By Laura Portwood-Stacer, Ph.D.
Laura Portwood-Stacer runs Manuscript Works, an editing and consulting business whose mission is to help academic authors achieve clarity and confidence in their published work. I invited her to submit this post.
If you’re a scholar who spends any time on Twitter, you have plenty of evidence that this can be a tough time of year for academics. For those on the job market, a select few will be signing contracts on new positions that will allow them to stay on the teaching/research path for another few years. But most will be coming to terms with the fact that they are facing another year in contingent, precarious, or non- employment. Some will be deciding, finally, to seek another career path entirely.
Seeing various tweets documenting all three of these experiences over the past few weeks reminded me that my decision to become a freelance developmental editor and publishing consultant came around this time of year, in 2015. I had finished a visiting assistant professorship 6 months prior and was doing one more semester as an adjunct in the same department (which had predictably declined to short-list me for a tenure-track position and couldn’t renew the temporary contract either). After 5 years on the market, I had already decided I wouldn’t be applying to any other academic positions. My VAP had afforded me the privilege of living in the same city as my partner for three years, and we’d just gotten married and were trying to have a kid, so I had no interest in moving anywhere or putting myself through the stress of the academic job hunt for another year.
Fortunately, I was able to use my time as a VAP and adjunct to lay the groundwork for my career shift, even if I didn’t have a master plan to do that all along. I wanted to write this #RealAc post to share some ideas with you if you too are considering a pivot to the field of academic editing. The general principles also apply no matter what field you may be interested in pursuing outside or alongside academia.
Connect with people who are where you want to be.
When I was a PhD candidate, my advisor organized a visit from a university press acquisitions editor. We were supposed to be learning how to publish books when we graduated, but I remember hearing him talk about his job and thinking “I wish I was doing that instead of this.” This was a very quiet thought in my head at the time, because I wasn’t ready to admit that academia wasn’t quite the right place for me. I wish I’d asked more questions about how to get into his line of work. As a PhD student, I might have even been able to do an internship at an academic press to learn more about careers in that field and gain in-house experience.
Although I didn’t do those things at the time, I did eventually make connections with other freelance and in-house editors, who served as role models and sources of information. I also joined multiple Facebook groups for editors, which have been invaluable sites of professional community and support over the past 4 years. It’s never too early to start lurking in places like that and testing what it feels like to try on a new professional identity for yourself. The earlier you start looking for these connections, the easier it will be to make a transition if and when you decide being a professor is not for you.
Pursue opportunities to gain experience that you may draw on later.
I’ve always enjoyed editing scholarly work, which has made it easy to say yes when I’ve been presented chances to do it formally. For instance, when I was a VAP, a senior colleague in my department invited me to come on board as an associate editor at a journal in my field, co-editing the section of each issue devoted to short essays and book reviews. The job was of course absurdly underpaid for the work involved, but it gave me excellent experience working with academic authors to improve their writing. In that position, my co-editor and I had to formulate original calls for papers, field dozens of submissions and then provide actionable feedback that would get the selected pieces into shape that met our standards of publishability. We had to do all that in the span of a couple months, and we had to do it 6 times per year. It was a crash course in understanding what makes academic writing effective for readers and how to efficiently communicate with authors in a way that makes them want to improve their work in the ways suggested, which are skills that I use every day in my current work.
Other means of getting this kind of experience as an editor might include editing special journal issues or multi-author anthologies or serving as a managing editor on a scholarly journal (these positions are often filled by graduate students). Teaching writing-intensive courses or working at your university’s writing center might help as well. Again, the earlier you decide you’ll pursue opportunities to gain alternative career skills, the more chances you’ll have to apply for and say yes to things that could get you further down that path.
Get training in your new field.
Interest and relevant experience are important for success as a freelance editor, but don’t sleep on formal training too. Courses, workshops, and other professional development opportunities are not hard to come by in the editing field, and many can be done remotely. For example, in June the Editorial Freelancers Association is offering a webinar on acadmic developmental editing, plus a 6-week online course in the fall (full disclosure: I’m teaching both). When I’ve enrolled in such activities in the past, I’ve found them helpful for three key reasons: 1) they teach you things that help you do your job better; 2) they show you what you don’t know well enough (yet); and 3) they build your confidence in the services you do offer.
During my last semester as an adjunct, I took an evening course in publishing at my university’s school for professional studies. While it wasn’t targeted specifically at academic editing, it did let me practice different kinds of services that freelance editors commonly offer and, most importantly, allowed me to get feedback from a working editor. Hearing “you’re good at this!” was huge for giving me the guts to launch my business at the end of the semester. Accepting invitations to subcontract for other experienced academic editors also gave me helpful insight into my work and the confidence to keep going (and raise my rates!). On the flip side, taking continuing education courses in copyediting and indexing taught me that, actually, I have a lot more to learn in those areas and can run my business more effectively if I just refer or subcontract out those kinds of jobs and focus on the developmental and consulting work I’m best at.
Nearly 4 years after going freelance, I feel like this is what I was always meant to do. I have to acknowledge that a savings cushion and a supportive partner have made this move possible for me. But the forms of preparation above have also been key to my thriving in this new field. I hope they will help you find something equally fulfilling for yourself if you’re ready to get off the academic job market merry-go-round.