Writers are often told to “write what they know.” But what about editors? Should we only take on projects that are squarely in our comfort zones?
When I asked this question online, I found that many of my editing colleagues endorse the idea of editing in new areas. It’s a fantastic way to develop your professional skills, widen income opportunities and improve job satisfaction. As Arlene Prunkl says, “I love learning all kinds of new stuff. Always have. Editing is a great way to do that — and get paid for it.”
But there are some downsides. Tackling a new area involves unpaid time and effort as you learn new conventions and styles. And then there’s the fear of failure — are you really qualified to take that project on? What if you mess it up?
Some types of changes are relatively straightforward. Skills in copy editing, for example, can be applied to almost any subject matter, especially when your mandate is to ensure clear writing rather than validate the content. In many cases, it’s an advantage to be a fresh face. “An intelligent non-specialist’s eye helps to break down jargon and to make knowledge accessible,” says Pamela Hewitt.
Be sure to avoid specialized or technical areas, however, if you need to be an expert. “There is a difference between distinguishing bad writing and distinguishing incorrect facts,” says Janet Macmillan. When it comes to fact-checking the use of firearms in a thriller or correcting a knitting guide, you may need to pass the project on to someone more knowledgeable.
Substantive editing can also offer challenges. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre or the topic area, you may not be able to spot what’s missing or provide meaningful advice. “Two of an editor’s strong points,” says Anne-Marie Emerson McDonald, “must be knowing when to query and how to research.”
You also need to know your personal limits. “Something to avoid, I think, is editing material you disagree with. Your negativity will leak out of the edited piece, no matter how objective you think you’re being,” says Averill Buchanan.
So how do you know if moving into a new area is right for you? If you’re flexible, learn quickly and like challenges, then you’re well on your way. Try educating yourself about typical projects in the field and see if you can find a new direction.
Here are some quick tips to help you get started:
- Be up front with potential clients about your qualifications, but don’t downplay your value.
- Actively search for subject matter experts who can help you.
- Read everything on the new subject that you can get your hands on.
- Remember to ask for feedback.
Many editors have found the journey to be rewarding, both for themselves and for their clients. As Barb Adamski says, “Most of my favourite projects have been on topics I initially knew nothing about. Some of those topics have since become my area of expertise.”
Thank you to all my colleagues in the Editors’ Association of Earth who helped me develop this article. Now it’s your turn: What would you say to an editing colleague who’s thinking about making a change in what they edit?
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