Exit the Comfort Zone: When to Take On Edits in Unfamiliar Subject Areas

Exit the Comfort Zone: When to Take On Edits in Unfamiliar Subject Areas

August 5, 2019 By Adrienne Montgomerie
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

A publisher asked if I would edit a math textbook. “Oh, I’m not good at math. I’ll pass,” I said. I said that the next three times they called about that project too. “I’m just not comfortable with math,” I told them. The fifth time they called, I agreed to help them as long as they acknowledged that the subject wasn’t my forte. It was probably going to take more effort than usual for all of us.

Well, a dozen math book edits later, I’m pretty good at math!

What to Ask Yourself

How do you know when it’s right to take on work in a subject area you’re just not comfortable with? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you want to?
  2. Can you stomach it?
  3. How badly does the client want/need you to take the assignment?
  4. Do you need this so you can pay the bills (or buy the wedding-cake yacht of your dreams)?
  5. What type of edit is it and is there enough time to accommodate the learning curve?
  6. Is the client ready to vet your work and coach your development?

Why Liking It Matters

If you can’t stomach the topic, the chance increases that you’ll pay less attention or that the edits and queries will be overly critical. Plus, one of the reasons to freelance is liking your work and getting to choose what it is. You owe it to yourself to reap the benefits since you’re conquering the challenges too.

Why the Type of Edit Matters

Subject familiarity is an asset at any stage of editing, but it’s even more helpful at the developmental stage, when content organization and inclusion are up for discussion. As mentioned in a previous post, the reverse can also be true: having a novice’s eye on the manuscript can help ferret out awkward structure and gaps in content. The copyediting stage—where adherence to a style guide and imposing internal consistency are the primary function—may be the phase most amenable to an editor who is unfamiliar with the topic. At the line editing stage, an editor out of her comfort zone can really help to break down jargon and make text more accessible to a lay audience.

If you’re proofreading an unfamiliar subject, you’ll have to be even more hesitant to mark up changes that affect meaning, since your eyes may be the last on the words before they go public. You don’t want to tell design to change all the skinks to skunks (to use a real life example) unless you are positive that skink is an error.

Why to Edit the Unfamiliar

Editing unfamiliar subjects is an opportunity to grow, to develop new skills, and to maybe even discover a niche you will love. Having a client who understands that this is a growth experience can smooth the experience for everyone.

This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, Aug. 20, 2018.

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