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I want your ugly, I want your diseased... papers.
October 1, 2010 4:16 AM   Subscribe

I’m a high school student who likes to edit her professor father’s papers (and those of his colleagues) in her free time. How can I help more professors? What else should I learn to become a better editor?

I’m a child of Asian immigrants and a native English speaker. My father is an accounting professor. Because his English is good but not up to par with that of his American colleagues, he often asks me to edit his papers. Since he has many Asian professor friends who also publish but aren’t native English speakers, I’ve been helping some of them with their papers as well.

Editing is fun, I like absorbing academic information, and I like helping people. I want to help more professors with their papers, free of charge. I’m sure there are many who could use my help - but how can I reach them? How can I prove my credibility? Will they be leery of having an eleventh-grader looking over their research?

To be more useful and rigorous, I plan on learning APA and Chicago format as well as LaTeX. I also plan to read “The Science of Scientific Writing” and the Chicago Manual of Style. What else should I know?

(Lastly - not to toot my own horn, but to show that I have some experience - I’ve gotten an 800 on SAT Reading and Writing, and I’m an editor of my school newspaper.)

Any resources, contacts, advice, or sites would be useful. Thank you!
posted by glass origami quicksilver robot to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure how this would pan out culturally, but your father and other people that you've already helped could mention you if they know someone who wants the help.
posted by theichibun at 4:29 AM on October 1, 2010

I made my money in high school writing my mother's grad-school papers. She'd do all the actual research and put together the content, but I would be the one to actually compose the thing. She preferred to pay me for doing that because there was a lot of work involved and she'd rather have me concentrate on that than getting a job flipping burgers or whatever else it was that I would've been capable of doing at 15.

That being said, I don't see why you want to do this free-of-charge, especially if you're doing it for people who are gainfully employed in their field and should already be able to do this. Unless you're loaded, you've got a great skill that's rather useful and marketable. You don't have to charge your father -- hell, my mom saw what I was doing as a very complicated 'chore' that demanded a large 'allowance' -- but he can definitely hook you up with people who you can charge. And if you do a good job for them they can to &c &c.

That's how you prove your credibility. Do a good job for a lot of people who recommend you around. Ask people to use their work as before-and-after samples (names redacted, of course) and post them on there. Make some flyers and ask your dad to post them up on the college billboard; you may have some trouble with that if you're not a student, but there are surreptitious ways around it.

Good luck! What you have is an awesome skill for life and I completely encourage you to continue developing it.
posted by griphus at 4:58 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Make a website" should be between "...who recommend you around." and "Ask people to use..."

Oh, and there's a really important reason you should charge for your work: exclusivity. If your dad recommends you to too many people for you to handle (free editing? oh hell yes I'd be on that if I were a harried professor for whom papers are a bother) it may affect your high-school academic work. Plus it may also affect his career and standing if you can't get them done in time and it is on his word that said work would get done. If you charge, you'd get less clientele, but the chances of you getting too much work in at once is lower.

It will also teach you the monetary worth of your skill, which is very important to know. When you get to college, being a good editor with a head for business in that regard will make sure you don't have to paint houses or waitress or whatever if you don't want to.
posted by griphus at 5:04 AM on October 1, 2010

Credibility-wise, put together a portfolio of pages showing the improvements you've made, and some testimonials from people you've worked with (excluding relatives). Also, consider charging at least a nominal fee. Many people feel that if they are not paying for a service, they are unlikely to get a trustworthy, worthwhile service. Ten years ago, I was paying professional copy editors $15 an hour. If you charged half that, you could build up a good resume, lots of practice, and still be making more than minimum wage. And your clients would be getting a great deal (assuming you're as good as you think you are).

All professors would benefit from an editor. The trick is convincing them of that (and that you are the one to do the job).
posted by rikschell at 5:09 AM on October 1, 2010

Nthing the website/portfolio idea...

As well, as you start to master the beauty that is LaTeX and BibTeX (and there's still hope for ConTeXt), the art of creating and maintaining templates and layouts for different journals will become an invaluable and crucial resource.

At least in the sciences and engineering pubs you're likely to have a TeX template to work off, but by and large many disciplines are falling victim to terrible terrible Word-itis.

