What does a dissertation editor really do?

Posted 10 Mar 2021, by

Brendan Brown

Now that you are working on your dissertation, you may be considering the option of having it edited by a professional editor.

However, not all dissertation editors and companies edit in the same way.

Before taking the plunge with a dissertation editor, you need to know what to expect. What will they do? What won’t they do?

This article will tell you everything you need to know.

Why you need to know what an editor will do

Dissertation editing can be a wise choice for many people. In most cases, as we work on our research, we are focused on the content. The instruction we receive during our studies is also focused squarely on our research discipline and the methods of doing and analyzing our research.

The writing up of that research, while clearly very important (there is not a lot of point in having exciting research results if we cannot express them in the required way), is not something we receive a lot of training or instruction in. Therefore, choosing to employ someone who can polish our work and ensure that it meets the standards expected is a decision many people make.

As you start to consider this option, it may be worth remembering that employing a dissertation editor does not only happen at the end of the dissertation process. Some choose to work with an editor during their dissertation writing, submitting chapters as they work on their research. This may have the advantage of teaching you some things about your writing at an earlier stage, which can then beneficially impact how you approach the rest of your thesis.

Both options are available – having your dissertation edited in sections during your writing, or having the whole document edited after you have completed all research and writing.

When purchasing a service, it is important to have clarity on what the service provider will and will not do. When choosing to hire an editor to work on your dissertation (during your writing or after you have finished), having knowledge of what they will do -and what they will not do- from the outset is very important. Having clear expectations and agreement removes the possibility of confusion.

Submitting a dissertation can be a stressful experience, so why not remove some of the possible stressors by having clarity on the editing process?

Is it acceptable to hire a dissertation editor?

This is an important question.

In universities, we all learn the importance of not plagiarizing the work of others, of being clear in citing the research and opinions of others we use, and of searching for ideas, data, and positions that we have generated ourselves with our own work.

So where does an editor fit into this picture? Do they fit in? Unless your university stipulates otherwise, absolutely!

Almost all reputable editors and editing companies have an ‘ethical position’ on editing. It this case, what is most important is what they will not do. They will not write your dissertation, they will not do any research work for you. They will not turn the research of others into your words. Many have their own statement of ethics.

Global English Editing, for example, carefully follows ethical student editing guidelines developed by organizations such as the  Editors’ Association of Canada. These measures allow students to avail themselves of these services and academic institutions to feel confident that an editor’s role in the process is limited to the academic writing concerns only.

What does a dissertation editor do?

To edit means, in a fundamental sense, to get something ready for publication or submission. It is quite likely that many people will begin their search for a dissertation editor online, and will then find themselves on the website of an editing company. What you will notice, in the case of many companies, is that they have different sections for different ‘kinds’ of editing. Editors work on dissertations and also for business clients, authors, and job seekers.

Academic editing is the typical category that dissertation editing will fall under (though depending on the company, these can be distinct too). For some companies and editors, academic editing is broken down into further categories, to separate the needs of different academic customers.

You may, for example, see different sections for:

  • ESL related editing help: assistance for students and academics for whom English is not their first language
  • Dissertation/thesis editing
  • Essay editing: targeting smaller academic papers
  • Academic authors: research journal and book editing for academics planning to publish their work
  • Discipline-specific editing.

Editors can cover all of these scenarios, though some companies or individuals may focus on certain types of editing. What is important is that we, the customer, are clear about our own needs from the beginning. As you will see, dissertation editors can ‘edit’ our writing in many ways.

Proofreading and editing

The distinction between proofreading and editing is perhaps a useful one to understand when looking at dissertation editing providers, be they individuals or companies. At a most basic level, we can perhaps understand the distinction between the two as proofreading being the simpler process of correcting writing and editing being the more complex process of improving writing.

The table below outlines how Global English Editing defines its editing services and proofreading services.

Dissertation editingDissertation proofreading
Eliminate spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakesEliminate spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes
Improve word use and sentence structureConsistent language, spelling (American English or British English) and style
Improve the clarity of expressionConsistent application of chosen referencing style, such as APA, Harvard, or any other.
Ensure subject/verb agreements, tense consistency, and active voice
Consistent language, spelling (American English or British English) and style
Consistent application of chosen referencing style, such as APA, Harvard, or any other.

