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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Salvaging a Thesis

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In the past I refused students seeking a thesis editor — mainly for ethical reasons. The preamble to the Editors Canada “Guidelines for Ethical Editing of Theses / Dissertations” states: “In part, academia uses theses as a way of testing the ability of students, especially graduate students, to use written words for communicating ideas and arguments.”

The graduate school site at my local university links to these guidelines, which suggests professors don’t expect candidates to fly solo. Moreover, students lacking grammar smarts are told to engage outside editors. How do I know? A caller tells me, “My professor says I need an editor.”

Regrettably, the school’s professors have not taken the trouble to read the Editors Canada guidelines, which expressly limit what we can do. The guidelines most certainly do not promise that an editor will turn several hundred pages of drivel into a polished piece of scholarship. Even though many of us can, we don’t think it would be right.

Recently I got involved in one of these situations, and my encounter taught me a lot about today’s graduate schools — probably more than I wanted to know. A colleague asked if I could take on a doctoral thesis she’d been approached to edit. It was a rush job and other duties begged her attention. I was put in touch with the student, who told me both his supervisor and thesis committee in the humanities felt his thesis was defensible but needed editing.

In fact it was weak and repetitious and needed rewriting if not further research. Ironically, this foreign student’s command of English wasn’t all that bad. But the professors either hadn’t read his thesis or hoped its defects could be addressed by a miraculous editor. No need to further impose on the candidate.

After the student promised to pay “whatever is required,” I soldiered on for a couple dozen pages to gauge the time needed. Then after slashing my usual rate I sent him my estimate and the edited pages.

Several days later the student replied that his anonymous supervisor was not satisfied with my editing and that, in any event, my fee should be only $20 an hour, one third of what I had proposed. I wished the student good luck and signed off.

This fiasco only amplified my disquietude about today’s academia. And it confirmed its feudal attitude.

I’ve written in Active Voice that a rate of $20 an hour may bring a lot of work but will keep you below the poverty line. It costs more than a quarter of a million dollars a year to maintain a full professor at a Canadian university, and by my reckoning this yields an hourly rate about 10 times what I was offered.

As for the dissatisfaction with my work, universities should look for editors not constrained by ethical guidelines. Definitely they cannot belong to Editors Canada.


Previous post from Wilf Popoff: Wasted Words: On the PC Front

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18 Comments on “Wasted Words: Salvaging a Thesis”

  • The frustration evident in this post echoes many of the posts I see on EC and EAE Facebook pages. Editors are constantly frustrated by professors and graduate students who do not seem to understand what editors do, what the ethical guidelines and university policies keep us from doing, what editing costs and how long it takes…

    But what frustrates me the most is that an organization of professionals who pride themselves on clear communication is doing such a bad job of communicating with professors and students. Yes, we have ethical guidelines to which we can link, but–let us face facts here–students and profs read those guidelines exactly the same way you and I click “accept” without reading a word of the 20 pages of legalese that pops up whenever one opens new software. The odd (some of them are pretty odd!) prof who actually reads the guidelines, understands it about as well as I do the fine print on iffy legal documents. Our Ethical Guidelines are written for EDITORS, not for consumption by professors or students. If we’re serious about selling in the graduate student market we need to come up with a pamphlet written from the professor’s frame of reference, and a separate one for grad students. We need to explain that “rush job” isn’t going to work because we’re not going to magically translate gibberish into plain English–the student is going to have to put time in to make the changes. We need to explain with simple, clear examples what we can and cannot do. We need to explain what editing costs and what they get for the money. And so on.

    We particularly need to distinguish between ‘editor’ and ‘writing coach’. I have sat on many a thesis committee as the member whose job it is to teach the student how to do thesis writing…but there were always more students who needed that coaching than there were profs willing to do it. The most recent statistics tell us that 50% of students in thesis or dissertation programs fail to complete their degrees. 85% of those fail after having successfully completed all their coursework, data collection etc…it’s the writing that’s killing them. And nobody is doing anything about this appalling statistic, except blaming the victims– students are supposed to have those writing skills in place when they show up. Only, how exactly are they supposed to know how to undertake a sustained piece of writing if the only writing they’ve ever done up to then is first draft term papers.

