As a writing and editing professional, editor Cortni Merritt is sometimes asked to consult and collaborate on a variety of academic, technical, and business writing projects in addition to her projects with SRD Editing Services as a member of other groups not associated with SRD Editing Services. Recently she was honored by the request to participate in a crucial academic writing project at Keiser University in Florida.
As an accredited institution, the University is required to assemble a comprehensive compliance report for the accreditation board every five years, and as a professional familiar with academic editing, Cortni was asked to assist with proofreading and finalizing the report before its submission to the board.
“The need for an editor isn’t about a lack of ability on the part of the writer; instead, it’s about a division of labor. When it absolutely has to be right, we will use a team approach.”
The Big Picture: Proofreading a Year-Long Collaboration
In the spring of 2022, Cortni introduced herself to the accreditation report writing team at Keiser University, composed of faculty, staff, deans, and experts in higher education writing and documentation. The timeline was laid out: Over the upcoming 12 months, teams of primary and secondary content developers would submit their materials to a compliance committee, and only after all materials’ content had been finalized would Cortni be asked to review and proofread for technical accuracy, using a KU-specific style sheet, based on combined elements from the Chicago Manual of Style and the APA Publication Manual.
The final report to be submitted to the accreditation board in spring of 2023 was estimated to total around100 pages of narrative essays with 200 more pages of additional supporting documentation, which would not be subject to the proofreading process. However, Cortni was informed that there may be additional front matter, back matter, and appendices that might also need editing.
Needless to say, it was quite the challenge! But if there’s one thing Cortni loves as an editor, it’s a new challenge.
Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, Dr. Michael Record, located at the University’s flagship campus in West Palm Beach, Florida, was lead project manager for the entire team of contributors, including Cortni from her office in Orlando, Florida. After the report was submitted and the project complete, Dr. Record generously shared his post-project insights about academic writing, professional editing and proofreading, and project management with Cortni in the following interview transcript.
Process, Standards, & Style: SRD Editor Interviews Dr. Michael Record
The following is compiled from multiple conversations in May 2023. Content is compressed and edited for clarity, organization, and story; some identifying information is redacted to protect confidentiality.
Cortni Merritt: Well, Dr. Record! We finally reached the end of this large group project. This involved so many highly educated specialists and subject matter experts. How many people were involved in the report writing (with all the writers, reviewers, committee members, advisors, etc.)?
Michael Record: Indeed! A big project. We had approximately 30 secondary developers writing on behalf of approximately 15 primary developers submitting their drafts to a compliance committee of approximately 20 people. Given a little bit of overlap in these appointments, I would say 60 folks contributed.
For clarity, I’ll add that the chancellor and his management team [at the flagship Florida campus] served as primary developers of content…secondary developers did most of the writing on behalf of [their] vice chancellors. In most cases, [the report writing teams] would run their narrative by the primary developer for approval before submitting it to the compliance committee.
CM: And after the compliance committee approval, it was sent to Cortni for final proofreading?
MR: Well, that was the original idea. But, unofficially, we found a lack of quality in what was submitted…so the compliance committee chairperson and I—I have served on several on-site reaffirmation committees—with the assistance of the [lead] editor, who has served as a reviewer on accreditation teams, did a lot of rewriting…and then it would get sent to Cortni for proofreading, eventually.
CM: So the report went through a lead editor and a proofreader in addition to all the writing, rewriting, and review, is that right…?
MR: We had a [lead editor] who spent probably 40 hours. Would you estimate your contributions as proofreader at 25 hours?
CM: Yes, about that. Maybe 30…how many hours do you think went into preparing this report in total?
MR: That is difficult to estimate, but here’s my thinking: each team of 3-5 secondary developers would probably spend an average of three hours per person developing, reviewing, and gathering documents. A rough estimate for the secondary development [is] 330 hours.
At the compliance committee, let’s say another 240 hours. And, I would ballpark the same for the time spent by the compliance committee chair, me (as project manager), and about 30 for the vice chancellor, bringing the total to somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 staff hours.
CM: Wow. I think that goes to show that it takes a lot of preparation and preliminary work in a writing project—really, any academic writing project but especially one this size. So many people think that the first draft is the last draft, but there’s unseen steps for development, revision, and rewriting…all before editing even starts!…Since so many of the contributors were experienced writers, did it seem like “overkill” having both an editor and a proofreader? The copy must have been pretty clean to begin with.
MR: Well, people who don’t understand the publishing process don’t realize that the need for an editor isn’t about a lack of ability on the part of the writer; instead, it’s about a division of labor. When it absolutely has to be right, we will use a team approach.
I can share my surprise at learning that the final report that gets handed in by the committee to the accrediting agency is almost completely narrative. For each standard, one does ultimately “check” whether the institution is in compliance, partial compliance, or noncompliance…however, that is followed by analytical narrative.
In other words, a compliance report is ultimately a Word document. There is no way to summarize or digest an institution’s compliance with the standards of an accrediting body. Lengthy academic reports ultimately determine the continued good standing of an institution in an accrediting body, meaning the quality of writing matters significantly.
[And that’s why it’s important to understand] the capability of your team and your report writers. In some cases, the folks generating the copy were not academics, [but] it is not necessarily a good assumption that an academic [writer] will produce copy appropriate for [this type of specialized academic] report, even if that individual is an accomplished scholar with lots of publications on his or her vita.
