Write What You Know, Edit What You Don’t

International Space Station

Earlier this week, I prepared a writing sample for a potential client. To expand a scene involving the International Space Station, I researched the ISS and studied photographs of its interior and exterior. I learned a number of interesting things about it, some of which I incorporated into the text: it’s about food on the ISSas long and wide as a football field, its maximum occupancy is six, the astronauts don’t wear shoes (except when tethered to a treadmill), and food has to be secured to the table so it doesn’t float up.

Speaking of microgravity, an editor can be thought of as hovering above a manuscript, at a distance that allows objectivity. From this perspective, the editor ensures that the content is logical, accurate, and—most importantly—clear to the reader. But what if this Track Changes whiz has no prior knowledge of the subject matter? This scenario is often the case. Otherwise, an editor might wait a long time for a project in his or her wheelhouse—or even general interest—to come along. I have yet to edit a book on cupcakes, romantic comedies, or the eccentricities of Basenjis.

People have asked me how I am able to comment intelligently on an unfamiliar topic. Based on my experience, such ignorance can actually be an asset. Unhampered by what I don’t know, I can easily put myself in the position of the reader. If I encounter material that doesn’t make sense, I know it will probably confuse the reader, as well. Then I educate myself sufficiently to suggest a reworking. In recent years, I have become a temporary expert in such areas as business, history, psychology, self-help, yoga, and surfing.

Here are some basic steps an editor can take to demonstrate ephemeral expertise:

  1. Forget what you know and what you think you know.
  2. Question everything.
  3. Check all facts against multiple reliable sources.
  4. Suggest appropriate changes.
  5. Forget what you learned, to make room for the next topic.

Don’t ask me how editors became temporary experts before Google!

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