Do I have to understand the material?

Subject: Do I have to understand the material?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 16 Aug 2002 10:49:19 -0400

I don't think the real question is "do we have to understand the material?";
what's more important is figuring out how much we have to understand before
we can communicate well with the reader. You can't consistently succeed if
you don't have at least a basic understanding of what you're describing, but
by no means do you have to be an expert in the field to communicate well. In
effect, you adopt a role in which you understand more than the reader (which
is what lets you teach them things they don't already know), but not so much
that you yourself become an expert and can no longer talk to the reader.

Editing's another matter. As editor, your role is to ensure clear
communication, and if you don't understand what you're editing, how can you
possibly ensure that you're communicating successfully? I agree
(conditionally) with Janice Gelb's correction to one of my earlier posts, in
which she pointed out that overfamiliarity can lead you to miss things;
you'll understand the material because you see it constantly, but the user
will never figure things out because they lack your experience. That's an
important problem in substantive editing, in which you do more than just fix
grammar problems, but _pace_ Janice, you can watch out for this problem if
you're aware that it exists.

You may never be as good at this as an editor less familiar with the
subject, but you can do surprisingly well. I've described this approach as
follows: "As an editor, I sometimes describe my job as being a 'professional
idiot'. The 'professional' part is easy: I'm good at what I do, and get paid
to do it (unlike an amateur idiot, about which those who know me will nod
knowingly). The idiot part is a bit more complicated: I do my best to
misunderstand any writing, even something that the reader might figure out
after a bit of work--but then I figure out why the misunderstanding occurred
and fix it so that nobody else will ever trip over it."

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada
"User's advocate" online monthly at
"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is
noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience,
which is the bitterest."--Confucius, philosopher and teacher (c. 551-478

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