited papers written by students for whom english is a second language. The fact that their ideas might not be written out clearly has no bearing whatsoever on their research or thought processes. Rather the problem is simply a language issue. In those cases, I have more leeway as an editor to help the student express his or her ideas clearly and correctly. But, I can’t stress enough. Make sure all parties involved – editor, student, university – have signed off on exactly the kind of editing that’s allowed.

The only other important piece of advice I can give to both editor and student is this: keep a copy of the edited work. It’s important in case anyone on the student’s advisory committee questions whether the editor did more “correcting” than he or she was supposed to. The proof is in the saved and edited copy of the thesis. I tend to keep a copy until the student tells me (in writing) that the thesis has been officially accepted.

It sounds crazy, I know, but editing a thesis is really a lot of fun for me. I see it as a learning experience. I can’t be an expert in every field, so it’s a great way to explore a topic that I might not otherwise have a chance to read about.

Over to you: What kind of issues or questions have you run into with a thesis?

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