    It is ridiculously easy to provide ethical coaching to tutor students how to write. My favorite approach is to take papers that have already been written, graded, and returned and to deconstruct the writing in those to teach students how to write better. I get comments like “that is the best $ I’ve ever invested” and I see grades go up by 20% on their next submission, without my ever seeing or touching that new paper. It’s easy, it’s ethical, and our abandoning graduate students to failure because of our failure to communicate…is criminal.

    • “Our Ethical Guidelines are written for EDITORS, not for consumption by professors or students.”

      I have exactly the same issue with the heavily jargon-laden text of both our Professional Editing Standards document and our website summary page. Both of these things are meant to (at least partially) explain to the general public what editors do. But, in fact, they are really only of particular use to other editors. (Even for them, a glossary would be nice.) In fact, I would argue that somebody who knows little of editing or grammar (the audience that needs us most) will find our existing text to be bewildering and alienating. Rather than draw them to us, it likely discourages them from seeking our help; perhaps it even perpetuates the myth that we “put on airs” and charge too much.

      We really need a plain-language (and fun) version for a general audience, one that will have them nodding their heads and wanting to engage us.

    • Anita I. Jenkins


      “Our Ethical Guidelines are written for EDITORS, not for consumption by professors or students.”

      Robert, I nominate you to write the version for students and profs. 🙂

      • Challenge accepted! I have too much on my plate to work on it this month, but next time there’s a lull, I’ll give it a try. I’ll start by writing said pamphlets for my own site, but then bring those to the table here to see if anyone agrees…I get a lot of pushback from those who think coaching students to write clearly is somehow cheating, even when I’m doing it on their old papers. I HAVE written a pamphlet for graduate students struggling with thesis writing which is available free to students at (and another one on how to choose your thesis supervisor ) It makes sense to have a pamphlet I could send to prospective clients rather than try to explain it in an email every time I get a new client, but it’s hard to find the time to develop the boilerplate.

      • Anita I. Jenkins


        Bravo. Editors Canada survives on the backs of the volunteers.

  • Anita I. Jenkins


    I love your posts, Wilf. Good to see you back on Editors Weekly.

  • There is a very big difference between an ‘editor’ and a ‘ghost writer’. Any educational institution that is wise enough to allow editing that brings forth a student’s innate abilities should also be wise enough to prevent ghost writing that does the opposite. Of course, it is unfair to judge an institution as a whole (or all students or all supervisors) on the basis of one student and one supervisor. But it’s still disheartening.

    I recently had a student ask me to edit his paper. I checked the policies of his particular university and advised him that I could only edit for strict grammar and spelling (some don’t allow even that). After giving him a sample edit of a single page and a reduced quote, he told me that it was too much money. I, too, politely severed the relationship.

    • Yup Jason. Not saying that this isn’t common. Lots of students balk at my prices, and a few are essentially looking for ghost-writing. I hang up on them too. But we could be reaching a great many more clients than we are to provide a much-needed service if we would only fine-tune our marketing to make these issues clearer to students and professors.

  • Margaret F Sadler


    I guess I’ve been lucky. I just finished editing a dissertation in which the most grievous errors were missing prepositions. Occasionally I did run into a sentence that didn’t make sense, but I suspected that he’d missed a word or two there, and he’d quickly be able to make sense of it.
    I did add a comment that I was surprised to read new research presented in the concluding chapter, but the writer was happy and sent it off to his supervisor. A week later, he reported that his supervisor had said the same thing.
    Thankfully, I was paid my usual rate (I did invite negotiation).
    Did I cross the line by pointing out that new research shouldn’t be introduced so late in the game?

    • Yes, I often find the authors who value and want editing are the ones who need it the least. Those in desperate need of editing are often reluctant clients, and only approach us at the insistence of their supervisors. They are therefore often a pain to deal with. The students who come to me on their own initiative, months ahead of any deadline, those are a pleasure to work with and improve quickly.

