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Sue Archer

Should You Only “Edit What You Know”?

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.”2768189

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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3 Comments on “Should You Only “Edit What You Know”?”

  • Rosemary Shipton


    If we want to grow in our profession we must, like children, constantly strive to master new skills and responsibilities. It’s true that copy-editing skills can be applied everywhere, but even there the different disciplines (humanities, social sciences, hard sciences) tend to use different style guides.

    Two other aspects of editing are more challenging to master: conventions and process. If you switch from nonfiction to fiction, you’ll need to read widely and learn the conventions from other experienced fiction editors – just as you will if you move from fiction into nonfiction, scholarly, or specialized fields such as art books or cookbooks.

    If you’re used to operating on your own with indie authors but want to work for traditional publishers or institutions, you’d be wise to clarify their expectations and process fully. Discuss these issues not only with the managing editor but also with freelance editors who work for them.

    Finally, if you want to expand your professional practice from editing only to include management responsibilities, such as being editorial director of a big, complex book or editing / managing a commission of inquiry report, it’s best first to join a team led by someone with experience in the area and learn on the job. Then you’ll be ready to tackle a similar project on your own.

    • Sue Archer


      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Rosemary! I love your point about learning how to work for traditional publishers when you have an indie background. From what I understand (having yet to have the opportunity to work in traditional publishing), they can be two very different worlds.

  • soso


    Due to lack of editing opportunities and jobs, some editors take on anything that comes their way in the form of a job. During the process one picks a job that is very alien to then or even that they disagree with. Besides being torturous, working on something you disagree with can be highly unprofessional and like Averill Buchanan puts it: “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” I try by all means to stay clear of editing stuff I don’t agree with. It is my very first rule of thumb as an editor.

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