When people find out I edit science topics, their next question is “What’s your science background?” Then I get to reassure them that I’m not the one responsible for technical accuracy or safety, only for internal consistency and flow of the language. 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% could verify. Technical accuracy checks are the responsibility of peer reviewers and of the authors themselves. Editors concern themselves with the communication of the ideas.
I Can[‘t] Edit Everything
That said, the truth is that I can’t edit all topics. 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. This subject is not a good fit for me.
The good news is that being unfamiliar with a subject means that you may be particularly well suited to spot steps or connecting ideas that have been left out. (Unless the topic is cooking and the editor is me. Then I can’t even spot such flubs.) Editors out of their subject comfort zone serve readers especially well in their capacity as subject novice.
Three Rules to Edit the Unfamiliar
- Find and follow a related style guide and get a style sheet or glossary from the client.
- Ask for related material from that publisher to use as a guide.
- 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.
In next week’s post, I’ll share sample queries that help both the editor and the writer save face when editing the unfamiliar.
Illustration by qimono, used under CC 0 license.