By Shalva Ben-David
“I will be working in my comfort zone!” I exclaimed on our family WhatsApp group. I had just accepted my first academic editing job, and my family understood the reason for my excitement. I had completed the David Yellin Program in English Editing and Editorial Analysis a few months earlier, and they knew that I had been wondering: “Would I be offered editing jobs?” And more importantly, “How would I manage if I was offered an opportunity to edit an article on a topic that I knew nothing about?”
Fortunately, my first opportunity was to edit an article authored by a Judaic studies scholar. While I am far from a scholar, I have a B.A. in Jewish Studies, and I continue to build upon this foundation, through Torah classes, independent study, and by virtue of adhering to an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. This explains my confident announcement to my family.
As I was waiting to receive the draft, I thought back to my final David Yellin assignment: to edit a document and prepare it for publication in a scientific journal. The topic of the article was “big data,” and its potential contribution to treatment and prevention of various diseases. I recalled how I pored over it and struggled, sometimes in desperation, with terminology and research methods that were foreign to me. This time would be different, I hoped.
Upon receiving the article, I had to move quickly, since the author was under pressure from the journal he was targeting for publication. Despite a sense of urgency, I took the time to read through the entire piece, to assess and to form an impression of the work that would be needed. While this might seem like an obvious step, it is not my modus operandi in my day job, as a writer and editor for a Jewish humanitarian aid organization. When given a document to edit, I usually go straight to editing, on the first reading. But, with this job, I wanted to follow the process that I learned in the editing program, and give each step its due.
The article focused on books that were written by a medieval scholar of halakha (Jewish law), and analyzed them from a historical perspective. The first part of the text was manageable enough: It covered the history of the scholar in question, his far-reaching rabbinic influence, and the success of his halakhic writings. As I got to the meat of the article, with its citations from numerous commentaries, my comprehension became clouded. However, I was sure that once I dug in, I would grasp the author’s intended meaning.
This was a case of misplaced optimism, as it turned out. When I got to the end, I felt unsettled; the author’s arguments seemed a little simplistic to me. Here, too, I was out of touch with reality, and sadly yet unaware of the consequences of my flawed understanding.
After this initial read-through, it was time to start editing. Even without planning on it, my editing process unfolded in a manner that followed the method that I learned in the editing program. Over the course of multiple reads, I tried to drill down deeper, from the level of sections, to paragraphs, to sentences, to words. Despite trying to follow this process, even with my Jewish studies background, at times, I felt like I was swimming in waters that were too deep for me.
With each reading, I kept hitting stumbling blocks. When I got to these difficult passages, far from comprehending them, as I had hoped would happen during a close reading, I was stymied, more than ever. One reason was the fact that the article was written in academic English, by a non-native speaker. But a greater issue was the complexity of the primary sources. Following the Talmudic tradition, each passage was a logic puzzle, involving inferences to decipher, differentiating scenarios to envision, and opposing halakhic opinions to keep track of.
At a particularly low point, I began to think longingly back to that final assignment about big data, scientific jargon and all that came with it. The turning point in the process was in the queries, and there were a few rounds of these. At one point in the process, responding to a particular query of mine, the author realized that I had utterly missed the crux of his thesis. I felt abashed, but also hopeful, sensing that a breakthrough was imminent.
In his response, he explained the nuance that I was missing. In police work terminology, that comment blew the case wide open. Suddenly, the arguments that I thought were simplistic became stimulating, meaningful, and worthy of academic discussion. And all of the intricate discussions he presented suddenly made sense.
The editing process was still challenging. I had to refine word choices, improve the flow of ideas, simplify the text, and enhance its overall clarity. However, now I had a compass; I knew where the text was going.
Looking back, my first paid assignment was a priceless, if humbling, experience. I learned that even when dealing with a topic that I have some familiarity with, I will still have to wrestle with the text. I discovered how the right queries can navigate a labyrinth of confusion.
And, I will always remember that if the arguments in an article seem rudimentary, it’s likely that the fault lies not with the author, but with myself.
Shalva Ben-David, a graduate of the David Yellin Course in English Editing and Editorial Analysis (2019-2020), has been writing and editing for over 25 years. She currently combines her work as a grant-writer with freelance editing, particularly in the fields of non-profit content, social sciences, and Jewish studies.