The Beauty of Editing What You Don’t Know

I’ve been a developmental editor for over twenty years, and when I first started out I thought I could only edit what I really knew. After all, how could I edit a cookbook if my highest achievement to date was cooking rice successfully? In other words, how could I presume to strengthen the argument or find the holes or see the logic leaps in a narrative if I didn’t have as deep a knowledge base on the subject in question as the writer? And mine is not a rare perception, especially among new editors. As an instructor at the University of Washington’s Editing Certificate Program, it’s a question that students ask me over and over again: How can I effectively edit something I don’t know anything about? My response: How can you not?

I learned this lesson—as those new editors will—by necessity. Unlike the mythical Renaissance man, there are only a handful of subjects any given person really knows. In my case, less than a handful, which means if I had stuck to only editing what I knew would have made me a very impoverished editor with a lot of time on her hands. After all, how often does a project come along on the politics of midwifery in the US (the topic of my voluminous college thesis) or the 90s bar scene in Seattle (lots of field experience on that one)?

As it turned out, the first editorial project I took on was a book about parenting toddlers. As a brand-new mother (the bar days had ended, don’t worry), the toddler years were on the horizon and thus of infinite interest. I eagerly accepted the assignment, believing I was at least the audience for the book, if not an expert. Did I do my best work on that manuscript? Far from it. My skills improve with every project; that’s one of the hard truths (or rewards) of being an editor. But I did a good job. I knew how to construct a logical argument and a decent sentence, could envision myself as the reader, and, most importantly, I was enthusiastic about the topic.

You see, developmental editing has some pretty basic considerations that follow no matter what the subject. In nonfiction, they revolve around structure, thesis, scope, voice, and balance. Fiction editing focuses on narrative arc, pacing, character and plot development, and point of view. For both, good storytelling is at the heart. The editor’s job is to use the tools she has honed to help the author tell the best and most persuasive story, no matter the subject.

Once I realized that, I took on all kinds of assignments with confidence. Master gardening? Sure! My black thumb and I learned a lot. Chicago baseball? Bring it on. That’s the White Sox, right? These projects actually benefited from my tangential understanding of the topic because I knew more and more about how to edit well, yet not enough about the subject matter to take anything for granted. In fact, I found I could spot the holes and the logic leaps more adeptly because I was less familiar with the subject. I was Every Reader, the perfect beta tester for the general audience the author was writing for. I wouldn’t have (nor would I now) taken on a technical editing assignment, by experts for experts, for which I wasn’t qualified, but if the general trade audience was the target, no matter the subject, I was their girl, so long as the topic engaged me.

As luck would have it, most topics engage me, and as the years went on I took on more parenting (I quickly realized no one is ever an expert in that realm); punk rock (all that time in dive bars); travel (love it); astrology (I’m a Pisces); nutrition (I like to eat); Buddhism (to help me quiet my mind); dog training (someday my dog might obey me); yoga (I have always been flexible); politics (I vote); and on and on. You get the idea. If I could imagine reading the book, I said yes. And I still say yes, those few times a year when I get to turn my attention away from running Girl Friday and toward a project.

Currently, I am editing a book on microbes by a public health specialist and a geomorphologist from the University of Washington. I started by Googling geomorphology (the scientific study of landforms and the processes that shape them, a-hem). Science was not my forte: chemistry was the only subject I ever failed in high school, and I didn’t do much better in biology. I avidly avoided the “hard” sciences in college, opting for psychology classes to fulfill the requirement. Then, a few years ago, I dipped my toes in the water by accident, with a book I was editing on raising teens that was actually chock-full of brain research and biology. It was fun and fascinating and I got to really stretch my brain. And again, because I wasn’t taking anything for granted, I easily found the gaps in the argument. So when this microbes’ project came along, I said yes. And I find that as an enthusiastic novice, I am just the right editor for the book. I love microbes now. I evangelize about them. I eat more sauerkraut and let my kids skip their showers some nights.

What’s next? Oh I don’t know, maybe quantum physics or trigonometry or Dungeons & Dragons. Whatever it is, I know my tried-and-true editorial skills only get better with each project, and the less I know about the topic, the less I will take for granted when the writer is making his pitch. I also know that for every project, I will take away as much as I bring.