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A career in academic editing
Hello Manuscript Workers,
I received an email a couple weeks ago from Shanon Fitzpatrick, a former history professor who now works as a self-employed developmental editor. I know Shanon because she took my training course on academic developmental editing a few years ago. I could tell at the time that she had a great talent for helping scholarly writers improve their manuscripts, and I’ve sent many clients to her company, Style & Spine, in the past three years.
In her email, Shanon told me a bit more of her personal story of her career shift from academic to editor. I found it very touching and relatable and asked her if we might discuss it a bit further in an interview to be shared in my newsletter. I thought a lot of you would be interested to read about her experience and possibly inspired if you’re also considering a career pivot from academia to academic editing. Thankfully, she agreed. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Laura: Why did you initially decide to leave your academic position to pursue a freelance editing career?
Shanon: I wasn’t really given a choice. I was denied tenure. I appealed and I won my appeal, saying it was an unfair process, and then my university did it again. I was faced with the decision to try to move to a different institution and stay in academia, but at that point it had been a really long and negative journey on so many levels. The thought of trying again at another university didn't seem like it was going to fix any of the things that weren't structurally working for me.
I still wanted to be able to use my skills that I’d developed over a long period. I’d published an edited volume with Duke University Press and I had a monograph in the pipeline with Harvard UP. I’d supervised seventeen graduate students. I had tons of experience, and the thought of moving to a totally different profession just seemed like such a loss. So this idea of doing something I was already doing in my job—advising, talking with people about how to make their work more accessible, working in depth on manuscripts whether they were my own or other people's—but being able to do that in another capacity in a totally different institutional framework (i.e. no institutional framework) was really appealing to me.
I had been familiar with your newsletter and I knew what you were doing and I started to realize I’d been doing some of this work for free for a lot of my friends for a while. I wondered what it would mean to actually pursue editing as a career, and that’s what brought me to your course.
Laura: What have you found most rewarding about this work?
Shanon: I love the intellectual stimulation. In academia, I felt this extreme pressure to specialize, specialize, and specialize some more, to the point that I sometimes felt that in my own own research I was losing my sense of the forest for the trees. I love that now I get to read an ethnography from an urban sociologist, and then I get to move on to somebody who's an economist, and then I get to move on to somebody who's working on early twentieth-century China, and then I move on to someone who's doing science and technology studies. I am learning at a rapid pace that almost feels like I'm back to what I most loved about academia to begin with, which was the intellectual stimulation.
A second and related thing is, because I work on so many areas, I'm starting to see really fascinating connections emerge between projects that I would not be able to see if I was just siloed in my particular discipline, which is history. For example, I have clients right now working on projects sited in Dubai and sited in India and sited in the United States and sited in Russia. And I'm noticing really similar narratives happening about, for instance, the rise of right wing authoritarianism and how it happens in different contexts. I'm able to look at all of these things, and then in my head make bigger connections that then allow me to go back and help clients make their arguments bigger and more interesting beyond a narrow audience. That kind of like intellectual electricity is really motivating to me.
A third thing that I really like about this career is my ability to control my work conditions, as much as one can within a certain political economic structure. I am able to decide who I work with. I do not have to work with abusive or exploitative people. I do not have to work with people whose political beliefs I strongly disagree with. I can phase out a lot of bad relationships that were very toxic in academia and focus on the relationships that are super productive. I really like that.
And then there are the structural aspects of making my own schedule. My mom was diagnosed a year ago with terminal cancer that ended up being rapid and deadly. She was young and it's extremely sad. Being able to not be in a toxic work environment, while I needed to have all of my emotional and physical resources available to be with her and the rest of my family—I can't really put a price on that.
I think when you're in the academic grind, you can completely lose sight of the really unhealthy work habits that require you to constantly sacrifice your time and relationships for an institution. I no longer have those. I no longer have those challenges or excuses to make to myself for not showing up for people. That aspect of the career shift has been hugely helpful for me.
Laura: Thank you for sharing that. It’s such a hard thing that you went through but I’m glad you could be there for your mom without something pulling you away from what you needed to do.
Shanon: Yeah. In a less sad way, once I became a developmental editor I also felt less pulled away from ethical commitments where I wanted to be spending my time. I'll give you a concrete example. I'd always wanted to do some kind of more extended volunteer work that wasn't part of my regular work. Not something I was getting professional credit for, just pure volunteer work. After becoming an editor, I was able to train to be an advocate for people experiencing domestic violence. There's an anti- domestic violence organization here in rural Maine where I live and I’m able to work on their hotline 45 to 60 hours per month. There's no way I could have done that in my old job. Being a self-employed editor allows me to be a lot more intentional about not only how I spend my family time and my fun time, but also in picking other commitments that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to do.
Laura: I don’t want this to sound like too much of a sales pitch for my developmental editing course, but were there any ways that the course helped you make your career transition?
Shanon: I can speak to it in a couple of different ways. The course did a really good job of helping academics understand what's going on on the other side of the desk in publishing. At the same time, I think it helps people with a background in publishing understand the unique challenges that academic writers face. I learned a lot by actually having those two groups of people together in the course.