Also, don't limit yourself to simply journals, there's a huge need by Masters and Doctoral students to assemble, proof, and produce complex thesii in complex layout formats (again, many schools differ across the board in thesis layout/requirements).

Feel free to memail, with any specific questions... sounds cool!
posted by oldefortran at 5:50 AM on October 1, 2010

I think an under-exploited market would be grad students. There are LOTS of foreign grad students who do papers, dissertations, etc that could sorely use your help.

Also, always remember to charge for your work. Not only does it generate money, it will help your clients respect you more - people are always nicer when they're paying for something. If you do it for free, people will always ask you to "do one more thing", "edit this one more document", argue with you about changes, etc.

There's a lot of parallels between this and freelance graphic design - you might want to read up there as to tips they use.

But definitely try to make a business out of it. Other ways you can profit from it - your 15 years old - want do you want to do long-term? You're the kid of asian parents - there is probably pressure to steer you towards the hard sciences (fellow asian kid here). If that's the case, see if you can trade editing papers for grad students for working in a lab as a high schooler - that'll look great on a college resume. Actually this entire experience could look great on a resume, and you could write a killer essay about it.

Just remember to be professional, be punctual, be communicative, and CHARGE for your services! It's never too early to save money. If you're ever a broke grad student, an in-debt law student, or trying to make your editor dreams work in NYC after graduation (when you're living in a ratty apt in Brooklyn and trying to commute to Manhattan everyday), you will thank yourself for the nest egg you started building when you were 15.
posted by unexpected at 5:54 AM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Learn to use the formal proofreading markup symbols, if you ever work on paper (they're in the Chicago Manual) if you're at all considering this as a profession (many of us in publishing got our start happily editing friends' papers in college). I crammed the night before my first publishing interview with the Chicago charts and looked like I knew what I was doing. Of course, paper editing is not long for this world. I just gave away most of my hoard of red pens. :( Guess I should have picked a different username, like Mistress of Tracked Changes.

I also learned a lot from the now-dated but still useful Words into Type, but I'd check your library rather than buying that one.

And consider charging a small amount after you've done some for free. It lends credibility, and if it's just something small like $0.50/page, you're making a few bucks doing something you like. You could ask your dad to let you use a marked-up page from one of his papers as a portfolio of sorts.

Good luck!
posted by theredpen at 6:53 AM on October 1, 2010

Brush up on resources from the plain English/plain language movement. Thankfully, the trend towards clear writing is extending to academia, scientific writing, and legalese.

Do not use the word utilize instead of use, for example.
posted by Pademelon at 7:36 AM on October 1, 2010

I would look into doing this for college and grad students, maybe your father's students? I have a feeling that professors, other than your father, who knows and trusts you, might be leery of letting someone so young work on their papers for reputation reasons, even if you're very qualified.
posted by elpea at 7:37 AM on October 1, 2010

Here's an American link:
posted by Pademelon at 7:37 AM on October 1, 2010

I also love the idea of doing this for grad students. They really, really need the help, and typically ask their grad student peers to do this work for them for free. Make a website, put up flyers in departments in nearby universities, contact the administrative staff in departments, contact the staff in ESL centers and writing centers in nearby universities... good luck!
posted by vincele at 8:04 AM on October 1, 2010

As theredpen says, paper editing is less popular these days, but the markup symbols live on! I edit a lot of documents in Adobe Acrobat, which has a red pen tool, and use markup symbols, which function as a professional language of sorts. Definitely learn those (and, since you're involved in your school's newspaper, you may already have learned them).
posted by catlet at 8:05 AM on October 1, 2010

You really need to start charging for this. I mean, you don't have to charge your father, and you should offer the clients you have an absurdly good rate. Aside from the fact that your time has value and the fact that turning a hobby you enjoy into a rewarding paying gig is one of the best roads to happiness, there's this, which I'm sure your father will understand: It will look a lot better on your resume in the future that you started and ran your own successful editing business than will saying that you used to edit papers for fun.