  • Anita I. Jenkins


    Bravo. Editors Canada survives on the backs of the volunteers.

  • As an aside, one of the things I find myself doing a lot is interpreting professor feedback to students. Those professors that take the effort to make comments on student papers to help them write better (a tiny minority, I am sorry to say) often write from their own frame of reference, and the comment makes no sense to the student. I currently have a client whose prof is giving the clearest and most complete advice to the student I have yet encountered and I keep saying to the client, really, do you need to pay me for coaching when your prof is giving you this fabulously complete feedback–all I’m doing is rephrasing what she’s already told you. But apparently, it does have to be translated from professor to student.

    As an education prof, I’ve written on this phenomenon a couple of times. The academic version is: Runté, Robert, Barry Jonas and Tom Dunn. “Falling Through the Hoops: Student Construction of the Demands of Academic Writing,” in Andrew Stubbs and Judy Chapman, _Rhetoric, Uncertainty, and the Unversity as Text: How Students Construct the Academic Experience_. Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 2007.

    The webpage version for instructors is “Feedback they can use: Understanding the undergraduate’s frame of reference” available here:

    My favorite illustration of the problem is the grad student who came to me asking if I could help him write more apishly. And I said, I beg your pardon? And he said, well, the prof says I need to write more apishly and I don’t know what that means. Of course, when I looked at the paper, the prof had written repeatedly “not apa” which had mystified the student who had only ever used MLA style guides. The prof thought he was providing perfectly clear guidance because everyone knows what APA means, but um–not so much. If profs don’t know how to talk to students, and we refuse to out of a mistaken sense of ethics, we doom 50% of students to senseless failure.

  • The thesis and the student who writes it are widgets that universities produce. Editing is a quality assurance step needed to produce a widget that can think clearly. At best, outsourcing the university’s responsibility for quality assurance has become an accepted form of cheating; at worst, it is a way of working around the fact that most professors can’t or won’t do this part of their job.

    Thesis editing, in my opinion, should be strictly limited to the kind of thing any good typist can do: proofreading and checking the style of reference citations. Anything more than that is unethical, not on the part of the editor but on the part of the student and especially on the part of supervisors who are essentially outsourcing responsibilities for which they are well compensated.

    Editors Canada is not in the business of setting limits on the kind of editing any writer is entitled to or any editor should provide. If an editor wants to work on a thesis because the writer has asked for help, the individual editor should make up her own mind about ethical considerations. The EC guidelines are a useful place to start; they reflect how other editors manage the ethics of working with writers who also happen to be students.

    As for the rate of pay, editors should charge what we always charge. Or, what we charge for the particular industry the client is in. The professor is being paid for the job of supervising the graduate student. In other words, the basis for estimating our value is the professor’s time or the university’s revenue per student, but certainly not the student’s budget.

    • I agree that many professors do not take responsibility for teaching thesis writing. Many falsely believe that it is not their responsibility because students should already have these skills before they are accepted into the program. They suffer from the common misconception that writing is writing and fail to recognize that the strategies required for sustained writing (e.g., thesis) are completely different than writing skills required for term papers. Further, they fail to recognize that much of thesis writing is determined by the style and culture of their particular discipline and it is their responsibility to enculturate students into their discipline.

      In addition to these professors who flatly refuse to teach writing skills are many others who simply lack the skills necessary to teach writing. To be blunt, many profs are barely able to write fluently themselves (take for egregious example Talcott Parsons, the founder of American sociology who contaminated generations of graduate students with his appalling combination of German syntax, pointless neologisms, and obsession with jargon) let alone help anyone else.

      In either case, the choice is to either outsource this necessary teaching or to fail students for the university’s failure to teach them these basic skills. Though others’ mileage may vary, I have never found it remotely useful to send students to the university writing center, which leaves only us: professional editors and writing coaches.

