How An Educated Nonspecialist Editor Can Help You

When you’re writing about a subject you’ve studied for years, you could assume that your audience knows everything that you do. When you’re moving to the revision stage, you might need a subject-area expert to edit your material and look for gaps in your argument, research, and citations. In many cases—especially when you need to meet professional requirements or get funding—this is exactly the kind of editor you need.

But what about those times when you think your content and argument are solid but want to know how an uninformed reader will learn from your work? What do you do when you’re too far along to overhaul the material and simply want an objective look at your work?

For one thing, you can ask me to help.

In the 7 years I’ve been editing, I’ve read manuscripts about subjects that I never expected to see: Middle English poetry; the salsa scene in 1970s’ New York; Christianity in 5th- and 6th-century Constantinople; and, a history of Benedictine monks and nuns. Three of these were pre-submission edits (more on that here) where the scholars wanted some cleanup work and to see if their material was clear to someone who didn’t already know it.

I’ve liked these kinds of projects for the variety and for the experience of reading something I didn’t know. As a lay reader, I can see issues, errors, writing tics, and so on relatively easily when I don’t get wrapped up in the content or nitpick the argument. I focus on grammar, spelling, paragraphing, and overall organization. I’m also a great stand-in for that intellectually curious reader you want to sell the book to.

One of my first editing jobs after leaving academia was as a nonspecialist. A Twitter follower shared a call for copy editors to work on a book about religious history; she was acting as the managing editor and liaison. She asked anyone interested in the project to do a sample edit. I did my work on a chapter and sent it back. Other potential editors who knew the material had quibbled about sources or arguments and missed the writing issues needing the most work. I, however, just focused on typos, wordiness, grammar, and other issues in my purview as nonspecialist editor. The managing editor chose me expressly because I wasn’t a religious historian. Since I had nothing invested in the content, I could focus on the language and formatting. It was rigorous work, and I found a lot of grammatical and formatting issues that made the manuscript publishable. I had a healthy distance from the subject, which is exactly what the author and managing editor needed.

If you’re working on a project that could benefit from an outsider’s point of view, consider a few things:

  1. Are you trying to reach—and possibly educate—an audience outside your specific field or body of knowledge?
  2. Are you trying to sell books to an intellectually curious readership?
  3. Are you happy with your content, research, and messages and too far along on the project to split hairs?
  4. Are you unsure about your structure, writing, and overall clarity and want feedback from a sample reader?
  5. Are you worried that you’re too close to the material to notice errors, typos, unclear passages, and writing tics that can hinder your message?


Have an idea for another post on writing or editing topics? Let me know.


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