How to edit when you don’t know what the fuck is going on

I edit things I don’t understand. One of my colleagues, when I was training for a copyediting job at an academic journal, said that she felt as if the authors just repeated the same words in a different order throughout the article. This was exactly how it came to seem to me.

What should you do? (Did anyone else grow up with What Do You Do, Dear? It’s still stuck in my brain.)

1. Determine whether or not the author is ESL

If she is, then don’t let weird diction stand. Query a lot. Google strange phrases. Look through the archives of the journal you are working on or articles in related journals to see if whether the academic field or the author is at fault for weird diction. Look for a lack of articles, strange typos, and words used just a little bit wrong. Please note that this could all be evidence of a native speaker who can’t write. Sorry. Be polite in your queries. How many of you can write an academic paper in Chinese?

2. Read it aloud.

This works better if you work at home. But you will automatically catch 75% [note: all statistics made up by the author] more of the grammatical errors lurking between words you’ve never seen before, because reading out loud forces you to read every word while your brain is screaming “lalalala! I want ice cream!”.

3. Practice

In time you’ll be able to recognize verbs, nouns, and adjectives even if you don’t know what they mean.

4. Don’t be intimidated

It is possible to edit things you don’t know the first thing about. You won’t be able to catch whether intergalactic gargle blasters shoots 45 light years per second or 50 light years per second, but that is the job of the content editors. You are not one of them. And that’s OK. You can probably carry on a conversation over dinner.

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3 responses to “How to edit when you don’t know what the fuck is going on

  1. Amen to all of these! And be very polite–as I am at present–when the writer can’t even spell Google correctly, and there isn’t an ounce of tension on any page in a story that’s supposed to be suspenseful. Big fat, effing groan…

  2. OK. I hear you. But, what am I to do with the “entero-mammaric link of lymphocyte migration”? It does sometimes get to be too much…

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