Co-Editing a Book: Some Reflections

A thick stack of papers sits on my desk: visible evidence of a process that has been both enjoyable and frustrating.  It is the manuscript for the tentatively titled A Formative Decade — an edited collection of essays that examines 1920s Ireland. An electronic version has been sent to the publisher, Irish Academic Press (IAP). And although the process is not yet complete — the manuscript has yet to go through peer review — I thought it worth reflecting on what I’ve learnt so far.

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A Formative Decade


I’ve published two single-authored monographs in the last four years, but editing a collection is a completely different challenge. Thankfully, I’ve had two great co-editors to share the workload with.

I contacted Mel Farrell (NUIM) and Jason Knirck (Central Washington University) around December of 2012 initially with the idea of doing an edited collection to mark the 90th anniversary of the foundation of Cumann na nGaedheal. Mel had recently completed a PhD thesis that examined Cumann na nGaedheal’s organisation, and Jason’s now published monograph on Cumann na nGaedheal was in its final stages. Given our overlapping research interests, a collaboration between the three of us seemed logical. The idea soon transformed — for reasons outlined below — and we subsequently widened the scope to look at various aspects of the island of Ireland during the first decade of independence.

As an edited collection is one of the planned outcomes from the Perceptions of Pregnancy conference that Jennifer Evans and I are running this coming July, I’ve been thinking a lot about what lessons could be learned from my recent experience as a first time editor.  (As a postgraduate I co-edited History Matters II, but that was a collection of papers from a graduate conference and it naturally didn’t require the same level of involvement as this project).

Be realistic about the time-scale

December 2012 was far too late to initiate a project that would commemorate Cumann na nGaedheal’s 90th anniversary in 2013.  We thought we had devised a time-scale that would just about allow us to achieve that, but we hadn’t factored in contributors withdrawing, delayed responses to queries, and — perhaps most importantly of all — a publisher’s schedule. Even if a miracle had happened and we had somehow managed to produce the manuscript in the tight time-frame we had anticipated, IAP would not have had space for us in the publishing programme for 2013. This is also worth bearing in mind for anyone considering a special edition journal; a quick turnaround is highly unlikely as a queue system operates with such publications also.

Expect delays

Even after revising our time-frame with IAP and putting a more realistic one in place, we were still on a very strict schedule. Anyone who has ever published will know that the majority of the time, no matter how good intentions are, the deadline is usually over-shot. For an edited collection, factoring in the various work schedules of all the contributors made it inevitable that there would be a delay. And, as we have a very international panel of contributors, we also had to think about time-differences, which meant that emails could not always be answered during local working hours.

Expect withdrawals

We lost contributors at both proposal and writing stage, and from speaking to colleagues with more experience of producing edited collections, this is to be expected. The time that a contributor had anticipated to write during gets taken up with other, often more pressing work or with family commitments, or just simply by events out of their control. If that person is writing about a particularly niche area, it can be difficult to find a replacement and can result in a gap in the themes covered by the book. We’ve agreed that addressing this in the introduction is probably the most sensible approach. On reflection, it’s best to set an absolute deadline, after which the proposal or manuscript has to move on without that person. It might seem ruthless, but the project will drift otherwise.

Editorial communication

As the three editors are in three different countries (Mel in Ireland, me in the UK and Jason in America), all of our correspondence has been done by email. Some days, several went back and forward. With so many communications being exchanged, it’s easy for things to get missed. Numbering queries / tasks in every email helps ensure that each point is responded to.

Also, with three editors, we felt it necessary to create a separate email account for correspondence with the contributors. This meant that we had all emails in the one place, and all three editors had access to the same information.

Agree a style-guide

An obvious point now, looking back, but we never specified a particular style-guide to our contributors at the outset. With eleven different authors from various backgrounds working from an array of citation styles, the footnotes of the collated manuscript looked far from uniform. I volunteered to standardise them, and almost lost the will to live in the process! It was definitely a rookie error!


On the whole, occasional frustrations aside, it’s been an enjoyable experience — not least because of the good humour and patience shown by my co-editors, and by the usually prompt responses from our contributors. I’ll follow up this post after we’ve had the external readers’ comments back and we’ve delivered the final manuscript. In the meantime, if readers have any other tips or observations to add on the editing process, they’d be most welcome.

Updated, 12/05/14, 11pm

Some further advice that came in via twitter:

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Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

One thought on “Co-Editing a Book: Some Reflections

  1. Hope the editing of the 1920s book is going well. I recently came across an interesting calendar of events for the years 1920, 1921, 1922 and 1923 which was published each January 1st in the Freeman’s Journal from 1921-1924. Alas the Freeman did not get to see 1925 so I’ll have to look elsewhere for a gathering together of significant events for the 1924-1929 period.

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