postgraduates: having your dissertation edited

Writing a dissertation takes planning and perseverance. Although it’s tempting, don’t stop planning once you’ve reached your final draft. Plan ahead for the language editing of your thesis.

Dissertations have two seasons: the dry season and the monsoon. If you’re aiming to submit your dissertation by the end or the middle of the year, you’re going to find many swamped editors. The ideal would be find a language editor in the dry season – months before your submission date.

I’ve received many emails from postgraduates asking for details about my editing services, which tells me that many don’t know what the process of editing a dissertation entails.  I hope this helps!

What does an editor do?

There seem to be misconceptions about what language editing entails. Editing is not reading a document and ‘quickly’ fixing problems. A professional editor usually has a postgraduate qualification and has at some point been taught editing as a skill. Some editors even write infamously difficult exams to be accredited by the South African Translator’s Institute.

When a document is edited for language, many technical things are done. But to sum it up in layman’s terms editing means a piece is checked for:

  • spelling (in South Africa, UK spelling is the standard – this also includes commonly confused words that won’t be found by a spell checker)
  • grammar (this includes idiom, common phrases and so on)
  • tone and register (is the language used suitable for the purpose?)
  • consistency (is the same style of language and way of doing things maintained throughout a document?)
  • do the words say what the writer means? (where many mistakes creep in)

For academic editing, the following are (depending on the language practitioner) optional and if you are running low on time and/or money you can usually arrange to have this omitted:

  • checking in-text references (this includes correlating the in-text references with the bibliography and noting conflicting information)
  • checking the bibliography for style (for example, checking that italics are applied correctly and consistently)


As a professional skill, language editing involves much more than ‘reading carefully’. In other words, it takes time to properly edit a text, regardless of ‘how good’ your writing is.

The dissertation monsoon seasons are usually in May and June with the occasional flare-ups in July, and September to December. If you’re planning to have your document edited in these months, you should plan ahead and book your editor ahead of time. It’s not necessary to have an exact date, but letting an editor know in advance that you plan to use their services could make a world of difference if they book time off for your project in advance. Many editors will ask you to pay a deposit before they book time for you or before they start with your dissertation.

I’ve had postgraduates with theses or dissertations contact me to edit their documents a few days before their work needs to be submitted. I charge a rush fee, if I can see my way into fitting another desperate soul into my schedule. This tends to make everyone unhappy.

It’s a common requirement for graduation that your dissertation or thesis must be edited before you submit it and your supervisor should have warned you about this when you reached the writing phase or at least at the second draft.

You need to include time for language editing in your planning. If you haven’t made an arrangement with an editor, assume that your dissertation will take at least a week to edit.

The quality of your writing, the nature of your research, and the experience of the editor will determine how long  the editing will take. A basic formula (that is horribly inaccurate) is that professional editors can usually edit about 4–8 pages an hour). This is not particularly useful if your writing is poor or if you have a technical document with many unfamiliar terms and jargon. Also, unless you have arranged ahead of time, it is highly unlikely that the editor will dedicate all his or her time to your document so you can’t assume how many hours a day will be spent polishing or deciphering your dissertation.


Having your dissertation edited will cost money. Most editors I know charge per word or per page. My rates, and that of editors I know, depend on a number of factors:

  • quality of the writing (I charge more if I have to rewrite)
  • subject matter (technical documents take more time and are more expensive)
  • time frame (many  editors charge a rush fee for last-minute jobs)
  • nature of the edit (related to how much sense your writing makes)
  • student discount

Editing, like everything else, seems expensive to students. However, bear in mind that you are asking a professional to provide a service. We have bills to pay as well.

Finding an editor on a budget

In an ideal world you should be aware that editing will have to be done from the start of the dissertation process and you will save up for editing as you go along.

  • Ask around for quotes (useful information to give the editor include: the title of your dissertation,subject field and estimated or exact length).
  • Tell the editor if you are on a budget and ask about student discounts.
  • Some universities have editing departments; ask if you can use their services.
  • Ask your university’s English department if they know of editors.
  • Consider checking your references yourself – ask if the editor will charge less if you don’t want them to check references.
  • Ask other students or your lecturer who they used and how much it cost them.
  • You can find editors on the South African Translators’ Institute’s website under Find a language practitioner


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