What is it about impenetrable text?

I spend my editing days reading about wetted perimeters, Kostiakov equations, evapotranspiration, and probability distribution functions. What are these things? No idea. But I can spell each and last one, including getting all the “a”s right in adiabatic. For some reason I really like working on STEM journals. (This would be scientific, technical, engineering, and medical journals.)

They make me feel as if I know more than I do. I’m reading articles written by Ph.D.s about highly technical subjects. The fact that I can get through these articles, even though I rarely understand much beyond the basics of what they are about (and sometimes not even that), makes me feel as if my MFA taught me more than how to succinctly, constructively, and effectively rip apart someone’s poem even after a couple beers.

It’s like reading a foreign language without having to learn pesky grammar. I’m pretty good at the English language, but don’t have the facility with foreign languages, like some of my friends and sisters. (My family is pretty well divided into those of us who pick up languages like sponges and those of us whose pronunciation of basic French would make you want to sink into the carpet and die. I’m sorry, Dad, I didn’t speak French and even I knew your accent was terrible. Rest in Peace, I love you anyway.)

It’s a niche skill. For some reason I have a high tolerance for the tedious. Maybe it was all the lectures about my father’s (scientific) work over dinner that I got used to ignoring. Also there are jobs. And I’ve heard that you can get up to $75/hour for editing science. (I assure you I’ve never seen those kinds of numbers, but I’ve been told it’s true.)

And it’s infinitely less annoying than literary theory.

What surprises you about your day job?


11 responses to “What is it about impenetrable text?

  1. I like the medical terminology at my day job(s), and I love reading doctors’ consultations, which are like tiny medical mysteries/real life family dramas on the page. And where else would I have discovered there is such a term as ‘white-coat hypertension’?

  2. Big question: Does NBI mean “no bony injury” or “no bloody idea”? Only an orthopaedist (orthopedist) knows for sure!

  3. The surprise for me is that I can be good at something that doesn’t interest me in the least.
    The other surprise is how little you really have to know about certain things in order to do them well technically. Kind of like your job.

  4. I am also a language editor for the Central European Journal of Medicine and they’re looking for others. (Don’t get excited. It doesn’t pay. Volunteer contribution to the academy.) Here is the brief: You get a manuscript from a non-native writer of English, writing about something far more complicated than medicine (Recent example: “Cadmium exposure induced itai-itai-like syndrome in male rats”) Your brief? To make sure the English is correct. Sound easy? How would YOU feel about something like “Five hundred microlitres of whole blood and 1 ml of urine were wet digested using HNO3”? I am sure you’d cope better than I, Indy…

    • I’d google “whole blood” and “wet digested” to make sure they weren’t something weird that I hadn’t heard of before. I’d assume HNO3 was correct, because I just don’t have the mental resources to do otherwise. And I’d make damn sure that mL and microlitres were consistent throughout, because it’s about all I can do. Then I’d author-query like nobody’s business.

      When I got my first science copyediting job, my boss told me to substitute every word I didn’t know with “blah.” “Blah, blah induced blah-like syndrome in male rats”.

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