Editing What You Don't Understand
You can edit what you don't understand, according to a panel of technical editors assembled for the June Forum. Heather Kinser, Mia Lipman, and Scott Marley concurred on this point: You can edit what you do not understand the same way you edit what you do understand. As Kinser, editor at Professional Publications, Inc., put it, "You're a word person, so you're skilled at recognizing when words are being used effectively." In Lipman’s words, "Your job is to be a conduit of clarity."
Marley emphasized that it does help to have some background that relates to the subject matter you are editing. However, his background in psychology and writing and editing puzzle magazines shares little background with his current work— editing post-graduate study guides for licensing examinations at Professional Publications, Inc. Marley said that Google and other search engines will give you enough information to understand words and concepts that you don't know. He advised doing the homework necessary to be able to query authors in a way that engenders trust, conveys interest, and gives evidence your editing will make the author’s work better. "Once the technical author trusts that the editor respects the work and has interest in it, the author/editor relationship runs smoothly," Marley said.
With a degree in English, Lipman is "the lone production editor in a sea of engineers at a software company." She too advised doing your homework, then asking questions of the author as an ally. Your editorial skill is the most important asset you have to offer. You don't need to understand the author's subject matter to know that the author's writing fails in grammar, logic, or consistency. Kinser says, "Remember that as an editor, you’re a neutral observer, and your lack of expertise might be your greatest asset." You can make the technical information that you edit clearer—even to the reader who has the expertise you lack.
The panelists' "how to" tips include the following:
The panelists concluded that lack of technical knowledge need not deter an editor from technical editing. Their consensus: If you are interested, go for it!