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It's not you. It's me

Posted on 21st December 2015

A colleague who will remain nameless recently emailed me to ask some advice: she'd been sent a query to proofread a novel but she'd never proofread fiction before, was quite busy so the timing wasn't right to learn on the job and she didn't feel comfortable taking the work on. However, she also didn't feel comfortable turning the client away, as if they would be left in the wild. My response to her was this: if you had a liver problem and were offered a general surgeon or a plumber, you'd choose the general surgeon. However, in an ideal world, you'd be able to find a specialist in liver surgery and that's surely who you'd choose to go with. In editing (and sometimes proofreading), it's not that dissimilar and if possible, it's usually in the client's and the publication's best interests to find someone familiar with the subject. I suggested she tell the client she wasn't the right person for the job and point them in the direction of someone who was.

The point of the long-winded tale above is that if I say I'm not right for a job, it's in the client's interest to find someone more suitable. At proofreading stage of a project that's been through a thorough editorial process, I personally feel comfortable working on most projects, though anything very technical or including lots of equations is sometimes an exception. However, at copy-editing stage, if I work on a genre outside my comfort zone or usual field, though I might be able to do lots of research to make sure the text is accurate and appropriate, that will take longer than if a specialist in the field does the work.

In fact, only today I was asked to copy-edit historical fiction and I had to tell the client that I'm not the right person for the job. Thankfully, I know an editor who specialises in the genre so was able to recommend the client to someone who will know (or know where to look quickly to find out) how to deal with the specific era and will be more in tune with whether something's a modern concept or not. When I met this editor a while back, she gave an example of a book she'd been editing where the author had a soldier on the frontline feeling the adrenaline – though that's what the soldier would have felt, the editor said the soldier wouldn't have known it was adrenaline in 1916 so she suggested changing it. I admit that wouldn't have even occurred to me!

Obviously it's not always possible to find someone specialising in really niche fields but if the field is medical, for example, finding an editor with a science background might be better than an editor with an arts background. Some people will have details about their background on their website or on directory listings, but if in doubt, if you're looking for an editor with a specialism, ask if they have experience in that field. The worst they can say is no and hopefully put you in touch with someone who has.

Written by Kate Haigh.