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The PhD supervisor as editor

June 22, 2016

When I made the switch from editor to academic, about 12 years ago, doing doctoral research on that former profession was a way of connecting two different lives. Now the shoe is on other foot, and I am training to be a PhD supervisor myself.

So when we were asked to check the pedagogical literature, it is not surprising that my interest was caught by an article on “The supervisor as editor”. [1]

The supervisor fills many roles, but for the field of Creative Writing, the editorial role comes high on the list. In Creative Writing, both self-editing and peer-group workshopping are important, and tutors commonly tell their students they are acting as their editor. This is partly to model professional relationships in publishing, by creating a learning ‘practicum’. But it is also because a tutor’s role is to give feedback on the substantive subject, and in Creative Writing the substantive subject is writing.

At the same time, for both professional and pedagogical reasons it is important to maintain boundaries; style and content are hard to separate, and authors/students need room to interpret any feedback and make the final text their own.

All this means that when it comes to PhDs in Creative Writing, thinking about ‘the supervisor as editor’ is more or less obvious. What may be less obvious, however, is the extent to which the ‘editor’ role might have wider relevance to other fields.

Writing is hard and most people need help with even the most formulaic forms. If that help is not forthcoming from the publisher or institution, writers can opt to hire professional editorial help.

The article’s author, Nigel Krauth, draws attention to the importance of providing editorial help for all doctoral students, and recognises the full range of the editing role; it is not just the critical correction of mistakes, or surface treatment of style, but also a developmental and structural thought process.

He asks, however, how much editing should a supervisor do? And when does the edited thesis stop being the candidate’s work and becomes a collaboration? If research students are under increasing pressure to publish before completion, does the supervisor end up acting as a commercial editor as well? It is important to explore the academic implications of these new demands, says Krauth:

The pressure on creative writing doctoral supervisors to give editorial assistance for both academic and creative components of the work – in the latter especially, replicating the role of a commercial publisher’s editor – evokes the situation where the school takes on a role similar to that of publisher. But also, the supervisor holds a quality control responsibility like that of the commercial editor, ensuring that outputs are at a requisite standard.

I will expand here by explaining that the potential clash of interests between academic and commercial editing is a particular conundrum for Creative Writing work, which typically goes to a trade publisher rather than the academic press.

I think it is good to recognise the potential for a clash, as long as one underlines the prior claim of  doctoral criteria. The supervisor’s job is to help the student meet the demands set for successful completion of a PhD. Research criteria require a thesis to be ‘publishable’; but in this context, it means being published for an audience of two to four people, the participants of a viva.

At the same time, the constraints of a doctoral thesis can be creative, as the freedom of the doctoral ‘practicum’ offers the chance to make non-commercial choices. The demands made by publishers are important for the version which goes to a wider readership, but during the doctoral process, for the doctoral ‘edition’, they do not take precedence. In any event, one cannot assume a unified ‘trade’ view in opposition to a unified academic view: within each group, different editors or supervisors will have a different response to a text.

One can also think about the type of editor that the supervisor should model. Krauth says that supervisors ‘can greatly assist their candidates by being nurturing editors’ (emphasis added). But the pedagogical literature tends to recommend allowing for a range of supervision styles, to suit the particular needs of each project. It is about getting the right match, rather than one or another style being ‘right’. [2]

A further thought, to my mind, is that, yes: writing is hard. But editing is hard too! Not all academics are good at writing, and even professional writers in the Academy are not necessarily strong in editing. If supervisors are to provide editing help, one can do more to train them in this role. One can also do more to recognise the extensive editing work done by academics in many disciplines – for example, editing a collection of essays or chapters – which is not recognised in the REF.


[1] Krauth, Nigel 2009. “The supervisor as editor”, in TEXT Vol 13 No 2, October

[2] Deuchar, R. 2008. “Facilitator, director or critical friend?: contradiction and congruence in doctoral supervision styles”, in Teaching in Higher Education (13)4: 489-500

Lee, Anne and Rowena Murray. 2015. “Supervising writing: helping postgraduate students develop as researchers”, in Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52:5, 558-570, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2013.866329

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