“I get to invigorate my life now by reading widely again”: Academic Editor Sarah O’Brien

Editing after academia: “When I’m working with clients, I do feel like it’s a collaborative effort. I feel like we're both working for the text.” Sarah O'Brien, Academic Editor

This post is part of Editing After Academia, a series that spotlights editors who have found fulfilling careers outside academia.

After Sarah O’Brien defended her dissertation, she walked into the office of her department’s Director of Graduate Studies and was handed a list of Mellon postdoctoral positions. At the time of her graduation, in 2012, the expectation among her cohort was to continue to a tenure-track job. And, to fill the time spent applying for the elusive TT position, the prevailing wisdom was that she could bide her time in a research postdoc—even though the chances of landing a prestigious Mellon were extremely small.

“I don’t think anyone in my cohort was thinking about careers outside academia,” she reflected, “In the last 10 years, there has been a real necessary kind of explosion of professionalization that prepares graduate students for a range of career.”

With a PhD in Comparative Literature and research focused on Cinema Studies and Animal Studies, Sarah figured her interests were too interdisciplinary to find a fit in most departments. During her studies, she had trained to read widely, across disciplines, yet most TT-positions required her to narrow her field and shift outside her expertise and interests. Once she realized that a conventional tenure-track academic path wasn’t realistic, she reframed herself as a writing instructor and took a teaching postdoc at Georgia Tech University, and then later as a full-time writing professor at the University of Virginia.

The combination of pandemic lockdown and maternity leave in 2020 prompted Sarah to experiment with freelance editing. Three years into her freelance business, she’s been pleasantly surprised by how feasible the transition has been—and how much she enjoys her new work.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

A pandemic experiment

Becoming a freelance editor was a pandemic experiment. I took Laura Portwood-Stacer’s course on Developmental Editing for Academics and started asking my friends if they wanted me to do sample edits. As I started getting clients, I was surprised that this business seemed like it was going to work out.

I wondered if it would be strange for academics to have an editor work on their text, because authorship is so important to academic identity. It turned out that this wasn’t the case at all. When I’m working with clients, I do feel like it’s a collaborative effort. I feel like we’re both working for the text.

I also thought I wouldn’t feel as intellectually fulfilled as a writer would be. We associate prestige with writing, and the sense that writers are doing the greatest work. But I am intellectually fulfilled, and I don’t feel like I’m doing trivial work. That was a relief.

Reading widely again

As a PhD student, I got to read really cool, really interesting things, and I didn’t realize how much that had fallen away as part of my daily life. If academics go into a traditional teaching path—even the elusive 2–2 teaching load—they don’t really have time to read, and they definitely don’t have time to read works that are outside their field. As an editor, I get to invigorate my life by reading widely again. I love the variety.

How a PhD student can start training as an editor

As you’re doing things in your PhD, do it with the eye of an editor and how an editor might navigate these experiences. For example, going to conferences and talking to book publishers can help you build your network. Years later, you might even end up editing someone’s book that you met at a conference during your PhD. Publishing an article is also useful in terms of working with editors, getting peer reviews, and observing the process. Academics are on Twitter and social media more today, so you can network there, too.

Letitia’s note: another option is to take “Transitioning into a Career in Editing: A Microcourse for PhDs”.

Being frank about money

At first, I was ill-equipped to talk about money and pricing my labor. Talking about money is definitely uncomfortable, but you have to do it, because editing is a job. I fortunately met some editors early on who spoke very frankly about money and labour.

Otherwise, the business side is not too challenging. You can find all kinds of tools to help you manage a business. There are boring administrative parts to it, but it’s nowhere near as boring as a lot of teaching committees!

You do need to have some kind of social capital to get started, which is hard. Getting referrals takes time, so you’re not going to have full-time work overnight. After three years, I’m beginning to notice patterns and rhythms of the work.

Spreading the word in academia

A client recently booked an appointment with me and told me they only realized yesterday that academic editors existed. People have been working with academic editors for a long time, but I think the work has only become more widespread in the last ten years.

Sarah O’Brien focuses on developmental editing for books, book proposals, and journal articles in the humanities and social sciences. Her own book, Bits and Pieces: Regarding Animal Life and Death in Film and Television, will be published by University of Michigan Press in summer 2023. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and son.

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