“The exciting work happens here, and editors can work at that intersection”: Academic Developmental Editor Pia Kohler

Editing After Academia. "In a world in which academia has more and more unrealistic expectations, and ever-growing demands on scholars’ time, it’s only logical to have help from an editor." - Pia Kohler, Academic Editor

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

As an editor, Pia Kohler gets to embrace interdisciplinarity in a way she couldn’t in her years as an academic. With three interdisciplinary degrees under her belt (physical geography, environmental science, and international environmental policy), and her first book project underway, Pia had faced the trouble familiar to many interdisciplinary academics: how to make her work fit within a certain audience or discipline. Was she writing for academics? Practitioners? One discipline or the other?

In the middle of writing her book and buckling under a dozen other faculty commitments, a fellow academic advised her to seek out an editor. That advice, she says, was revelatory: “I was like, ‘You can do that? It’s not cheating?’ It seemed like a jarring admission that you might need help. Academia is definitely not about admitting you might need help.”

Working with an editor revealed to her the ways that academia fails to render certain resources visible or legible, especially resources for scholars whose work resides on the boundaries of traditional disciplines. Her editor didn’t just help keep Pia on track with deadlines, working as her cheerleader to get her to the place where she could hit “send”—they also helped her to find the right structure for her otherwise unconventional book.

As an academic developmental editor, Pia now gets to make invisible processes clearer to academics, and also supports getting cutting-edge and interdisciplinary research the recognition—and publication—it deserves.

In the following interview, Pia reflects on what it would mean to normalize getting help from editors as well as the ways developmental editors can help change attitudes towards disciplinarity, authorship, and writing practices in the academy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Editors and interdisciplinarity

As an editor, I think it’s marvelous having an interdisciplinary background, because you inevitably encounter situations in which a client might think they’re communicating clearly, but one of their target audiences has a really set meaning to a word. That usually fosters an “Aha!” moment where you think, “If I’m going to keep using this term, I need to be really clear about how I’m using it—or just stop using it.”

As an editor who’s reading across several disciplines, I tend to specialize in supporting scholars who have some interest in practitioners and general audiences. My interdisciplinarity makes me well-suited to put myself into that general audience or to identify those problems. Interdisciplinarity is where my passion lies in terms of how I approach problems, both as a researcher and a practitioner.

Working at the intersections of change

I am convinced that interdisciplinarity is where our solutions will emerge. The exciting work happens here, and editors can work at that intersection.

As an editor, you’re getting to help an author meet their goals. If you look at some of the patterns in academic hiring, there’s a real push for a scholar to cover large subject areas. University administrators are probably going to perceive niche interdisciplinary fields as special interests, but that’s where actually the exciting scholarship is. A lot of student and societal demand is there.

As an editor, I make a minor contribution to supporting interdisciplinary scholarship. If we as editors can help make academia more manageable and humane and healthy for those who do stay in these interdisciplinary tracks, then that can maybe help to keep and support faculty from underrepresented and marginalized groups in academia.

Helping clients understand and meet their goals

Before agreeing on the terms of a project, I do spend a lot of time getting to know my clients and their goals. Especially for book projects. I am really drawn to big interdisciplinary book projects that may be somewhat traced back to someone’s dissertation.

Some of my client’s goals are about peer review, some about tenure. More advanced academics get to write for themselves, which is a luxury. They’ve gotten to the point with their project where they have really clear goals for their book. One thing I enjoy about the editing process is that I help the author crystallize or redefine that goal and why they want this book to be in the world. Or, they might come to me with one idea of a goal and, as we work through the book, we discover another goal that’s been taken for granted.

Very often, the editor helps the author understand what they need and how to put into words the impact they want.

Finding a career that energizes you

To be perfectly honest, I chose editing after a complicated tenure denial. While on a medical leave towards the end of my academic career, I finally received a diagnosis for a chronic illness I’d been dealing with my whole life, and I did wonder whether I’d ever be able to hold down a job again. Returning to a full-time appointment was difficult, especially since one dimension of my illness means I’m sensitive to fragrances and chemicals. It was challenging, for example, to never know whether I’d react to the smell of someone’s shampoo or fabric softener in a crowded classroom. Finally having a diagnosis, and access to new treatments, however, also allowed me to assess which parts of my academic job were compatible with my health and disabilities, and with available accommodations.

At the time, what I found really energizing was working one-on-one with students on their research projects. I was also doing this with colleagues; I’d meet a friend for coffee, and we’d troubleshoot their article or research projects. I just found those conversations so revitalizing.

From colleague to client

I began my editing practice as a side hustle; when I saw the tenure denial was likely coming and I was exploring next steps. I took on what I jokingly called “guinea pig clients.” I told a few friends and colleagues, “I’m looking for practice with editing. You have peer reviews and you need to finish your book. Can we work together? I will give you a very low sub-market rate, and we’ll learn together.”

That was a great way to confirm that developmental editing was where I wanted to be. At the time, I didn’t know it was called developmental editing (and I later trained by taking Laura Portwood-Stacer’s course), but now I know my strengths lie there—in helping to develop the structural argument and arc of books.

Joining the movement to making academic editing more transparent

Editors Canada and the Editorial Freelancers Association has a joint venture focused on academic editing. Academic editors are trying to make our help more legible to academics. Needing an editor is not a sign of weakness, it’s not a sign of disorganization, and it’s not a sign of English not being your first language. It’s not any of those things!

In a world in which academia has more and more unrealistic expectations, and ever-growing demands on scholars’ time, it’s only logical to have help from an editor. There are so many inequities in academia. Some published academics have colleagues who provide feedback on their work in progress, or dissertation supervisors who support them even ten or twenty years after graduation, or even a parent who’s an academic and can guide them. But what if you don’t have any of these advantages? If we normalize that working with an editor is a standard step that will not only improve your academic outputs, but also make writing practices less fraught, we can take a small step towards making academia more accessible and inclusive.

Pia Kohler is an interdisciplinary social scientist, and has long been fascinated by science-policy interfaces and the global governance of hazardous chemicals, interests reflected in her Anthem Press book, Science Advice in Global Environmental Governance. In 2020, after academic appointments at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (International Relations/Political Science) and Williams College (Environmental Studies), Pia started freelance editing, specializing in developmental editing and coaching. She especially enjoys working with interdisciplinary academics and has worked on projects in urban studies, public health, science and technology studies, French studies, political science, comparative literature, and ecology. For more about Pia, please visit piakohler.net.

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