Editing What You Don't Understand

Editing What You Don't Understand
June 14, 2006
Forum organized by Marjorie Roueche
Presentation by Mia Lipman and Scott Marley, and with tipsheet by Heather Kinser
Notes by Wendy Moseley

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:

  • Apply for that job at the corporation or high-tech company, or offer to proofread and edit samples to prove yourself and get your foot in the door. If you have technical expertise but not editing expertise, volunteer to edit at technical companies, or edit for your techie friends to build a portfolio. (The panelists confirmed your suspicion: corporate and high-tech editing jobs pay twice what other editing jobs pay.)
  • Expect a learning phase. Get the definitions of unfamiliar words and information about unfamiliar concepts from your library, your cache of dictionaries, or Google and other search engines. (Beware of Wikipedia: use it as a source for further references but not as an authority on any subject.)
  • Create your own glossary of words, phrases, and concepts.
  • Don't panic. Trust your editing instincts and use them as you learn. Don't try too hard to understand what you are editing. You are the editor, not the author.
  • Consult the style guide provided, or one otherwise appropriate to the work, and create your own style guide for the subject matter. Apply the same rules you would to nontechnical language.
  • Ease up on the rules when it comes to jargon. Every field of endeavor has a few "buzz word" constructions that you cannot change, however strange they are to you, without jeopardizing the author’s credibility or the technical reader's comprehension.
  • When you are truly stumped by the text, ask the author what it means. You might be able to word it more gracefully.
  • Offer choices to your author. If you can, offer "yes or no" or "this or that" options. As Kinser says, "When you offer a concrete choice, the author should be able to see the improvement at a glance [and] … come back saying, 'I see why that's better.'"

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!



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