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Why editing the language of a doctoral thesis is a bit like baby-sitting


I’ve only really entered the world of editing PhD theses properly since I set up Altexta, three and half years ago. While I was in-house editor at FIOH I did edit a few, but my main work centred on articles to be published in journals. Slowly though, doctoral theses are becoming a larger part of my work: according to my records this year I seem to be averaging at two theses a month.

It really is a different world, on both a linguistic and personal level. Of course I’m always aware of the responsibility I carry in my role of editing any text, but with a doctoral thesis, the weight of this responsibility is heavier somehow, and you realize how you’re a part, albeit a small part, of a huge process, one that has often lasted years and years. 

I’ve edited a couple of monographs, but most of the theses I have worked on have been in the typical Finnish form, the summary of a compilation of three or four academic articles that have already been published or are in the process of being accepted for publication. 

Both creative and mechanical

The aspects of quality that I try to assure in the articles I edit (which I wrote about in Quality – right up my street!) also apply to editing theses: accuracy, clear message, authenticity, appropriacy, structure, and consistency. But I also see the work as having two different sides: a creative side, which deals with the actual language, expression, voice, message, and tone of the text; but also a very mechanical side, and this is what makes the work more time-consuming.

By mechanical I mean checking the consistency of, for example, the way in which figures are expressed. Is it 10 000 or 10,000, and is it the same throughout the text? Or checking to see that there is no space before the percentage sign. Or whether after an acronym has first been introduced, is it used consistently throughout the text and not written out in full again? As a thesis is longer than your average journal article, this takes more time. Word’s ‘find and replace’ function is my best friend when I edit theses!

Another aspect that can be quite tricky is when I have to remould or correct the expression of a concept or a phrase that is key to the thesis and is thus mentioned many times. It has to be changed in the same way everywhere in the text, and this requires time and attention to detail.

Then there’s the contents table. This is usually my last task. When the overall edit is finished, I have to check that the titles in the contents, which I may have tweaked, are the same as the titles in the text. This requires methodical, mechanical checking, but is essential.

Co-operation with the author

Sometimes I may make a change to the text that changes the writer’s originally intended meaning. My area of expertise is after all the language – not the substance of the text…it would be hard to be a specialist on magnetic resonance imaging, osteoarthritis, indoor air problems and occupational safety, to mention but a few topics of theses I’ve edited! I really like it when the writer queries me when I have misunderstood something.  I always feel a great sense of satisfaction when we work together on clarifying what the writer wants to say and on expressing it in good English. Teamwork at its best!

Usually, and I think it’s often a requirement, the thesis comes to me for language revision after the preliminary examination. This is best, as then I can look at the text as a whole. If it comes to me before the examination, and changes are made afterwards, I’m often asked to “just check the highlighted parts/changes”, which is fine, but of course always introduces the risk of errors in the final consistency.

The best bit

I think the part that I enjoy editing the most in a doctoral thesis is the acknowledgements section. It is so personal, and often very emotive. Because of this, I appreciate its delicacy and am very aware of trying to retain the author’s own voice and style. And this is challenging, as there are only so many ways in which you can say thank you! Avoiding repetitiveness is the challenge, and this is where the creativity I mentioned above comes into play. I have an extensive bank of expressions, which has grown over the years, and this is where I feel I can really help: I warmly thank, I am extremely grateful to, I wish to extend my heartfelt thanks to, I will always be thankful for, I greatly appreciate, I will always be indebted to, my gratitude also goes to, I cannot thank X enough, I wish to express my deepest gratitude to… 

But I also have to be careful – the line between a friendly thank you and an over-emotional declaration of eternal gratitude can be thin, and where to draw it is not really a decision for me to make. All I can do is offer the language, and the writer can decide.

Handle with care

So how, then, is editing a PhD thesis like babysitting? 

Well, I feel like the writer is giving me their baby to look after, something precious they have nurtured and cared for; poured love and hard work into. I have to treat it with care. Give it what it needs and return it in one piece. And ensure that the parent is happy.