Editing for Subject-Matter Experts When You Aren’t One

By Michelle Waitzman

A close-up of a thick book with "From the real experts" written on top.
Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

A lot of my clients assume that I have a law degree. That’s because I’ve edited a lot of material written by or for lawyers: textbooks, conference papers, journal articles, case studies, blog posts, and so on. But I’ve never set foot in a law school. I also edit expert writing on topics like taxation, mortgages, and personal finance—but I have no formal education in those areas either. In non-academic editing (I don’t do academic editing, so I can’t speak to it), you don’t need deep knowledge of the subject to effectively edit a text written by a subject-matter expert. Your work is still valuable, and I’ve outlined a few reasons why.

You represent the reader

Part of an editor’s job, of course, is to advocate for the reader. Unfortunately, subject-matter experts sometimes make incorrect assumptions about what “everyone knows” about their topic. As a result, they might not explain things clearly enough for a non-expert, or they might not provide enough background information on the topic because they assume the reader knows that information already.

You, as their editor with no existing assumptions about the subject, can spot and flag these missing pieces in a way that their peers might not. You can determine whether there’s important information that needs to be added to help the reader understand the expert’s point.

If the audience includes non-specialists, this is an extremely important function. Let’s say you’re editing a guide to writing a will. The lawyer/author may have explained all of the details about what various clauses mean and how the will needs to be signed, witnessed, and dated. But what if they skipped right past explaining why it’s important to have a will and what happens if you die without one? They might have assumed that everyone knows why they need a will. Editors should be on the lookout for ways to make the text more useful.

You are the jargon-slayer

When experts in a field are used to communicating mainly with each other, they develop a language of their own. It’s often full of acronyms and initialisms, casual references to well-known experts or research, specialized terms, and other jargon.

The experts are so used to these terms that they don’t notice when their writing is full of them. For example, when corporate executives refer to managers’ “bandwidth” or their company’s “offer,” it may not occur to them that they are using these words in a non-standard way.

Editors are often the last line of defence against jargon-filled text that confuses customers, employees, and managers who are embarrassed to admit they don’t know what some of these terms mean or don’t have an opportunity to ask for clarification.

You are also an expert—in editing

Subject-matter experts know their topic, but many don’t have any idea what a dependent clause is, or a misplaced modifier. That’s your area of expertise, and that’s why they need you. Regardless of the topic, all written material in English is read the same way. We expect sentences to follow predictable patterns, and we get confused when they don’t.

In material written by experts, editors are often faced with long, meandering sentences that try to explain everything on a topic at once. Helping the experts to simplify and structure their writing will bridge the gap between them and their readers.

In contrast to professional authors, whose focus is writing, subject-matter experts often don’t care about learning the finer points of grammar and syntax. They’re perfectly happy to rely on your expertise to fix that stuff. In fact, I generally don’t leave comments explaining corrections of grammar, syntax, or punctuation. I will leave a query only if I’m worried that I may have misunderstood what they were trying to say, or if I’m suggesting a change in terminology (to use plain language, for example).

Chances are the expert is trying to squeeze in their writing project while juggling all of their regular work. They don’t have a lot of time to spend reviewing edits and answering queries, so it’s best to ask for only what you really need from them, and to give them lots of time for their review.

Editors can provide a valuable service to subject-matter experts without being experts themselves. Editors who enjoy this type of work tend to be curious about a variety of subjects, eager to learn new things, not intimidated by complex ideas or topics (or big-shot experts), and able to untangle the experts’ language to find and clarify the points they’re trying to communicate.

Michelle Waitzman is a non-fiction writer, editor, and corporate trainer who worked in TV production and corporate communications before going freelance. She loves learning new things from the projects she’s working on. She edits content ranging from law textbooks to website copy and community newsletters. Michelle has written about diverse topics including outdoor sex, pigeon-guided missiles, complexity theory, and immigrating to New Zealand.

This article was copy edited by Ren Baron.

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