Jargon and the Kentucky Derby

Animals, Editing

Editing is a world of jargon. There’s jargon within the editing & publishing industry, of course, and then there’s the jargon that appears in the materials to be edited. Jargon isn’t simply limited to lofty academics or scientists; it is present in pretty much every field or hobby you could think of. As a non-fiction (and often even in fiction) editor, you’re kind of like the proverbial wall of spaghetti for information—you are thrown large amounts of jargon from different fields, and some of it is inevitably going to stick.

This was made very clear to me on Saturday while my dad and I were watching the Kentucky Derby. When I was little and we went to the racetrack, I never paid much attention to the races themselves. The thrill was wholly in seeing the grace, power, and breathtaking beauty of the horses. That has always been my primary motivation for watching horse races. However, through editing the non-fiction book Sham: Great Was Second Best (an account of the overlooked rival to the great racehorse Secretariat), I learned quite a bit of information and jargon related to horse racing. When we were discussing and watching the race, I realized I was using these terms, and spouting off information about things like how many miles the Kentucky Derby was (1 ¼ by the way), what a furlong and a length were, and why racehorses have such weird names. As a kid, I guess I just thought the point of the names was to be silly. Now that I know each name has to be unique, I understand the difficulty a bit more. Honestly though, this task would be easier if the horse racing world just switched over to the method they use for show dogs: using a kennel name (or in this case, stable name) to help identify the animal and ensure uniqueness. The problem with this, of course, is that racehorses often change owners and trainers a lot. But I digress.

One of your primary duties as an editor is to spot inconsistencies and fix them. As you make your way through the manuscript, you always have to think about how much the audience for the book will know. Do they need the jargon explained? Is the jargon consistent? Do the explanations make sense? On several occasions, I have felt like a fool for querying about some aspect of the subject I don’t understand. But then I console myself with the knowledge that if I don’t know something, chances are neither will the average reader. I’m just asking the questions for them so they don’t have to.

That is one of the most satisfying aspects of editing for me. You’re always learning. No two books are shaped in the same way, and you’re always learning about new topics. After reading a manuscript about seven times, you kind of get sick of the topic, but a little distance makes the knowledge rewarding again. For a person like me, with way too many interests, editing is like a knowledge sampler. Plus, you have the added benefit of knowing you helped polish the piece to the point that its beauty and original intent is able to shine through.

Congratulations to Animal Kingdom and his various caretakers for winning the Derby. I like to see the long-shot take it. It’s a comforting reminder that although the odds may predict results, they can’t set them in stone. And, like editing, horse racing requires a lot of adaptability.

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