Something that was really important for me was how you broke down the logistics of how to go about providing positive and constructive feedback for writers, including what a standard editorial letter would look like. You also covered developmental editing versus line editing versus copy editing and what those different kinds of professional niches look like. I thought it was really useful that you provided us with concrete and curated resources that we could look at, written by editing professionals, that would help us in the specific niche of developmental editing.
The final thing that was really useful for me was that you got into the nuts and bolts of the business aspects of it. We live in a society where academics tend not to discuss money. You talked clearly and directly about rates and what the going rates are, and how you keep track of your time, and how you might increase your rates over time. As an academic, no one teaches you those entrepreneurial skills. So I also found it really useful from a practical perspective.
Laura: Do you have any advice to offer others who maybe are still working in academia or have left and aren't sure what they want to do next?
Shanon: This is a really hard question, because I think people leave on a variety of terms or are thinking about leaving on a variety of terms. A lot of people are leaving on really negative, or even traumatic or discriminatory terms. And so I think something that I would recommend is, if you do not already have a network of friends and colleagues that you know from outside of your institution, and also outside of academia entirely, do anything and everything that you can to make additional connections. It can be really important to denormalize some of the harmful things that are highly normalized in academia, and I don't think that's work you can just do on your own. I think it actually requires triangulating your ideas with other people about what a future might look like for yourself.
For instance, I have a friend who's a writer and another a friend who is a chef and has her own catering business. Talking to them as I was making this transition made it seem a lot less scary because I think in other career paths there are a lot of different ways to success. In academia we're often taught that there's one way and one way only to success, and if you don't do that then you are a failure. Anything else you do is like a Plan B. So I think that getting yourself different networks outside of your institution and profession is really important, and probably the most important thing that I did.
My second piece of advice is to be aware of some logistical things to plan for, especially if you don’t have a partner with benefits. If you’re an American, you need to be prepared to pay taxes on your self-employment income. You’re going to have to buy your own health insurance in the marketplace. You're going to have to fund your own retirement account. You're gonna have to think about disability insurance. Those things are very un-fun, and if you don't know how to do them, there's no shame in reaching out to other people to figure out how to do them.
Regarding editing specifically as a career, one of the hard things about editing is that it's very invisible labor. You can do something quite brilliant, or really instrumental or important, and besides the individual client—who is always very grateful—there is no one to pat you on the head and give you a promotion and say, “Look, world, look what this person did.” So I think it’s important to really think about how you might deal with that psychologically and how you might learn to validate and reward yourself at a scale that is just totally different than in academia. I don't know if you’ve found this, too?
Laura: Yeah definitely. For the first few years I was working as a self-employed editor, I often felt like, “am I even doing this right? There’s no one to tell me!” The clients were happy, and eventually I saw that they were having good peer review experiences and their books were getting published. You have to have some fortitude to wait for all that to build up because the publishing process takes so long. But one of the great things about being self-employed is that, at some level, it actually doesn’t matter if anyone aside from you and your clients thinks you’re doing a good job. You don’t have a boss or a tenure committee to please. It’s a different kind of validation and motivation than we were used to in academia.
Is there anything else that comes to mind that you want to say before we end?
Shanon: I would say to aspiring full-time editors that the intellectual work can be tiring. It can be helpful to diversify your activities so that you’re using your brain in different ways. I'm a painter in my spare time so I’ve been thinking a lot about how can I spend more hours doing that versus looking at a document and having my brain operating like a hot furnace all the time. I've also been doing things like consulting with clients where we just talk through ideas together. That is still work that’s hard in itself, but it’s different from editing a document.
I’d also urge people to figure out a way to get social interaction if you are a freelancer, especially if you don't live near a lot of your clients. You have to think really intentionally about not overworking yourself and about making positive social connections in this era of atomization and Zoom. Those are things I’m still kind of working through.
I’m so appreciative that Shanon was willing to share her honest thoughts, both about leaving academia and about training as a developmental editor. If you’re contemplating a similar path, I want to offer my self-study course, Developmental Editing for Academics, as a resource that I think could be quite helpful (if I do say so myself). It’s currently open for enrollment for just a few more days.
The course covers all the things Shanon mentioned, and is designed to be a practical guide to actually doing the work of editing academic manuscripts. It’s the resource I wish I’d had eight years ago when I was just deciding to experiment with offering editing services and see if I could make a viable career of it.
While the course does entail a financial investment ($386), my hope is that it will save people months or years of time that they might otherwise lose, figuring out their business operations through trial and error or just wondering if they should make the leap at all. The lessons are intended to increase your confidence as an editor by bringing you up to speed on professional norms and helping you recognize the applicable skills you already have. And if you take the course and decide freelance editing isn’t for you, you’ll still come away with new skills that can serve you in a variety of other spheres, including academia.
You can find out all about the course and register for it here. Enrollment closes on September 30th, but if you sign up by then, you will keep indefinite access to all the materials (I just won’t be accepting new registrations after that point). All enrollees are able to post questions for me in the course platform. There’s also a thread where you can connect with other participants if you choose to.
As a bonus, I will be hosting a live Q&A today for members of the course. If you sign up before 10am Pacific today (Wednesday, September 27th, 2023), you can use the Zoom link provided inside the course’s welcome module to join the conversation and meet me and other course participants.
If you know someone who would be a great fit for the course but doesn’t subscribe to this newsletter yet, do feel free to forward it on. Thanks for reading and I hope to see some of you later on today!