collection of succulent green plants

What makes a good edited volume?

What makes a good edited volume? Any advice for being a good volume editor?

Editing a collection can be a rewarding opportunity to collaborate with peers, build community, and facilitate conversations in your field. Especially in the humanities, where scholars typically work as individuals rather than as part of a lab (as scholars in STEM fields often do), these projects provide a different way of working that can be intellectually stimulating and even fun. If you’re interested in undertaking an edited volume, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, consider whether this is the right moment for you to undertake the project. Look at your schedule for the next few years to see what other demands will be made on your time, including requirements you may need to fulfill for tenure or promotion. If you’re on a traditional faculty path, consider waiting until after tenure to edit a collection. Monographs are often weighted more heavily than edited collections in tenure decisions, and collections generally take more time to produce than single-authored volumes do. While you might be able to lock yourself in your office to churn out a draft of a monograph during a sabbatical, a collection depends on the schedules of a few dozen people, some of whom may have unforeseen delays. So be strategic in thinking about whether to start a collection, and when to do so.

Editing a collection may seem simple: issue a call for papers (CFP) and choose from the proposals that are submitted. But much more happens behind the scenes. Good collections begin with a vision developed by the volume editor (or editorial team). As you write the CFP, you should have an idea of what your future volume will ideally look like. Ask yourself what gap it will fill in the discipline, who the audience will be, why it should be a collection rather than a monograph, what subjects it will cover, how it will be organized, and which scholars it might include.

The CFP will cue potential contributors to think about the topics and questions that the volume will address.

Unlike a monograph, a collection gives you the chance to feature a variety of perspectives and subject matter, so essays that are selected for a collection should feature that variety. To generate this variety, you should not only rely on the CFP but also reach out directly to contributors you hope will participate. Drawing on your initial vision for the volume, you should make sure that essential topics are addressed and that many voices are included. Press staff members, peer reviewers, faculty boards, and eventual readers will question a collection that lacks diversity, so think from the beginning about including contributors who are diverse in all respects—race, gender, personal identity, career stage, and so on.

In planning the volume, you should also think about the total length of the collection and the length of individual essays. While collections should include variety, no single collection can include everything. It’s important to follow the length guidelines provided by your acquisitions editor, since longer volumes are more complicated and time-consuming for you and the press and can also be less appealing for readers. Volume editors must decide not only what to include but also what to leave out. The essays that are chosen should be cohesive, without being repetitive, and, as the volume editor, you can draw connections between essays and highlight their main themes in writing the book’s introduction (and perhaps also a conclusion).

While you need to have a plan, it’s also important to modify the plan in response to the contributions you receive, feedback from outside readers at different stages, and unexpected occurrences such as contributors’ needing to drop out of the collection. In addition to being flexible, you should be skilled in organization and communication. And while you’ll need an understanding of the big picture of the collection, you’ll also have to manage many details. You will need to keep track of submissions, revisions, schedules, and contact information for perhaps two dozen contributors, as well as coordinate images and permissions for the entire volume.

You also need to keep contributors updated on the progress of the volume over several years, keeping in mind that others’ promotion and tenure processes may be affected by the progress of the volume. You must communicate feedback on the length, shape, and quality of contributions. Sometimes this feedback can be uncomfortable to give, especially for volume editors without tenure, whether it involves persuading an eminent scholar to tighten an essay to fit a word limit or rejecting an essay entirely. Essays might be rejected for many possible reasons, and at different stages, and volume editors should be clear with contributors that this is always a possibility.

You should also stay in contact with your acquisitions editor, so that everyone is on the same page about the requirements of the project, the stages of review it will go through, and the deadlines that must be met (or any changes to deadlines, if necessary). Presses have different processes, and your acquisitions editor can let you know what’s required for your project and answer your questions about it.

While editing a volume can present distinctive challenges, it also offers a unique way to empower scholars in a particular field to share their expertise, leading to a broader view of the volume’s topic, and to foster a greater sense of community among those scholars. If it fits your interests, skills, and schedule, being a volume editor can be a rewarding endeavor.

—The Modern Language Association, September 2021