Name your business, make some business cards (even if you print them yourself) and talk to your existing clients. Say something like "I've really been enjoying editing your papers. So much so that I've taken it upon myself to learn APA, Chicago Manual of Style and LaTex so as to do an even better job. I'm hoping to take on new clients and make a business of it, but I will b charging my existing clients only a nominal charge of $X." And don't worry that you don't have enough education or professional experience or whatever to be charging. You DO have experience and you're providing a valuable service and they know it. You may not yet be an established professional, but if they wanted an established professional to edit their papers they'd be paying upwards of $25 an hour.

Then you ask your clients if they would mind giving your business cards to anyone, colleague or student, who they think might want your services. You can even offer to waive the fee on the next paper you edit for them every time they send you a referral. And, when your new clients come in, charge them at least double what you're charging your existing clients. And go in to every interaction without a thought of "How can I prove my credibility? Will they be leery of having an eleventh-grader looking over their research?" on your mind. You've got an established editing business with serious academics as clients. Papers you have edited have appeared in journals X, Y and Z. Tell them that. They'll be impressed. Don't tell them how old you are. It doesn't matter. It's not like you'll have to meet them face to face to do the job.

And yes, definitely get a website and put up a portfolio and a list of journals your clients publish in.

Good luck! If you want to do this as a career later, you're setting yourself on a great track to land a top-tier internship.
posted by 256 at 8:07 AM on October 1, 2010

A couple ideas, and I’m also thinking about this from the perspective “Would I hire person X to edit manuscripts that I’m working on” because I do/will occasionally collaborate/hire people for small projects plus you mention that youare reading "Science Writing" and that is the type of work that I know (and more specific, medical).

As you realize, a high school student doing this on the side is something that may be hard for some people to accept and say let’s throw my research/paper there before submitting it to a journal. Nthing suggestions above for a porfolio, webpage, etc.

What I would not look for = don’t even mention the SAT. However, for the sciences, there is a certification program/test you can take for the life sciences (and I've seen medical editors list this, too) called BELS. That may be the addition thing that I would want to see to give me more confidence. I think it does cost $ to take it, but again, the extra bit that says someone concludes you have editing skills. If you want to do medical editing, you should become familiar with the American Medical Association style. You can probably get versions of the previous edition at a lower cost on Amazon.

Something that you can do (and should ask for), especially if you are doing this for free: To be acknowledged in the paper. If you have copies of journals, see if you can find an acknowledgement section at the back of an article. It is usually in tiny print at the end of the paper. Here, the researchers say thank you to other investigators for work on X [insert name]. There needs to be something acknowledging your work/help that says "We wish to acknowledge Glass robot for editorial assistance" or something along those lines. Then there is no way that anyone can doubt that you do this and you will have published articles as your samples. (Here is a sample page before, sample page after my editing, here is a link to the published article, here is my name in the acknowledgements).

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the free part; I understand that you get excited by the info and think “I want more of this”—I feel the exact same way about what I do (really? They want to pay me to write and learn about this material? I get all these articles for free?) –but you can use that money to build more skills and get things that you want. So if you want to do this seriously, the $ you earn can be used towards certification (BELS), styple books, editing classes, and/or membership in organizations that you can join to learn even more about this.

Now if you do the volunteer route instead...

I think that it would be a neat/great service to work with someone but give them coaching along the way, especially if ther person wants to improve his or her writing and improve language skills. So if you make changes, you put it in tracked changes and let them see what you did. Using comments, you can tell them what you changed and why. I think that it would be better to help people improve rather than just fix it in its entirety (I think grad students with english as a foreign language could benefit).

There is something else that I do remember (so sorry that I can’t remember the journal) – I do remember a managing editor at a science journal telling people at a lecture that he worked with academics throughout the world and they would submit their articles to his journal. He said that sometimes he had to turn away some of the articles because of the language skills and he said that he would love/really appreciate if anyone would work with him and them to fix it. I do believe that it is a worthwhile cause – so you may want to look up the names of journals that seem to take a lot of work from international researchers, you could approach them. Extend the offer to work with the authors, not the journal so they don't just exploit you for free labor.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 8:50 AM on October 1, 2010

Yes, offer it to grad students. I was a linguistics 'major' (and later I sub-edited subtitles for a bit) and I sometimes helped out a friend who was an overseas student. ALSO - many techy people, while brilliant, can't spell or use grammar so well - a friend of mine is just writing up his PhD and had to have it proof-read as writing just doesn't come to him naturally. So perhaps you could offer services at a local tech school if there is one?

