An American Editor

January 18, 2017

The Battle of the Familiar

I was discussing with a colleague the merits of a particular approach to editing when it occurred to me that what we ultimately were discussing was whether an editor should have some expertise in the subject matter being edited. For example, if you are editing a medical tome on arthritis, how much knowledge about arthritis should you have before you edit the first word?

The question arises from the idea that in the absence of subject-matter knowledge (expertise), the editor cannot do justice to the manuscript or to the author. Broadly speaking, there may be some validity to this argument if you are responsible for the content’s accuracy, as might be the case with a developmental editor. But what about the copyeditor?

Fundamentally, the matter circles the questions “What is the role of the copyeditor?” and “What are the editor’s responsibilities?” The matter also embraces the issue of “What is the copyeditor being paid (amount) and expected to do in exchange for that pay?”

I have been editing manuscripts for 33 years. During that time, at least 95% of my work has been medical (written by doctors for doctors) or educational (written by teachers for teachers); in the past few years, 99% has been medical. Yet, I am neither a doctor (or other trained and degreed medical professional) nor a teacher (i.e., accredited/licensed)—in fact, my education is more generalist (political science and law). The reason I am sought after to edit medical tomes is that I am an excellent editor who understands his role and limitations.

I am not hired for my subject-matter expertise; I am hired because of my command of the role of an editor and because I possess the knowledge and skills required to fulfill that role. More importantly, I think, I am hired because I am not a subject-matter expert.

Not so long ago I was discussing a colleague’s newest published book with him. I had some questions because I found myself confused by some of the statements in the book. The explanations I received certainly answered my questions but I then wondered why I was asking these questions to begin with; that is, why didn’t the book answer them before I asked them? The answer was obvious to the author, because the audience for whom the book was written would already know the answers and would not ask the questions.

What my colleague really was saying is that neither he nor his editors (a) thought these were points that had to be addressed because they already knew the answers and thus assumed that every reader would also know the answers and so would not ask the questions, and (b) assumed that no one outside the small group for whom the author knowingly wrote would have any interest in the book. Unfortunately for readers, my colleague and his editors were only 95% right, and thus were wrong on both points.

This experience highlights the problem of misunderstanding expectations and expecting that editors with subject-matter expertise are better editors than those without that expertise.

The Bible is a good example. When a book refers to the Bible but doesn’t identify it further, is that a problem? To me it is, but to many colleagues it is not. If the book is about Christianity and the reference is to the Bible, many colleagues would let that slide. After all, from context the reader should be able to identify the Bible. But can the reader? How many versions of the Bible exist in Christianity? Most people would think one but in fact there are as many as 50 different English versions, let alone versions in other languages. (For a good, brief answer and a list of the Bibles, see “What are the different English Bible versions?” at gotQuestions.org.) The point is that the editor with subject-matter expertise may well not ask for the Bible to be identified because the editor and the author are on the same page—which is not necessarily the same page as the reader.

If I am hired as a developmental editor, then I may need subject-matter expertise. After all, my role as developmental editor is to focus on content and organization, which are things that require an understanding of the subject matter. But if I am hired as a copyeditor, my focus is on grammar and readability (which includes communication to the reader), but not on content and organization. As copyeditor, I need to make sure that all the information the reader needs to follow the argument, to draw the conclusion the author seeks to have drawn, is present. In the above example, that would include identifying the version of the Bible being referenced.

In the medical books I edit, a consistent “gap” seems to be in measures; that is, an author will write something like this: “In countries where it is recommended to the general population, the vaccination should be given starting at 6 months.” The question is: What is the 6-month measure? Of course, context might help. In a chapter on giving vaccinations to persons who undergo or are candidates for transplantation procedures, context might lead a reader to read the sentence as “In countries where it is recommended to the general population, the vaccination should be given to a child starting at 6 months after the transplantation procedure.” This “reading” might be correct, but it might be wrong. It is just as likely that the sentence should be read as “In countries where it is recommended to the general population, the vaccination should be given to a child starting at 6 months before the transplantation procedure” or “In countries where it is recommended to the general population, the vaccination should be given to a child starting at 6 months of age.” And not all these possibilities are mooted by the text that precedes the sentence in the manuscript.

Interestingly, although such a sentence stands out to me, when I showed it to subject-matter experts, none thought it required a query—until they were shown other reading possibilities. Each thought their interpretation was the only one that could be drawn, yet others drew different conclusions.

What this means to me is that an editor should approach a project as would a reader seeking to be educated about an unfamiliar subject; this may be easier to do if one does not have subject-matter expertise. With such an approach, the editor is more likely to query material that the author assumes all readers would immediately understand. Editors need to remember that how well we edit is defined by how well the reader with the least familiarity with the subject matter accurately understands what the author intends to convey.

Editing is the art of helping an author communicate effectively with readers whom the author does not include in the market of likely readers. Just because a manuscript is aimed at cardiologists does not mean that internists or lawyers or college professors or nurses or others will not also read the manuscript. The noncardiologists may make up a smaller portion of the market, but that does not mean they are not part of the market.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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