“There’s definitely a ‘therapeutic’ element. . . I think that’s probably true of any editing”: Academic Editor Rachel Freedman Stapleton

Over the years, Rachel has sampled both the publishing and academic waters. As an undergraduate, she worked for a literary journal before moving on to a program in book and magazine publishing at Centennial College (now called the “Publishing – Book, Magazine and Electronic program”). After working in the sales department at a publishing house, she returned to academia for a master’s degree in Comparative Literature.

When faced with two options—a publishing career or a PhD—the arrival of the 2008 economic crash made academia seem like the most viable option. Yet, during the PhD, Rachel began to question whether academia could offer a fulfilling or sustainable career path. She loved academic writing and teaching, but she found it difficult to look past the exploitative systems that drive academic labour—particularly graduate student labour. Academic editing, she later discovered, offered a compelling alternative.

The bottom line? Find work that aligns with your values. In Rachel’s case, being an academic editor lets her keep what she loved about the PhD—the proximity to research, writing, and intellectual collaboration—without feeling as constrained by its institutional pressures.

The following interview is edited for clarity and length.

Ambiguity about the PhD

Starting a PhD was a practical decision: I had a little funding, I had benefits and teaching opportunities, I had some great friends and great support from my department. But I always told myself that if something better came along I would leave the PhD.

In 2015, the TAs and grad student instructors at the University of Toronto went on strike. I was teaching my own course at the time, and I was already on the fence about becoming an academic. Do I want to put all of myself on the market? Do I want to move wherever the jobs are? Do I want to spend 10 years trying to find a tenure-track job?

That strike really emphasized to me all the ways academia is built on exploitation of graduate student labour: the message from the university was essentially that grad students were freeloaders who should be grateful for the opportunity to be exploited.

That really soured me because I didn’t want to become someone who is oblivious to that kind of dynamic (and I say this knowing we’re living in late capitalism and all labour is exploitative). Universities espouse these progressive ideologies and then fail to see the irony in their actions. In the private sector, everyone’s clear that this is exploitative capitalism, but the universities have fooled themselves into thinking that they’re exempt, and that’s what bothered me.

I took a step back to reflect on what this would mean for me. I decided that I was still going to finish the PhD, but I also realized that my dream job would be working in academic editing. I love writing, I love editing, I love telling people what to do—there is an element of bossiness there! At the same time, I’ve never found research on its own to be gratifying, which I think you need for a successful academic career.

On dealing with affirmation and feedback

I’m still dealing with the trauma of grad school. The system tells us that our identity and self-worth is predicated on our work—particularly in the humanities—which is not a healthy way to work or live. It just opens everyone up to exploitation. When I was working in-house as a copywriter, I would write stuff and feel like I needed feedback, like I needed to know how I was doing so that I could know how I should feel about myself, in a way that isn’t the norm in the private sector. I’m still trying to untie that Gordian knot.

I’ve found working directly with clients and authors to be the most helpful with this problem. The only feedback and affirmation I need is from my client. I’m not trying to meet the unspoken needs of my supervisor or department or faculty. There’re not always clear guidelines from the client, but as an editor I have a clear sense of how a piece of writing would work best for the reader and what I think the author is trying to accomplish.

Marking as a transferable skill

Editing accomplishes something different than marking; with editing, you’re not correcting, you’re suggesting. I might be correcting comma splices, for example, but mostly I work on the developmental editing side—so the bigger picture edits.

It’s not so much about putting myself into the work as it is about helping somebody else bring the best out of their work. I think that helps me step back and not over-involve myself. It’s not about my research, it’s not about my writing. I think that’s where marking comes in as a transferable skill. Rather than telling students what they’ve done wrong, you’re just making suggestions and then letting clients deal with it. Sometimes the authors will ignore or disagree —and I may think they’re wrong—but at the end of the day it’s not on me. It’s kind of liberating in that way!

PhDs have to embrace seeing themselves in that expert role—as somebody who could give that advice.

The editor’s soft skills

I feel like there’s definitely a kind of “therapeutic” element to editing because you’re trying to help the author’s writing become the best it can be. It’s one of those soft skills that doesn’t get talked about, but it’s probably true of any editing. Whether you’re writing a kids’ book or a monograph, you’re putting a lot of yourself and your emotional energy into that work. As an editor, you have to balance and manage those feelings for the author. And a lot of authors are dealing with exactly the same conflation of writing with their feelings of self-worth that I talked about earlier about myself. As and editor, I really have to listen and figure out the author’s sore points, what they’re protective of, and when and how to back away or work around those issues.

Required skills in an editor’s starter pack

Networking and bookkeeping.

Academia often appeals to introverts. For me and my friends, “networking” became a bad word, like, “I don’t want to go out and schmooze with people!” But networking is much broader than that; it’s just about making connections. You need to find a balance and reach out to connections in a way that you’re comfortable doing. I don’t think academics tend to respond well to hard sells, so building connections with scholars has to be a bit more organic.

Then there’s the money aspect. You need to figure out how much to charge, what the taxes will look like, how to stay on top of invoicing, whether or not to charge GST/HST. A lot of people hate the idea of telling people how much they charge. We often feel like we’re overcharging. We don’t know what our time is actually worth, usually because the PhD tells us that our time isn’t worth anything—only our product! As a new editor, with a decade of experience in academia, I struggled to know how much to charge and what I’m actually worth.

But as a freelancer, you’re also self-employed, so you can charge whatever you need to! If I have a graduate or postdoc student come to me with a very limited budget, I will do my best to work within that budget. If I have a senior faculty member who has a research account, I can charge my full rate.

So, you need a bookkeeping system, and you need a copy of Microsoft Word. Other than that, there aren’t a lot of start-up requirements. You should register for a business if this is something you’re serious about, but you don’t have to have a business number right off the bat and you don’t need to hire a bookkeeper (this is not legal or financial advice!). You can dip your toes in the water and see if it’s for you.

Rachel Freedman Stapleton is a Settler Canadian who is privileged to live and work in Toronto/Tkaronto, land that is part of the traditional territories of the Mississauga of the Credit, the Anishnaabe, the Wendat, and the Haudenosaunee. Rachel holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto, with a specialization on early modern women’s letter writing in England, Ireland, and Spain. She has presented her research at numerous international conferences and published her research in journals and edited collections. She has co-edited a volume on iconoclasm with McGill-Queen’s University Press as well as a special issue of The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature.

Rachel also holds a graduate certificate in publishing from Centennial College. Along with her background in book sales (from children’s books to retail sales), she has developed a thriving freelance practice as a scholarly editor and indexer. She has edited works for authors whose scholarly monographs and journal articles have been published in top-tier journals and by presses including Brill, Routledge, and Oxford. In January 2023, Rachel joined the University of Regina Press as a Senior Acquisitions Editor.

Rachel’s social media:

Instagram: @adventures_in_editing | Twitter: @rachfreedleton | Website: rachelfstapleton.com | LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachel-freedman-stapleton/

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