When and how to hire an editor or writing coach – a comprehensive-ish guide

Do you need help with your scientific writing but don’t know who you should work with and what to look out for when hiring a coach or editor? Then this post is for you – including tips on what you can do if you can’t afford a coach or editor.

I’ve been working as a scientific writing coach and editor for a few years now. I noticed there is a lot of confusion when it comes to what editors and writing coaches can do for you exactly. One common misconception is the word “proofreading”, which many scientists believe to be a synonym for editing. It’s not, as you’ll see below. I think it’s important for every academic to understand what level of support you need and what you can expect from the different kinds of editors you can hire.

What kind of writing support do you need?

Let’s have a look at the different writing and editing types.

Scientific Writing Coaching.

Scientific writing coaches help with various issues you may encounter during the writing process. There are some who help you write more productively, e.g. by creating a writing plan or building a writing routine.

Then there are coaches such as myself, who focus more on your actual writing, helping you to create the storyline of your paper or proposal and teaching you time-saving scientific writing strategies.

Working with a coach means learning writing techniques that you can apply in future projects rather than having someone fix a particular writing project for you. You can usually choose to work with a writing coach over the course of several months or in a one-off session (I call these strategy sessions).

Structural Editing.

Also called developmental editing or substantive editing, structural editing – my speciality – is the most thorough form of editing your writing can receive. Structural editors really go to the core of the underlying story, concepts and structure of your paper or proposal. They look at your text as a whole and make sure everything you write is coherent and concise. They may move around or delete whole paragraphs, sentences and words and may suggest rewrites.

One aspect that I put a lot of emphasis on in structural edits is storytelling. I make sure that all essential story elements are present in the text, such as the problem, the implications and a clear main theme.

I and other structural editors include copy editing (see below) in our service so that you can be sure that the English is correct when we return the text to you. But not all structural editors do this, so make sure to clarify what exactly is included in the editing package.

If you are looking for someone to structurally edit your funding application or paper, I recommend choosing an editor that has a background in your field. It doesn’t need to be in the exact topic of your research but if you work on, let’s say, lithium ion batteries, it would be good if that person knew the fundamentals of solid-state chemistry or at least something about chemistry in general.

Structural Reviewing.

This is a service that I offer but you’ll find it is less common than editing. (I’m not sure why, because many of my clients really like this type of writing support, especially for grant proposals). Just as structural editing, structural reviewing assesses the text as a whole and focuses on the structure, story, and flow. In contrast to structural editing, the editor will suggest edits and rewrites in comments to the text. The advice is often less specific than in a structural edit. The editor will usually also assess the strengths and weaknesses of your paper or proposal.

Implementing the suggested changes, will be more work for you if you choose structural reviewing instead of the structural editing. However, structural reviewing is usually cheaper. If you are looking for help with your writing on a structural level but have a smaller budget or a very large document, this may be the perfect solution.

Copy editing. 

Copy editing focuses on the correct use of the English language in a text and is more surface level than structural editing. You can compare copy editing to you painting the walls of your house. It improves the look and feel but doesn’t address any underlying issues. A structural edit, by contrast, is more like a deep renovation of your house, where you move walls and replace all the wiring and plumbing.

A copy editor corrects any spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes. They will also improve the flow of your text, remove redundant words and sentences and resolve any inconsistencies in the text such as using different abbreviations for the same thing, referencing the wrong figure panel or using a mixture of UK and US spelling.

To add to the confusion around the different types of editing, sometimes people refer to copy editing when they mean all different levels of editing, structural editing included. Make sure to check!

Hiring a copy editor is cheaper than hiring a structural editor or reviewer. When you only want your text to be copy edited, it’s less crucial to find an editor who matches your scientific background, though it can be advantageous. I don’t offer just copy editing but it is part of my structural editing packages.

Language editing.

The term language editing is not clearly defined. It may refer to just copy editing or all the kinds of editing described above. Again, clarifying with the editor what is included in the edit is necessary.

Proofreading.

In my experience, when scientists ask an editor to proofread their manuscript, they mostly don’t actually mean proofreading. Proofreaders check for any grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes in the last draft of a manuscript. This means that copy editing has been performed already and that the text is already in good shape.