This gives us a starting point for understanding how the services editors provide can differ. We can clearly see one option focusing mainly on error correction, while the other expands the scope of work to improve on aspects of the writing. This example is not specific to dissertation editing, but rather what we might consider the editing of more general writing.

One point to add to this is that, for academic editing, we can expect editors to proofread and edit for academic conventions. This means looking to see, for example, that language use conforms to an academic style and that sources of information are correctly cited and referenced using whatever citation system (e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA) is required by your university for your dissertation submission.

Your editor will ask you to specify your submission requirements, such as the referencing system, before they begin work on editing your research writing. However, do confirm with your editor of choice exactly what editing services they will provide for the price you have been quoted. If you are unsure about whether or not some aspect of academic editing will be provided, ask before hiring.

Levels of service

Not all editors use the terminology of proofreading and editing in the manner outlined in the example above. Others give their editing services different titles, but most tend to basically offer a basic service (closer to proofreading) and one or more levels of advanced editing services.

The level of service you need is a very important consideration to make, including for deciding how much you’re willing to spend.

Let us take an example from Elsevier Author Services. Elsevier is in fact an academic publisher, so they are targeting the most academic end of the market – PhD theses and the work of academics. We would expect a high level of service from such a company. Looking at the PhD thesis editing offerings, they currently have two services for students – PhD thesis language editing and PhD Thesis Plus. For a 50000 word PhD thesis, the basic plan costs $1500 and the Plus plan costs $4620 – these are at the top of the price range for dissertation editing.

With the basic offering, they will check your thesis for ‘language, readability and native tone’ as well as providing a plagiarism check. Essentially, this means they will ensure that your paper is free from language errors, that the language is used as a native-speaker would use it, and that you have used your sources correctly. Although they do not use the terminology proofreading, this is close to the service provided by some editors as proofreading.

The Plus version is much more involved – what they refer to as “extensive editing”, and which entails the following:

  • Editing for language, readability and native tone
  • Editing the structure, flow and presentation
  • Editors report to highlight the focus areas of your thesis
  • Layout formation to make sure your thesis is presentable
  • Multiple rounds of re-editing
  • Plagiarism check to help you eliminate instances of similarity with published work.

You can see that a range of extra services are provided here above and beyond the more standard thesis plan provided by the same editing company. ‘Multiple rounds of editing’ means that the student and the editor can engage in a back and forth discussion about the thesis, improving it over several iterations. This service involves feedback on writing, which many students find useful.


Editors will typically return your work to you with all their proofreading and editing changes visible.

At present, this most often happens through the use of Track Changes in Microsoft Word (however as our digital world is expanding, so are the ways in which editors work, with many also working with Google Docs and LaTeX documents now). This allows you to see and then ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ all the suggested changes before they are made to your writing.

Alongside this, some editors also provide comments, feedback, or summary reports on your writing. This typically will take the form of constructive criticism of your writing. Remember, your editor, as well as being an academic writing specialist, may be a dissertation writing specialist.  Their constructive advice may target areas that are beyond the scope of their work, but that you can adopt to improve your dissertation.

Let us take clarity in writing as an example.

While an editor may be able to edit one of your sentences for ‘clarity’, they will not rewrite an entire chapter or section for clarity. Yet they may be able to advise you on more ‘global’ or large-scale writing style changes you can make to improve on the overall clarity of your chapters, and indeed your whole thesis.

If you are working with an editor or company that is going to provide you with feedback, make sure that you allocate some time before your submission deadline to make alterations to your dissertation based on this feedback.


Some editors will also ensure that your dissertation is correctly formatted following the submission guidelines of your university. This can include formatting all introductory pages and appendices, all tables and figures in your dissertation, checking font usage and heading styles, and more! This can be quite a substantial job depending on the dissertation.

Summing up

Editors provide a very important service for student writers, allowing them time to focus more fully on their research. They can help to ensure that your dissertation is error-free, that your ideas are concise and clearly delivered to your audience, as well as being presented in an academic voice that fits your discipline.

When choosing an editor, remember to pay attention to the details of the service they offer in order to receive a service most appropriate for your writing needs and your budget. Many editing companies provide online samples of their work, allowing you to see the manner in which they will provide you with their corrections and comments, and the level of work they will undertake.

Devoting a little time to researching the best editing option for you, rather than opting for the first one you come across, may pay dividends in the end!

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