      To suggest hiring a writing tutor is _inherently_ cheating is to completely misconstrue both what tutors do and the ethical issues involved. In my view, it is unethical to assess students on skills they have not been taught. The inevitable outcome is that those students privileged by wealth, social class, ethnicity and gender sail through the thesis because they acquired the necessary skills through enculturation in homes that spoke academese, or because there were sufficient economic resources to hire tutors at every level. The appalling statistic that 50% of thesis and dissertation route students fail to complete is an indictment of either university admission committees or a supervisory system that fails to provide courses/workshops in thesis writing.

      Although I completely agree university professors must start taking responsibility for addressing this problem (the pattern of which has not changed in over 50 years), current students have no reasonable recourse but to seek off-campus assistance to learn how to write. For our profession to suggest that our help for these students must be restricted to “anything a good typist could do” is what is unethical. Yes, negotiating the line between helping and cheating is complex and troublesome, but that is like a doctor refusing a patient because they are worried the low success rate for the required operation will lower their overall performance rating. Yes, some of these students are a pain, and some few trying to be dishonest, but the vast majority are individuals who have successfully completed six to eight years of effort on a graduate program, only to be told they are about to fail because nobody explained how to manage a sustained piece of writing or what writing in their discipline looks like.

      The wreckage of devoting six years to a grad program from which one does not graduate cannot be overstated. The financial cost, the career cost, the blow to one’s self-confidence is frequently devastating, all for the lack of a decent writing coach. Yes, the supervisor is supposed to be that coach, but it is not happening, even with the best of intentions by the best supervisors. I for one am not prepared to stand by and watch people drown when I can save them with ten to fifteen hours of coaching. When I provide that coaching through sessions as part of the PhD seminar in my former faculty, nobody accuses me of helping students to cheat, but somehow when I give the exact same content privately to a student, that becomes this big grey area threatening to undermine the integrity of the thesis or dissertation.

      *Bah Humbug*

      Hmmm…sorry, fell into full-fledged rant mode there.

      I really am going to have to make time somewhere to write this up in a more coherent format as handouts to clients and supervisors. And I feel an article for University Affairs coming on.

      My apologies to everyone in this thread–hopefully it is obvious I am not replying to the original column or comments posted on it, so much as venting about issues that have been bugging me for a while. I fully appreciate everything posted by others so far.

      • Actually, Robert, I have appreciated your insight on this matter. Clearly, editing documents such as theses or dissertations can be delicate, especially when you consider the ethical questions surrounding said tasks.

        I was thinking of organizing a workshop on this topic. Might you be interested in sharing your stories and providing tools for participants? Let me know. We’d just have to figure out a way to communicate with each other, but that’s certainly doable.

  • Mickeelie Webb


    Any thoughts about or experience with undergraduate theses rather than graduate? Same issues of integrity and ethical considerations or different?

    • Interesting questions, Mickeelie. As I stated below, I don’t normally edit undergraduate assignments, for they are almost never published in a journal or some other document. I too have wondered about ethical considerations. Judging from the past, I haven’t touched undergrad work because some students did not pay me for services offered. Since some of these students are simply too “cheap,” I have decided not to work for them. Hopefully, they’ve taken—and are still taking—stock of writing clinics on campus.

  • Quite the interesting text, Wilf. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Although I am a bit late in the conversation, I will say that some graduate students and professors have asked me to copy edit/proofread theses and dissertations in the past year. So far, not one individual has accused me of academic offences, i.e., cheating, especially when these parties know that they do not necessarily have the tools to write effectively. I am proud to offer my editorial services to these clients. The good news is, they continue to contact me when documents need polishing. So it’s a win-win: I like what I do, and the clients appreciate my work.

    Now, I do not usually copy edit undergraduate work, particularly because it will never be published in a journal or some other outlet. At the same time, I have struggled with the ethics behind this. Should undergraduate students seek advice from writing centres? I don’t remember using them when I first set foot on university campuses, so I can’t vouch for their quality or lack thereof.

    At any rate, this topic is food for thought, and I’m glad to see a lot discussion around it.

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