I am English and if I was writing a PhD in the US I would like a native AmEng speaker to take a look and check it made sense. Non-English speakers will be even more likely to want to use help like yours. And remember that proof-reading and sub-editing is a real, salaried, grown-up job - you should probably look at exchanging your skills for something in return.
posted by mippy at 9:45 AM on October 1, 2010

Also: it sounds like your English and grammar are pretty much spot-on, but what helped me learn about grammar was studying foreign languages, specifically Latin. If you have time, try learning a new language and see what it teaches you about the way grammar works. It really did help my own English language skills.
posted by mippy at 9:47 AM on October 1, 2010

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the free part

Perhaps I can help you understand!

I can't speak for glass origami quicksilver robot, but I edit my friends' papers and theses for free because I'm interested in reading their papers, but I'm not interested in setting up a website, designing flyers, researching market rates and competitors' service levels, distributing business cards to pigeon holes, managing a professional reputation, developing a billing system, agreeing to hard-and-fast deadlines, editing papers that aren't interesting, learning about fields I'm not interested in (to be able to competently edit papers using specialist terminology), working with surly or unsatisfied customers, pursuing payment from non-paying clients, or negotiating university finance departments when my services are expensed to a project.

In other words I don't make it my profession because I don't want to act professionally.
posted by Mike1024 at 9:56 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

It lends credibility, and if it's just something small like $0.50/page, you're making a few bucks doing something you like.

If you are worth your salt as an editor, don't undersell yourself. If you do, you will
-send people the message that your work is not quality
-be under-selling people who do this for a living.
That said, you could discount somewhat (read, 10% or so) from a professional rate acknowledging that you have a) less experience and b) a "hobbyist" position. Some people probably remain pro bono clients, like the ones who will be PAYING YOUR TUITION and putting a roof over your head!

The suggestion to tap the graduate student market is good. I went to one of those schools with lots of foreign grad students, and sometimes saw people posting their editing services on the bulletin boards around campus.

Your decision to learn specific styles and even Latex is appealing. Be sure to consider what style the university or its top fields prefer, to help you prioritize. This is a fun hobby where you can learn a lot and make some good money on the side. Keep it up.
posted by whatzit at 10:03 AM on October 1, 2010

Join this listserv. Its membership is primarily professional editors, and they are happy to answer question.

I've learned a lot just by monitoring the questions they ask each other and the answers they give.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:20 AM on October 1, 2010

Before you create a portfolio, make sure you have permission from your clients to post "before and after" samples. Even anonymized, they might not want people to be able to googlee their "after edit" publications to find a "before edit" version that an 11th grader polished up, they might not want people judging their academic credentials based on their (lack of) idiomatic English.

Also consider having "before and after" samples excluded in a robots.txt so your site is search engine crawled, but the samples are not.

And honestly, word of mouth -- say in the Chinese academic community -- is going to do more for you than a site.

Finally, don't bite off more than you can chew -- you don't want to get so much work that its quality(or your schoolwork) suffers. Limit the quantity so you can ensure quality.

Overall, it sounds like a great hobby that could become a business, and is great experience.
posted by orthogonality at 1:51 PM on October 1, 2010

Oh. One other thing: it's perverse, but people do not appreciate (value) free things as much things they have to pay for.

By not charging, or not charging appropriately high fees, you may give the impression your work is not valuable, or that you're not sufficiently serious about/invest in it.
posted by orthogonality at 1:53 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something that's useful to be aware of is that academic writing is highly specialized and standards vary a lot. Different academic fields (and sub-specialties, and even different journals within a single sub-specialty) have different standards for what they want articles to look like. Maybe one journal likes its papers to be written in a more formal way, and another in a more conversational way; one journal wants very detailed methods section but another only wants a brief methods section; different fields use different standard citation methods; certain turns of phrase are standard for one sub-specialty but would be seen as awkward in another sub-specialty; all sorts of subtle differences.

So - be aware of this when working with people who are coming from different fields. You need to know what the standards of that field/journal are. It will help if you can look at some examples of articles that were published in whatever journal the person is aiming for, so you can get a sense of what's standard there.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:30 PM on October 1, 2010

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