by Margy Horton
Just because you’ve graded 10,000 pages of student writing over the past decade does not mean you’re ready, just yet, to hang out your shingle and earn a living as an editor. First, consider the difference between these two tasks:
Grade (v): to sort, rank, and evaluate the quality of individual texts produced by a class of students in response to an assignment; provide individualized feedback designed to support student learning.
Edit (v): to assist an author in preparing a text for publication by helping the author to understand and conform to the criteria that publishers and audiences will use to evaluate the quality of the work.
These definitions show that the work of grading and editing–for all their similarities–are two distinct forms of communication that take place in very different rhetorical situations. Elements of a rhetorical situation include the author, the intended audience, and the larger context in which the author, audience, and text exist. Rhetorical awareness is key for two kinds of people: authors who are trying to communicate and readers who are trying to understand. This post is concerned with the texts that professors and editors create as they grade and edit for students and clients, respectively. The two genres may seem interchangeable at first glance; both grading and editing consist of of marginal notes on manuscripts, Track Changes in Word documents, and holistic assessments written by hand or in emails. Yet the tone, content, and emphasis of the texts are shaped by important differences between the grading relationship (between professor and student) and the editing relationship (between editor and client).
This table breaks down some distinctions between grading and editing.
|The Grading Relationship (Professor and Student)||The Editing Relationship (Editor and Client)|
|Author||Professor chooses which criteria to apply and what to emphasize; Professor usually knows more than Student about subject matter/ context; Professor has created assignment and set due date||Editor works to understand the criteria by which committee members, journal editors, or publishers will evaluate Client; helps Client to meet those expectations|
|Audience||Student is under Professor’s tutelage||Client is the subject matter expert and the CEO of the project|
|Context||Course and assignment created by Professor||Project initiated by Client, extends beyond Editor’s involvement|
The professor’s objective is to evaluate the student’s work against that of other students and against an ideal, and to offer feedback designed to promote the student’s long-term development. The editor has the quite different objective of supporting and assisting the client through the writing and publication process, improving her productivity and making her life easier.
As a teacher, back in the day, my comments on student work were designed to optimize student learning: “Consider rephrasing this topic sentence so it links more clearly to your thesis.” “This paragraph seems to be making more than one point. Can you split the paragraph into two, each with its own topic sentence/claim?” “Please review the punctuation rules that govern the joining of two independent clauses.” Such comments provide tailored instruction based on what the teacher perceives to be areas of potential improvement for the student. Effective grading focuses on skills and knowledge that are relevant to the assignment, the course, and the discipline. When a specific error appears frequently in a student’s work, the effective teacher does not go line-by-line correcting every instance of the error, but rather points the error out a couple of times and explains the error to the student. The goal of grading is to help students understand principles that will help them in future work, not to perfect this specific piece of work.
As an editor, I spend less time instructing and more time simply doing–tweaking topic sentences, splitting paragraphs, adding transitions, suggesting what kind of evidence to add where. My clients are high-level researchers and professional scholars; they don’t need me presuming to tell them what to do.
Which brings me to another point: the service I provide as an editor would not be appropriate to offer to the undergraduates whom I once taught. Editing services are for scholars, researchers, and professional writers–not for college sophomores trying to pay their way to a higher grade. So in transitioning from teaching to editing, you will likely go from working with low-level, undergraduate writers to working with high-level, professional writers.
In closing, here are five more distinctions between the professional editor and the effective teacher:
- Professors constantly make judgment calls in designing courses, assignments, and rubrics, and they are not strictly obligated to please each individual student. By contrast, editors don’t choose which criteria to apply or which principles to emphasize in their comments. While editors can certainly make recommendations to the client about the nature and scope of the work to be done, the client has final approval.
- Professors often have some control over when to complete their grading, whereas editors must meet strict deadlines.
- While professors privilege instruction over correction, editors don’t tell clients to fix something they (editors) can fix themselves. For example, an editor doesn’t say “get rid of these ambiguous pronouns”; an editor gets rid of every ambiguous pronoun in the manuscript and then gently informs the client about the issue for future reference.
- Professors can and should affirm what students get right, whereas editors tend not to praise clients’ work as it can come off as condescending.
- Professors make students’ lives harder in all the right ways. For editors, although they can take advantage of teaching moments in the editing process, they do not presume a professorial role over clients.
Great editors and great teachers are different in important ways, but they do share three essential qualities in common. Both editors and teachers cultivate expert command of the language. Both listen to the client or student. And finally, both listen through what the client or student is saying in order to understand and provide what the client really needs.
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Megan Peiser says
Fantastic. Very helpful to think about when sending out first article submission.
This puts into words why a particular situation always felt like a struggle to me: I worked with a classmate in grad school to help her with blog posts she made as part of a volunteer/internship role she had. Because (honestly) her writing was structurally poor (at least in the beginning), I kind of had to strike a balance between teaching and just editing. Some things I’d just fix; others I would put comments on to show her why I changed something or to ask her to think about a sentence and such. I know her writing got better over the year or two we worked together, but there’s only so much you can do from that position, and I finally had to send back something for her thesis she asked me to proof with “Your advisor needs to see this first, because what you need here is deeper than just proofing and they’ll be better able to tell you what’s going on with this chapter.” I guess she was offended, as I’ve never heard from her again, but I can’t take your 1-page, mostly bullets ‘chapter’ and turn it into a master’s thesis chapter for you, and I don’t think that’s unfair.