Quick example: it’s shocking how many ways of styling the name of a degree a group of university faculty and administrators can come up with: master degree…masters degree…master’s degree…Master’s of Science…Master of Science…Masters in Science…Masters Degree of Science…Masters of Science Degree…
It was impossible for the project manager—me!—to know how often a certain convention was going to be used, and whether it was going to be used often enough to require a rule governing it. Some of the best contributions you made as proofreader on the project were identifying issues that weren’t even addressed by the style sheet but needed to be.
CM: Well, thank you. It was my pleasure. I’m glad I could help.
MR: You did! The main change in the process of editing is the ongoing development of the style sheet. Some organizations may have a style sheet that never changes or changes very seldom. A higher education institution that writes high-stakes accreditation reports every five years has a style sheet that is going to change a lot.
With [more] issues identified, the next generation of developers is going to have even better guidance on what to do during drafting to lighten the load of the editor. Having a sufficient trove of issues identified along with advice about how to handle those issues makes generating the report a much easier task.
You know, generally, division of labor based on experience makes everything easier.
In this case, some people’s contribution [was] to conceive of the message, some people’s contribution [was] to write the copy, some people’s contribution [was] to gather evidentiary documentation, some people’s contribution [was] to evaluate and revise, and some persons’ jobs [were] to proofread and edit. When no one person is responsible for all of that, everyone can devote himself or herself to his or her own specific task, only do that, and do it really well.
CM: That’s brilliant. Have experts focus on their areas of expertise.
MR: [That is why editing and proofreading were] important enough to be [their] own discrete stage of the report development process. Similar to when I wrote my doctoral dissertation and needed a professional editor even though the work I did for the institution at the time was similar to that of a professional editor, we needed an editor for this project who was not a developer—someone whose responsibility was not to write, or even necessarily to think about the institution’s compliance with the standards—because we wanted someone designated to handle the surface-level correctness of language.
Had I to do it over again, I would start sooner and have a third phase (beyond primary and secondary [report writers]) whose job would be only to determine whether or not we were operating in compliance with the standard, but not necessarily to produce any copy. Then I would have a hand-off to the secondary developers who would take the information learned during that phase and write about it.
CM: A great idea for next time, right? We’ve been talking about the “standards” and “compliance” with them, which brings me to a more technical question about the report writing—what were these “standards” that the University had to comply with? What was the real purpose of this compliance report?
MR: Well, there were 22 academic standards–areas in which the University must demonstrate excellence in order to retain our accreditation. We have to prove—through explanatory narratives and evidenciary documents—that we have comparable facilities, classes, instructors, staff, policies, educational materials, etc., to similar institutions in Florida and throughout the southeastern US.
So my primary purpose was getting an answer to the question “Do we comply with these 22 standards?” Our emphasis was [on providing] clear and complete answers. We hear a lot [at academic writers’ conferences, trainings, and seminars] about institutions that demonstrate compliance with part of the standard or what people’s impression of the standard is.
Our approach in this report writing…was to break each standard into clauses, turn each clause into a subheading [in the report], and clearly demonstrate compliance with the clause of the standard within that subheading.
Beyond that, our focus was self-examination. Most institutions focus so much in their report writing on demonstrating compliance that they lose sight of the opportunity to learn about themselves.
CM: What a fascinating, yet straightforward, process. Sounds like you basically reverse-engineered an outline for the report and created writing prompts for each section.
CM: And so, what’s one piece of advice you’ll share? Something you think writing project managers ought to know?
MR: The best advice I can share for working with a large team of content specialists is to acknowledge that just because someone is accomplished in a particular field of scholarship doesn’t mean that individual knows technical writing.
In this context, all that means is answering the question that was asked, answering it completely, answering it clearly, and providing all the evidence the reader needs to believe the answer.
The best specific tip I can offer is to take that team of academic writers through a series of examples and nonexamples of successful [report] writing. It can be enormously instructive to show teams of writers samples of well-written narratives that don’t answer the question, don’t provide evidence, or aren’t complete. This is an experiential approach to discriminating between good writing that demonstrates compliance and good writing that doesn’t demonstrate compliance.
CM: As an editor, I can see how I would apply that advice to all types of large writing projects—book manuscripts, academic articles, business websites, etc. Thank you so much for sharing that wisdom!
So, I have one final question for you, Dr. Record. I’ve seen a post online that suggests that it’s time for academia to replace “et al.” with “and besties” in citations. So instead of “Smith et al.,” citations would become “Smith and besties.” What are your thoughts on this?
MR: That’s cute, and while it’s a joke, it’s actually a great teaching strategy. Instructors don’t acknowledge the subvocalization process often enough. When people read, their brains “pronounce” the words, and when our students don’t know how to pronounce something, they skip it—or they get frustrated and stop working. When I taught in Florida classrooms, I always taught students very intentionally how to read college-level material. I taught them to subvocalize “Smith (2022) observed…” as “Smith in 2022 observed…” As simple as that teaching behavior was, it was the difference between a group of emerging scholars warming up to academic discourse versus feeling alienated by it. I taught academic writers to read “Smith et al.” as “Smith and others,” but I will be using “Smith and besties” from now on.
Cortni Merritt, SRD Editing Services & Academic Writing & Editing Projects
As an experienced proofreader, academic editor, and writing project manager in Florida, Cortni is always expanding her areas of expertise. This experience proofreading materials for Keiser University was one of many in the realms of business and technical writing and editing projects that was recently on Cortni’s calendar, but you can expect SRD Editing Services to be involved in similar University projects in 2023 and 2024.