On Tuesday, April 19, Letitia Henville presented to us on editing research grant proposals.
Letitia (she/her) has a PhD in English Literature and is an award-winning instructor and editor who helps researchers articulate their goals to an audience of their peers. She lives and works on the unceded, stolen territory of the Səl̓ílwətaʔ and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm and people on the land now called the Dunbar region in Vancouver, British Columbia. Letitia writes the monthly advice column “Ask Dr. Editor” for University Affairs.
Letitia described the grants landscape, written and unwritten rules for proposals, her top three tips, and your next steps if you’d like to break into this rewarding niche; she’s posted a list of her references and some resources on her website, shortishard.ca. Things can change quickly in this niche, so instead of writing a synopsis of her talk, we interviewed her. The interview took place on Friday, May 13.
Where are you from, and what is your background?
I was born and raised in Vancouver. I now live about 10 blocks from my childhood home. Sometimes I’ll walk around a corner and see a view that I’ve seen in my dreams and discover that it’s real!
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC). I always knew that I wanted to pursue graduate studies, so I did my master’s and PhD at the University of Toronto. I studied late 19th-century poetry – really terrible, aesthetically and politically terrible poetry, but interesting. The last year of my PhD was very difficult – I sustained a substantial back injury, a substantial heartbreak, and a six-week strike at U of T. The strike was poisonous and made me think that many of the faculty in positions of power weren’t living by the values they espoused in their academic writing. I was quite disillusioned.
Between submitting and defending my dissertation, I did a lot of informational interviews with other PhD grads and homed in on grants facilitation and grants editing as something I would enjoy. It was the fine-detailed work that attracted me because I’d enjoyed it in my studies.
Please describe your editing path.
After moving back to Vancouver in the fall of 2015, I had a coffee with a member of Editors BC, Erin Parker (erintheeditor.com). She suggested that, to be an editor, you need to learn about editing. She introduced me to Editors Canada and gently pushed me into taking editing courses. I learned that while I thrived on the fine details of poetry, my editing forte is actually at a high level – big-picture, developmental, structural, and stylistic editing – not copy editing or proofreading, although I do some copy editing. It was a re-imagining of who I am and how I do what I do.
I studied editing while working as a grants facilitator and editor at a small health sciences department at UBC, a job I held for about three years. Then I was very lucky to win the Claudette Upton Scholarship (from Editors Canada) in 2018, which enabled me to attend my first Editors Canada conference.
The conference was a revelation. At academic conferences, people I spoke with during coffee breaks would often be looking over my shoulder in case there was someone more interesting to speak to, and during sessions, their questions were aimed at finding a way to challenge other people’s scholarship. At the editors’ conference, however, there was an entire stream on editing Indigenous texts and working with Indigenous authors. And all the editors in the audience really wanted to improve their practice; they were there to learn, not to schmooze or show off. I was delighted to discover that community and that environment – being around all these people who just wanted to learn and do better – politically, morally, and technically.
I’d started my freelance business as a side business in 2017. I now work part-time at UBC in a careers role – supporting graduate students, helping them have a better experience than I did. I also do academic editing part-time. I love the creativity, experimentation, and freedom that comes with running my own business.
As an example of creativity: I’ve recently created a website (writingwellishard.com) that helps academic writers better understand their text and how it compares with that of other writers they admire. It allows academic writers to see how the features of their writing – nominalizations, passive voice, “to be” verbs, that kind of thing – compare to a reference text of their choice. I’m excited to help academics to learn more about their own writing patterns. The website will be officially launched on June 14, 2022.
How did you come to specialize in editing academic grant proposals?
I spoke to many people who did different jobs, and I found that there is a real need to help people to win research grants. Research funding was cut substantially under the Harper government, and while Trudeau brought in more funding in response to the 2017 Naylor Report, the percentage success rates remain really low. These are really tough competitions, so more and more universities, research institutes, research hospitals, and regional health authorities are hiring people to help academics to be successful in their grant applications.
Part of my career path was strategic – finding an area where I knew there was demand – and part was having conversations with people who did those jobs, and other jobs, and discovering that the day-to-day work of editing research grant applications fits with my personality, interests, and background.
