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Writing advisers help polish grad students’ papers

Academic copyediting program is a crucial resource to a growing number of international graduate students at U of Alberta.


When I was hired to edit theses and dissertations for graduate students at the University of Alberta in August 2011, I was given strict orders: fix grammar, punctuation and syntax, and teach my clients to do the same. My job was not to rewrite.

That was fine with me. Most of the papers were about subjects such as asphalt, concrete and oil sands reclamation, which fall outside my scope of expertise. A poorly written sentence, however, is a poorly written sentence regardless of the discipline. It is also a major reason why the Academic Copy Editing (ACE) service came into being, and why it is flourishing at the Writing Resources Centre, a division of the Student Success Centre at the U of A.

Writing Resources, one of two writing centres on the main campus in Edmonton, offers a variety of fee-for-service workshops for undergraduate and graduate students, including one-on-one tutoring and non-credit courses on everything from using sources properly to writing thesis proposals. The ACE program, however, unlike the courses and tutoring, is exclusively for the use of faculty and graduate students.

The ACE program includes editing of capstone projects, journal articles and book chapters. Through word of mouth, we have attracted students and faculty members from a variety of disciplines, including economics, psychology, education, fine arts, English and agriculture.

Writing Resources associate director Stephen Kuntz created ACE to meet the demand, mainly from the growing number of international graduate students who were coming to the Student Success Centre with documents that had to be turned in within days, sometimes the same day. To work with the students page by page would have taken days or weeks.

“I saw this unbelievable need,” says Mr. Kuntz. “Students spend years and tens of thousands of dollars, and all that’s between them and getting out the door is getting this dissertation out. We are helping them do that more quickly.”

Mr. Kuntz notes that students are ultimately passing or failing based on their thesis or dissertation. “Some professors were sending their students away, saying, ‘I’m not going to read this until you get it edited’ or ‘You have to get it edited before we send it to the committee.’ I thought to myself, ‘There has to be a way to serve these students, decrease the cost for them, and help them stay within the code of student behavior.’”

When developing ACE, Mr. Kuntz was aware that most university writing centres don’t offer editing. Indeed, many writing centres advertise on their websites that they will not edit. That struck him as short-sighted. “It seemed to me there’s a natural progression. We’re providing a continuum of services from the moment [students] enter until the moment they leave. To bail out on them at the last moment didn’t make pedagogic sense.”

Papers must meet a standard; if there are multiple errors per page that significantly affect communication, Mr. Kuntz will recommend one-on-one sessions to help the student improve the document so that it can later be copyedited. Supervisors are informed that their students are working with the Writing Resources Centre.

Fees are based on how long the work takes and include a one-hour post-editing session. Clients receive an estimate in advance and their cost works out to around $4.50 a page. That’s considerably less than the average online editing service, most of which charge by the word and adjust fees depending on turnaround time. (When I searched half-a-dozen sites for the cost of an edit on a 5,000-word paper, the rates quoted ranged from $115 for a two-day turnover to $508 for a three-day turnover. To put that in perspective, I recently delivered a 5,000-word document in 24 hours and it cost the student $95.)

Among ACE’s early adopters was Hooman Askari, an Iranian-born assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. His lab produces up to 30 papers a year. “English is a second language for me and most of my graduate students,” says Dr. Askari. “When they write, I’m sure there are lots of mistakes. I thought the best way they could learn was to go through the process with an editor.”

When Dr. Askari was writing his dissertation at the U of A in 2005, he was his own editor, with his adviser also pitching in. “This,” he says, “is a better way of doing it.”

Debby Waldman is a writing adviser at the Writing Resources Centre at the University of Alberta. Writing centre directors who are interested in developing programs similar to ACE can contact Mr. Kuntz at [email protected].

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