How to Edit Topics You’re Clueless About

How to Edit Topics You’re Clueless About

When people find out I edit science topics, their next question is what my science background is. Then I get to reassure them that I’m not the one responsible for technical accuracy or safety, only for internal consistency. I mean, when you’re editing cutting-edge research in any field, how could you possibly be assessing the validity of the claims? It doesn’t matter if the topic is science, history, or fine art; they all reach a level of information-sharing that only the top 5% in that field could verify. Technical accuracy checks are the responsibility of peer reviewers and of the authors themselves.

I Can[‘t] Edit Everything

That said, the truth is that I can’t edit all topics I don’t know. There are some I’m so clueless about (like cooking) that I’m utterly useless at spotting even an egregiously wrong term or vital missing step (sauté where grill should be, to give what I’m fairly sure is a terrible example, but I really am that clueless about cooking). I once tried to edit an ancient history textbook, but everything was so unfamiliar that I racked up ridiculous hours looking up every term, timeline, and turn of phrase. For similar reasons, I don’t edit fiction.

The good news is that being unfamiliar with a subject means that you are particularly well suited to spot steps or connecting ideas that have been left out. You serve readers especially well in this capacity as a subject novice.

This is Almost* Always True of Fiction

bright yellow cover of the Chicago Guide to Copyediting Fiction, containing a collage of line drawings of characters and plot points

Fiction editors can’t look up the birthdate of their main character, or a map of the fantasy world a story takes place in. If there were ever any subject that an editor cannot be familiar with, it’s a newly invented world! Following Amy Schneider’s recipe for a style sheet in the (official) Chicago Guide to Copyediting Fiction takes the editor a long way towards becoming an expert in the fictional realities of the manuscript in hand. And that is just one of the dozens of useful sections in this book. (Read my review.)

*Fiction taking place on Earth, following an Earthly calendar, can of course have some aspects verified such as dates and cardinal directions, or even maps and related info.

Three Rules to Edit the Unfamiliar

  1. Find and follow a related style guide and get a style sheet or glossary from the writer.
  2. Ask for related material from that publisher to use as a guide.
  3. Look it up.

Look it up is, of course, the second rule of editing. (Never open a published work is the first rule.) Either you are editing material for other experts in the field or for non-experts. If the latter, writing queries is easy: you’re the target audience after all. If you don’t understand, readers won’t either. But if you’re editing for readers who will be much more familiar with the topic than you are, it’s important to try to answer questions yourself so that you can write enlightened queries. There’s no excuse for changing skink to skunk, for example, without first Googling to find out if a skink is a real and possibly correct term in this instance. I have a growing list on my style sheet of awkward phrases that are actually terms of art; standard forms of expression in whatever industry I’m editing for.

Sample Queries for Subjects You Don’t Understand

In last week’s post, I talked about why an editor is useful and effective even if (or even because) they are not a subject matter expert. Now let’s look at sample queries that help both the editor and the writer save face when editing the unfamiliar.

Three Sample Queries

Experience tells me that queries such as “Does this mean X?” without offering alternative phrasing can yield a horrendously unhelpful “no” response. But when I edit material to show a clearer expression of what I think the intent was, the writer can respond to the reader’s possible misinterpretation (shown in my tracked changes) and provide clarification. So the queries below are never provided without an accompanying suggested edit, flagged by a Track Change to make it obvious.

The idea with the query is to both flag something the editor finds unclear and demonstrate that she recognizes that the awkward item may be an industry standard she is simply unfamiliar with. This shows respect for the expert’s knowledge and helps both people save face.

Frame queries in terms of reader’s needs, not your failing or the writer’s:

AU: Is this a term of art that readers will be familiar with or does it make sense to change this as suggested?

Don’t query every change, but do query ones that could change the meaning:

AU: Change ok to smooth the grammatical flow or does this change the meaning?

Appeal to authorities:

AU: I’m not finding this term in [selected dictionary] and the definitions I find online suggest that it means [definition that is at odds with the way it is used here]. Would readers find it easier to follow the argument if [other word] were used instead?

When you suspect it might be an error but is definitely a change that the text hasn’t made sense of:

AU: The text has talked about [226Ra] so far. Does this switch to [222Rn] need to be explained for readers?

Maze illustration by qimono, used under CC 0 license.

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