Tipsheet: Editing What You Don't Understand

Editing What You Don't Understand: The Tipsheet
A Guide to Tech-Editing for the Technically Challenged

June 14, 2006
by Heather Kinser
At first, editing stuff you don't understand is like being dumped in a foreign land without a travel dictionary. After a day of reading tech-speak that's way over your head, your eyes may glaze over, and your brain will be buzzing with a cacophony of unknown tongues. There will be a learning curve—a phase in which you ease into the pool of ice-cold jargon and begin warming up to it. It takes time and repetition, but whatever technical field you're editing for, you'll eventually get comfortable with its terms and quirks. Don't panic. After all, you're already familiar with the structure of your language. You're a "word person," so you're skilled at recognizing when words are being used effectively. Trust in those language instincts, and use them to gain confidence while you learn the ropes.

Begin by feeling your way through the material, as you would feel a path through a dimly lit room. Reach out for the familiar, and adjust your eyes to the light. Get to know the cadence of the language and the common uses of terms. When you see those terms surface again, recognize them. Build a glossary in your brain.

And be forgiving of jargon, even if it seems grammatically ridiculous and rubs you the wrong way. Apply the same rules as you would to non-technical language. But at the same time, be careful of stubbornly sticking to the rules where jargon is concerned. You'll reach a point where you just have to make peace with the jargon and let it go. Put down your pencil, put your hands above your head, and walk away from the sentence.

However incorrect it may seem, the jargon of a field is usually well-established, deeply ingrained, and sacred to those who know the secret handshake. The reader knows and loves his jargon. It's his admission ticket to an elite club. If you tamper with it, you might be discrediting your author and making your reader say, "Huh?" And that does more harm than good. The rules of grammar matter. But a reader's comprehension trumps grammar any day of the week.

This next tip may be hard to believe: Don't try too hard to understand the material you're editing. Remember that as an editor, you're a neutral observer, and your lack of expertise might be your greatest asset. Learn to recognize oddities and query them, but don't expect to be able to fix every problem yourself. After all, if you understood the material thoroughly, you'd probably be sitting on the other end of the author/editor spectrum, perhaps designing a septic system, or isolating the gene for freckles. If you can't have it both ways, why not be satisfied with being the best editor you can be, using all the tools you bring to the table? It's actually to your advantage to feel your way through the material by its shape and structure rather than its meaning. Why? Unlike the expert in the field, you won't make assumptions about what's missing or misstated. When a person is too close to a subject, their brain automatically fills in the blanks. As an objective party, looking at the language alone, you will be able to see the flaws that are in the author's blind spot.

Is the work peppered with the hieroglyphics of higher math and technical graphics? Given time, you'll decipher enough to know if all the elements are in place—even if you started off thinking a "tangent" is a gentleman who stayed in the sun too long. While you're gaining exposure to such complex symbologies, go easy on yourself. You don't have to know it all. But you do have to know what's expected of you. Consult your style guide often, if you have one. Pretty soon, looking at an unbalanced equation will be like comparing a Picasso to a human face. Without thinking twice, you'll know the nose is painted sideways and the eye is askew. Just look for the underlying logic.

There's a lot to look for when you're editing technical stuff. Remember when you learned to drive a car? It seemed impossible to do the two things simultaneously—to drive forward safely while also watching your rearview mirror. Each time you tried to glance back, the car veered. But eventually, you were able to absorb it all at once—the front, the back, and the side—even while thinking about a morning meeting or planning your evening meal. That's how it is with technical editing.

So while you're waiting for your auto-pilot to kick in, you'll want to be careful to go over everything with a fine-toothed comb. And that calls for multiple readthroughs, until you get used to the material. Start by taking it in stages. Read once through for style, once through for grammar and structure, once through for layout, and so on. Be thorough, but swift. No doubt the material you're editing is time-sensitive. It's essential to balance your perfectionist tendencies against rigid business schedules. While you're buried in that stack of papers, never lose sight of the fact that your work is a product on its merry way to market. But you won't make a dime if the market closes before you ever arrive. Do what you can in the allotted time, and leave the rest up to Erros (the little-known Greek god of editors).

Even though your author may have a Ph.D. after her name and think "English major" is a dirty word, don't be intimidated. The most intelligent and ego-driven writer can still benefit from the suggestions of a skilled editor. An author may know how to use Avogadro's number to determine the atomic mass of carbon, but that doesn't mean he has an eagle eye for spotting subject-verb agreement. She may pooh-pooh the difference between "that" and "which," implying that your edits are dust motes in the grand scheme of science and industry. But you know better: grammar matters, and spelling does count.

Maybe your author is used to running off thirty copies at Kinkos and handing them out to a class of grad students. That may have been good enough for a captive audience, but paying customers will be looking for a more refined product. If she wants her work to shine with credibility, she had better allow you to polish it. If he wants to present his ideas clearly, he had better let you sweep away structural flaws and inconsistencies that distract from content. Be confident when you know you're on solid grammatical ground. You shouldn't have to defend every little change to your author. Just dig in and make it sound better, and you'll garner respect. Once trust is established, your author should be happy to leave the finicky style details in your capable hands. But be especially alert to cases where your edits might have altered the meaning of a sentence.

When dealing in technical material, there will be times when you identify an error but can't correct it. Recognize when you're in such a quandary, and ask for guidance. Make an author query. You might prefer not to admit your ignorance, but swallow your pride on this one. It's far better to pose a question than to risk introducing an error—a fall from grace that most authors find difficult to forgive. If you can, offer two possible fixes, and ask the author to pick the one that best clarifies the sentence. Avoid using grammar lingo to explain the problem. Authors don't want to hear about the nominative case or participial phrases any more than you want to hear details about the reverse polarity of a capacitor. Whenever possible, offer a "yes or no" or "this or that" option. When you offer a concrete choice, the author should be able to see the improvement at a glance. She should come back saying, "I see why that's better."

There's no great mystery to technical editing. It's a matter of moving forward cautiously but confidently. So sharpen your stubby pencil and dive in, even if you make mistakes at first. Take your best stab at it, despite that feeling that you're making a stab in the dark. If you're not sure, stick a query in the margin. Stick fifty queries in the margins. Your first few manuscripts should be peppered with Post-it notes. Be prepared to learn from them. When the answers come back, incorporate them into your ever-expanding mental glossary. And stay flexible when the jargon of the field forces you to bend a little. In no time, you'll be editing that high-tech lingo with one hand tied behind your back.



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