Being an Editor Doesn’t Mean You Know Everything…Even When You Think You Do

Molly McCowan The Art of Editing 18 Comments

Having a head full of inane trivia can be quite useful at times (even though my friends have banned me from playing Trivial Pursuit because I always win). But just because I can spout off a few pieces of trivia about octopuses—yes, octopuses, not octopi—doesn’t mean I’m an “expert” on them.

I love learning about all kinds of different things…to a certain depth. When I reach saturation on one topic (say, tuning up my bicycle), I move on to something else. So really, I have a wide, shallow breadth of knowledge about the world and the people, animals, and things within it. Whereas some people have one passion in life, I have 68.

I do have in-depth knowledge about a few topics. Fly-fishing. Jeep Wranglers. How to play funk-style bass. Existential philosophy. How to write a 20-page paper about a 90-page book (English majors learn how to BS with style). Breeds and types of dogs, cats, horses, and birds. Romanian punk bands (hey, my Twitter page specifically states that I collect eclectic music). And of course, editing.

Having all this shallow knowledge isn’t generally useful in many professions, but it’s well suited to copyediting. Why? Because copyediting is about so much more than pointing a waggling finger at a typo or grammatical error. It involves a lot of fact-checking, and it also requires the ability to know what needs to be fact-checked. Names, dates, and places are child’s play: of course those need to be double-checked.

(A horse's pupils are horizontal, not round. Try staring a horse—or a goat, for that matter—in the eye, and prepare to be creeped out.)

A horse’s pupils are horizontal, not round.

But what about a sentence in a short story saying that “the horse’s round pupil stared back at him”? Does anything ring an alarm bell in that sentence? Probably not, unless you already have some basic knowledge about horse anatomy.

More often than you might think, copyeditors run into a problem that they struggle to solve. Whether it’s a particularly difficult sentence, a puzzling grammatical conundrum, or a word that can’t be found in any dictionary, copyeditors are often left scratching their heads.

I love to find the perfect solution for any problem, large or small (as do copyeditors in general). So what happens when I run up against something that I have no clue how to tackle?

#1 I look it up in relevant style manuals, dictionaries, or other resources.
#2 If that doesn’t yield an answer, I turn to LinkedIn, Google+, or Facebook groups to ask my fellow editors.

(This often results in a long, drawn-out conversation that takes an entirely different tangent altogether or dissolves into pedantry.)

#3 I talk to the author and tell him or her that I’m at a bit of a loss, and that I’m still working on the best solution (which at this point is probably a rewrite).

Honesty is the best policy, after all.

I believe that part of being an editor, a professional freelancer, or a “solopreneur” like myself, is knowing when to stop pitching yourself as an expert. Hold yourself first and foremost to the standard of honesty: be honest with a client if you don’t know the answer, or if you need to research it more fully. Never let guessing turn into a habit.

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Have you ever faced a problem so insurmountable—in your own work or a client’s—that you weren’t sure how to conquer it? Tell me about it in the comments.

This post is part of the Word Carnival series of monthly blog posts. Click to read more posts on this month’s topic, “Being an Expert Doesn’t Mean You Know Everything,” written by other whip-smart entrepreneurs, marketing mavens, and small business owners.

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.