Becoming a Subject Matter Expert

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Should a copy editor be an expert on the subject matter they are editing? This is a question that frequently confronts both authors and copy editors, and it is a topic worth pausing over.

I think that being an expert on the subject matter you are editing can be an asset, depending on what level of editing the author or the publisher expects. From the perspective of the developmental editing–line editing/copyediting–proofreading continuum, I’d say that subject matter expertise matters to different degrees for all stages of editing and proofreading. A developmental editor reading a book manuscript about US foreign policy in the Middle East would be expected to be conversant with other books on the same topic, just as the copyeditor of a microbiology textbook would be expected to have a degree in microbiology or a related field. Could a history major do as good a job editing or proofreading a book about brain science as a person with some type of background in neurobiology?

I’ve copyedited and proofread a wide variety of books over the years, ranging from literature monographs to books about philosophy, psychology, religion, economics, foreign policy, and current affairs. I’ve steered clear of science books mainly because I do not have a degree in science, but the occasional book on computer science or medicine or biology has crossed my desk. In such cases, when I am not that familiar with the subject matter, I have discovered that in the process of editing a book and looking a lot of things up, I have become something of a quasi subject matter expert. We all end up learning new things about a subject area as we work through the weeds of language and ideas.

Expertise is not a given. Having a basic or advanced degree in a subject certainly affords many advantages, such as being conversant with the jargon or specialized terminology in a field, or being knowledgeable about other experts and books in that area, in addition to having an in-depth understanding about the subject matter itself. However, the scope of an activity like copyediting is such that it concerns itself primarily with the mechanics of writing and formatting, and many of the questions that arise in this area can be answered by looking things up. A physics student may know off the top of her head that the “Higgs boson” should be capitalized exactly as I have written it here, with “boson” lowercased, or that this is a concept from particle physics, or she may know with certainty how particle physics is different from quantum mechanics.

But it’s the copyeditor’s job to determine why and whether “boson” should be lowercased, and one could argue that this is not just a field-specific convention but also a matter of semantics, which is the domain of the copyeditor, regardless of educational background. A little research will reveal that a boson is a type of particle, much like a proton or electron, the difference being that a boson has mass, while a proton doesn’t. As a type of particle, a boson is a garden-variety noun, and so it does not need to be capitalized. “Higgs,” however, is a person’s name, the name of one of the scientists credited with the discovery of this elemental particle, Peter Higgs.

So there you have it: Higgs boson. And I didn’t have to be a scientist to figure that one out. But I certainly learned a lot of interesting things along the way, and if I ever encounter this term again in a book or article I am copyediting, I can say with authority that boson should be lowercased. I am now an expert on the subject of the capitalization of Higgs boson!

That doesn’t make me an expert on the Higgs boson, however. And I don’t think that a copyeditor is ever going to win a Nobel Prize. But the question about what expertise is remains. I doubt that most physicists spend a lot of time worrying about whether a term should be capitalized or lowercased when they are writing their book or article about the big bang/Big Bang. It’s the copyeditor’s job to help them make informed decisions about these kinds of things.

And in the process of doing our jobs, perhaps a little bit of that shine of expertise rubs off on us as well, at least for a while.

2 thoughts on “Becoming a Subject Matter Expert

  1. Thanks for providing us some insight into copy editing. Liked your take on expertise. Also, as a software developer, I am well aware of the jargon filled reality many have to deal with!


  2. I am so with you on this. I too have occasionally edited a book outside my field of expertise and found myself enjoying exploring other fields. Yes, if the editing calls for checking the subject matter as well, then some knowledge in the field would be essential. But sometimes I have found that reading as a general reader may help to pick out areas in a text that are obscure and could use some clarification. It is so nice that you have articulated an issue that is not normally discussed when talking about editing. Loved the ‘boson’ story.


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