I got a job as a grants facilitator before ever taking an editing class, so I learned on the job and from my colleagues. And I found that I love it! I was used to teaching university writing, getting students for four months and never seeing them again. Now I work with a subset of the same authors year after year, and I enjoy getting to know individual writers and their writing patterns and to see the impact of my work on their careers.
Later this summer, I’ll be launching a 12-part course called “Editing Academic Research Grants in Canada,” which I’ve designed for academic editors – for freelancers who want to expand the services they offer and for folks who are keen to work in-house at a university. I’ll post an announcement to my email list, The Shortlist, when it’s available – I’m aiming for June 2022.
It seems that you have a large number of clients. How did you build that client base?
My first clients were the faculty with whom I worked in-house. I also got word-of-mouth referrals from people outside my unit. In early 2018, I decided that I needed to synthesize what I was learning from courses and from my reading, and so I started a blog just for myself. After eight months of blogging, I pitched and began writing my “Ask Dr. Editor” column for University Affairs.
That column is my biggest piece of marketing – it’s a content-marketing approach. The intention is to raise the profile of academic editing as a profession. I feature other academic editors too – folks such as Iva Cheung, Cath Ennis, Cara Jordan, and Brianna Wells. The column raises academics’ awareness of the profession of editing. I want readers to understand what we do, respect how we do it, and trust that we know what we’re doing.
When I get a query from someone about editing something, I can say “Yes,” and I can link to a column I’ve written about their type of document, to say, “Here’s a bit more about my approach.” That’s an easy way of converting leads into clients. Readers of my column also get a clear sense of my approach before contacting me. For example, one of my older pieces, “The Politics of Pronouns,” discusses the appropriateness of the singular they. If an academic doesn’t agree with that approach, they know beforehand and won’t even approach me about working with them.
You seem to be a very composed person. How do you manage this when so many of your deadlines seem to fall within a short time frame?
I’m happy to appear that way, but I do have an anxiety disorder! One thing that helped me to develop confidence as an editor and in my approach to my work is that I developed an online portfolio a few years back. I also hosted a webinar for Editors Canada about making a portfolio. The portfolio that I made includes samples from all the things I’d done in the many parts of my life – editing, academic stuff, volunteer work, gardening, disaster response preparedness – and I used it to find what these aspects have in common and to build a picture of who I am. What I learned, when I put all these puzzle pieces together, is that I really enjoy working with people who are under stress and helping them to achieve what they want to achieve. So this surface-level composure that you see is part of how I interact with others – but it doesn’t mean that I don’t experience stress and anxiety! It just means that I manage those feelings and avoid passing them along to others.
You’re very interested in Indigenous cultures. Do you seek work from Indigenous groups?
No. If someone approaches me to edit an Indigenous text, I refer them to the Indigenous Editorial Association. I suppose that if the client really wanted to work with me, I would, but so far my referrals have been appropriate. A chapter of my PhD dissertation was on Tekahionwake, E. Pauline Johnson, a Haudenosaunee poet from Brantford, Ontario. I’ve edited a SSHRC grant application that involved partnering with Indigenous communities, and I’m currently editing a journal article that focuses on Indigenous works in diamond mines in the Northwest Territories. I strive to do this work in a good way.
What do you enjoy most about the niche in which you work?
It’s very easy for me to get into flow. I can tap into an enjoyable, timeless space where the world around me disappears, and I’m “in the zone.” That’s such a nice feeling! And I hope that other editors can tap into the same feeling too. I consider myself an evangelist for academic editing – and for editing research grants in particular – because I hope that other people will see it as being within the scope of their abilities.
If any of your members have questions about freelance business practices, content marketing, academic editing, or research grant editing, I’d be happy to meet up for a virtual coffee!
Tuesday, May 17 – “The Strange Art of Writing [and Editing] Screenplays” with Clarke Mackey
Screenplays do a lot of heavy lifting in the entertainment industry, and they probably go through more editing by more people than published texts. They must bring stories to life and excite the reader, but they also serve as a technical map for movie productions, much like a composer’s score. Over the decades, people have developed conventions to make all this work. This presentation will provide some basics on how to read, write, and edit screenplays.
Clarke taught screenwriting for many years at Queen’s University. He presented to us in October 2019 on editing films and was an engaging speaker.
Monday, May 30 – Our Annual General Meeting
Calling all members! Please try to attend and contribute to the future of the twig.