Proofreading is the cheapest of all these options but not a service I offer.

 
 

When is the right time to hire a coach or editor?

This very much depends on what kind of feedback you want. There is help out there for any stage of the writing process and your career.

Writing coaches can work with you on your writing in general, or on a particular paper or proposal – either before your start or during writing. A structural editor or reviewer can help when you have a first draft of your proposal or article, a copy editor once the structure of that draft is in place, and a proofreader once your text has been copyedited (by you or someone else). Generally, it may save you time (and multiple rewrites) if you hire an editor early on in the process.

Getting help with writing can make sense at any point in your career. Even if you have already published dozens of articles, you may be surprised by the time-saving techniques a coach or editor can teach you. However, investing in scientific writing coaching or editing may be particularly worthwhile when you are an early career researcher, for example a new principal investigator.

The turn-around times of edits vary depending on how busy the editor is, how long your document is and how thorough the edit is. It is always a good idea to contact the editor early to reserve a spot in their calendar and avoid paying last-minute rates.

How to find the perfect editor or coach

Apart from the various types of writing support, writing coaches and editors differ in other ways too. How do you find the right one? Price shouldn’t be the only factor to take into consideration. I would recommend browsing the websites and blogs of the editors and coaches you are considering (if they have one). Do you resonate with their approach and the advice they are giving? What is their background? If they have an English or Linguistics background, they may be well suited for copy-editing and proof-reading. Someone with a scientific background close to yours may be the perfect choice for structural editing or reviewing. Also check whether the editor or coach has testimonials on their website and analyse whether previous clients got help with what you have in mind.

When you inquire about the services of an editor or writing coach, be as specific as possible when you describe what you would like help with. If necessary, clarify what is included and their various offers. Also make sure to ask about availability and turnaround times. In some seasons, I have a waiting list, for example, so it pays off to enquire early.

One word on price: Large editing companies who work with freelance editors may offer relatively low prices. But the value for money is often lower than working with independent editors who don’t have as much overhead to pay. With an independent editor, you also have the opportunity to get more customised writing support and a personal touch.  

Good luck with finding your perfect match!

Is scientific editing and coaching only for non-native English speakers?

No. That’s another common misconception, see scientific writing myth #1 in this previous blog post. Native English speakers may not need (as much) help with spelling and grammar but knowing a language isn’t the same as knowing how to write well. Structural editing and reviewing in particular, is money well invested for all scientists.

When you can’t afford coaching or editing

Would you like to get writing support, but don’t have the budget for it right now? If this is you, I’ve got a few tips for you:

  • Check what support your university or institution offers. Maybe there’s an academic writing course you can take. Your institution may also have a department supporting you with grant writing and reviewing.

  • Include a budget for editing or professional development in your next funding application. Not all grants cover this, but some do.

  • Buy a book! There are some good books out there that teach scientific writing. A good starting point is, for example, “Writing Science” by Joshua Schimel*. If you are looking for a book on a specific topic, feel free to email me, I may have a recommendation 😊

  • Read scientific writing blogs and listen to podcasts. As you are here you are likely aware that my blog contains a vast amount of scientific writing advice 😊 If you are looking for more advice on writing productively, I can recommend Dr Cathy Mazak’s new podcast, Academic Women Amplified, which has lots of useful tips not only for women. Cathy is an academic writing coach and full professor in English literature and has previously published a guest post on this blog.

  • Book a 30-minute strategy session with me for 97€. In this session, we will focus on a particular part of your proposal or paper. I will read and review your writing in advance. During the session, I will give you specific advice on your proposal or paper and answer all your questions. Afterwards, you’ll receive the recording of the session as well any notes I took.

Do you need help writing papers that get cited and proposals that get funded? Check out my scientific writing coaching and editing packages.

*This is an affiliate link, which means that I receive a small commission if you order the book through this link.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Scientific writing coach & editor Anna Clemens

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and structurally edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably hiking with my dog and assistant Zuza or sipping an oat flat white in one of Prague’s many cosy cafés.

I’d love to connect with you on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and LinkedIn.