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

7 Comments »

  1. AE wrote: “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.”

    This concept lies beneath many discussions and decisions regarding novels. Authors are encouraged to write for their audience, seek editors familiar with their audience, market to their audience. Novelists desiring publication generally desire sales and accolades to come with it, which means their books must be treated as products and targeted at the consumers most likely to buy. But the truth is, despite the most focused positioning, no one can foretell who will read any book, so there will always be a rogue factor, just as there will always be readers who dislike or misunderstand a book even if it’s aimed directly at their hearts and minds.

    Somewhere in a book’s course between conception and publishing a decision needs to be made on whether it’s to be edited on the premise that everyone must “get” it or whether only the target audience must “get” it, and anything beyond them is gravy. Genre readers will understand and expect tropes that might need to be spelled out for people who don’t read that category, just as cardiologists will understand and expect certain concepts and jargon that are opaque to lay readers. If a copyeditor knows going into a job that a book is being intentionally aimed at a narrow or wide audience, then that editor can have a better sense of whether to query something or let it stand. It’s easier to make that choice if the editor is experienced in the category or knowledgeable about the subject.

    The focus in all books remains on clarity and coherency, but even the best-written, most precisely edited works will always be not understood by somebody. The publishing team has to decide whom they can realistically expect will read a given book and try to make it accessible to them first, with the nonspecialists considered second. You can’t please everyone — or successfully communicate with them — all the time, you can only try to reach the most people possible.

    All this is why, as a copy and line editor, I do not pre-read manuscripts. In starting at page one and facing the material cold, I come closer to emulating the reader’s experience and am more likely to stumble on clarity and verisimilitude issues than if I enter the book knowing what it’s about.

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    Comment by Carolyn — January 18, 2017 @ 6:39 am | Reply

  2. Same here. In fact, this is one reason I prefer copy editing to developmental editing – I rarely need specialist or expert knowledge (I also don’t want to work that hard). My clients want me to edit for language – spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage; missing or repeated words and phrases; smooth flow and logical transitions, etc. They also like it that I’ll flag or fix (if I can) anything that doesn’t seem to work, for the same reason Rich gives: If I don’t understand it, the reader – even a member of that community – probably won’t. If I come across something I can’t follow or don’t recognize, I query it, with the understanding that some industry/professional jargon may not be familiar to me but would be acceptable to an audience.

    There are some topics I prefer not to handle, because they would require knowledge I don’t have, but those have been rare instances. Mostly technical stuff.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — January 18, 2017 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

    • As a relative newcomer to editing, my problem is that I do not always recognise professional jargon, especially when it looks very like standard English. So even if one does not need specialist subject knowledge to edit, familiarity with the relevant terminology does make it easier. IMHO.

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      Comment by joannacp — January 18, 2017 @ 5:39 pm | Reply

  3. I am primarily a developmental editor and book writing coach. Many of the books I work on fall within the subjects I studied in school and honed afterward through continued study and volunteer work (architecture, design, and landscape history). Being familiar with a manuscript’s subject area can help me suggest possible errors and omissions. I recently completed one project that bordered on ghostwriting; being familiar with the topic was a definitely an asset.

    But I don’t think it is always necessary to have a background related to the manuscript, particularly books targeted to a general readership. Whether or not a project falls within my subject expertise, my main expertise is being an editor. I’ve trained myself to ask good questions (aided by strong intuition) that prod the writers (sometimes endlessly) for greater levels of clarity and depth and nuance and that help them reflect on their content from an outside perspective. And even if I have subject expertise, I am not an expert in the author’s thesis. When I coached a writer through the process of writing her book about a historical figure who had been lost to history (for political and cultural reasons), I naturally knew nothing about him. We both were learning together who this person was and what contributions he made to history. My work involved continually asking who, what, why, how, and so what and pushing her to set the figure in the context of the period. (Once the manuscript was sufficiently along, I did encourage her to have it reviewed by a few historians familiar with the time period.)

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    Comment by Jennifer Yankopolus — January 18, 2017 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  4. Great article, Rich. Good points well made.

    Like

    Comment by Jack Lyon — January 18, 2017 @ 6:02 pm | Reply

  5. I totally agree with your comments, Rich, and thank you for targeting this aspect of editing. In my work as information technology editor, it’s really useful for my clients that I am not a “techie,” for the very reasons you’ve specified. I question everything and anything I don’t understand, often to the amazement of the assigning editors and subject-matter experts, who think these terms can be taken for granted as general knowledge. This applies most especially to acronyms, which tend to be sprinkled in willy-nilly by the experts, who assume that every reader will know exactly what they stand for. But I’ve found that some acronyms can stand for many different phrases, even in the same field or subfield, so spelling them out is essential.

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    Comment by Claire Meirowitz — January 23, 2017 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

  6. It also helps to know when to query, or at least stop and look things up. I’m never arrogant enough to think I know everything about anything.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — January 23, 2017 @ 5:30 pm | Reply


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