Student guest post: Knowing what you’re editing

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Kate Sievers is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history. She edits for BoUNCe, a comedic magazine on campus, and she enjoys helping out friends who require a freelance editor. When she’s not scouring eBay for deals, she is adventuring around the Triangle.

As the semester ends and paper due dates approach, I find my schedule revolving around proofreading half a dozen papers. However, these papers are not for my classes. They are for my less than grammatically and stylistically inclined friends.

I am more than happy to read through the papers because I cannot resist helping out a friend in need, nor can I resist the thrill of the hunt for errors. The only hiccup that occurs when I am proofreading is that my friends have a wide array of majors — from business to biology to anthropology.

Copy editors find it useful to know a little about the subject they are editing. Advance knowledge can by helpful in extremely technical writing that includes industry-specific jargon. Sometimes, an error is only able to be caught because the reader has inside knowledge of the subject.

For example, when I was looking over my friend’s biology paper on genetics, she interchanged the words “meiosis” and “mitosis” (meiosis is the type of cell division that produces reproductive cells, and mitosis is the type of cell division that makes a perfect copy of a cell). Those words mean very different things and would be a big error if used incorrectly.

In this case, I had prior knowledge because of a course I had taken the previous semester. If I had not known what those words meant, I would have completely missed the error, and I would have had one sad friend when she got her paper back.

In some cases, knowing little about a subject actually improves editing. Without firsthand knowledge, you are not supplying your own information to fill in the gaps of information in a confusing paper.

My friend who is a business major wrote a paper on entrepreneurship. Her sentence structure made it difficult for me to discern her explanations of the different types of entrepreneurs. As it turned out, she had written the paper in a rush, and even she did not know what her sentences meant. So with a little tweaking, her paper was much more coherent.

Copy editing can rely on the luck of the draw when it comes to subject matter. One day you can be reading through an article on bowling and the next it could be about political unrest. If you know something about the subject, that knowledge can be quite helpful in catching errors. But do not despair if you are not familiar with something, because you can easily see if an article makes sense in its organization and structure.

And if all else fails, ask someone who knows about the subject for help.



  1. > Without firsthand knowledge, you are not supplying your own information to fill in the gaps of information in a confusing paper.

    Kate, what a neat insight. (And completely applicable to daily journalism, where it’s easy to forget that a reader or viewer hasn’t necessarily followed along with every development in, say, a rezoning or a trial.)

  2. I actually think that sometimes it can be most helpful for the copy editor NOT to know a lot about the subject, because in journalistic writing it should be written to the lay person. Technical knowledge shouldn’t be required to understand the subject of the writing, so while that knowledge may be helpful in catching, say, a misused word as you cite, it can also be helpful to lack knowledge because then you’re more likely to catch the spots where the writer has assumed knowledge that isn’t inherent.

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