The Evolving Role of the Technical Editor

By Patricia Moell | Fellow
Michelle Corbin | Fellow
Mary Jo David | Senior Member
Carol Lamarche | Senior Member
Jenifer Servais | Senior Member

Adapted from Corbin, Michelle, Mary Jo David, Carol Lamarche, Patricia Moell, Jenifer Servais, and Andrea Wenger. The Evolving Role of the Technical Editor. Proceedings of the Technical Communication Summit ’12 (May 2012): 148–151.

In today’s rapidly changing communication environment, technical communicators are challenged by how best to meet the information needs of their consumers. Consumers want just the information they need, and they want it now, in whatever medium they prefer, and on whatever device they are using. Technical editors must rise to these challenges by focusing on reducing content, becoming involved earlier in product design, and editing for diverse platforms. They must also focus on editing the work of international writers in a global workforce and mastering the standards, guidelines, or best practices for each medium. However the role evolves, the fundamental duty of the technical editor remains to help provide high-quality information to the consumer.

Integrating Earlier into Product Design

Consumer impatience requires more editing to produce less content and better products. The benefits of reducing word count aren’t new; for years, technical editors have been painfully aware of the impact of word count on budgets. It began back in the days when more words meant higher paper costs; it continued as paper ebbed and the cost of translations started taxing budgets.

In this online information age, technical editors are still tasked with reducing word count—not just because extra words cost extra dollars, but because extra words also cost readers. Whether content is for print, the Web, or mobile devices, technical editors must recognize that today’s audiences have been weaned in the digital age. We are in the age of email, texting, Google search, and social media. The age of LOL and BFN.

A study commissioned by Time Inc. found, “Consumers in their 20s (‘digital natives’) switch media venues about 27 times per nonworking hour—the equivalent of more than 13 times during a standard half-hour TV show” (Steinberg). From this, technical editors can rightly assume they are editing for audiences who are considerably more distracted than the audiences of bygone years. Now, more than ever, technical editors must strive for brevity, but without sacrificing accuracy and clarity. They’re tasked with making certain that writers have incorporated effective use of images, typography, heading levels, bulleted lists, page placement, and more. They must ensure that critical information is not overlooked or simply ignored because the reader is skimming the information.

The efforts of technical editors must stretch beyond making sure that writers have accurately described how the product works. Consider products that are designed to provide a simple, everyday service—from cell phones to alarm clocks. When was the last time you read product instructions from cover to cover? And if you did, did they help? The impatience of today’s consumers has caused the possible demise of documentation-heavy products. Today’s best technical editors are forcing their involvement earlier in the product-development phase, not just for estimating page counts and help system size, but to actively influence decisions that directly impact product usability. Technical editors must harness their best qualities and apply them during design reviews to advocate for their audience—the consumer—not just in the documentation but also in the products themselves.

So, if today’s audiences aren’t willing to spend time knee-deep in product documentation, what are they doing? An infographic titled “How People Spend Their Time Online,” compiled by GoGulf.com with data from Comscoredatamine.com, Nielsen.com, et al., suggests that today’s audiences spend more of their online time social networking than any of the other most common online activities. It’s probably no coincidence then that more consumers are using social media to vent about lapses in customer care—another area where proactive technical editing can make a positive impact.

Developing a Content Strategy for Diverse Platforms

“Old world” content development, as Joe Gollner calls it, has a market. Perhaps the majority of certain sectors still want simple, traditional writing and editing services with no special attention to topic-based writing or content strategy. These writing and editing services are relatively fast and easy. The future, however, and some of the juicier opportunities beckon from elsewhere.

Users rely on an increasing range of devices and platforms to access their data, including smartphones and tablets. To accommodate this proliferation of options, some of which have not yet been invented, content creators must produce content that is platform neutral, or “platform agnostic.” This trend moves us away from creating content for a single platform, such as the Web, and then massaging that content into other shapes or squishing it into smaller screens (McGrane). Content has to be written and edited for diverse platforms from the beginning.

Technical editors must be able to participate effectively within information architecture and content strategy. For example, they might master authoring tools for topic-based writing, incorporate specific structured authoring techniques, or use metadata tags to prioritize content and configure it on various devices. It is best to be directly involved in the information architecture and content strategy, but if technical editors are not orchestrating the strategy, they need at least to be able to dance within it and avoid stepping on toes.

Synthesizing Content into One Voice

In today’s global environment, each medium can result from a variety of writers or subject matter experts who produce the information and the product. These authors might speak English as a second language or might not have any professional writing experience at all. The ability of technical editors to unify the work of various contributors is a valuable skill, especially for organizations that merge or acquire other departments or businesses globally.

Technical editors provide an essential role in ultimately synthesizing information by adding clarity, value, and usability to present a united voice. As they adapt content for various media types, these editors are well versed in and consistently apply corporate and industry style, terminology, and word-usage guidelines. The value of technical editors is evident in the difference between information that is clearly written, easy to understand, and simple to use, and information that has a mix of broken English and that leaves the user confused or frustrated.

Technical editors carry this unified voice across all communication types, including media that is acquired from another organization or company. They help to drive content to make it reflect the voice and image of the organization as it grows. They update and edit the information to fit the needs of its expanded audience. In acquired information, technical editors incorporate name changes and apply the styles, standards, and requirements of the new organization, erasing potential confusion about the name of the product or service and who owns it. They also ensure that the content meets all trademark, branding, accessibility, and legal requirements of the organization. And they ensure that the acquired content meets the guidelines for the specific media type to reach all users.

Mastering Best Practices for Each Medium

Technical editors maintain their relevance by taking advantage of internal and external resources and networks to learn about changes in technology and trends in the field. They enhance their skills by reading articles in professional journals; attending seminars, workshops, and conferences; networking with contacts; and consulting internal resources for assistance with starting a new project. Technical editors must keep aware of the latest standards, gather appropriate standards into style guides, set up best practices, and consistently apply standards and guidelines as they edit content.

With the knowledge gained, technical editors can more easily apply their editing practice to new types of output. They are able to move beyond editing traditional technical and help documents to editing marketing materials, white papers, training guides, videos, social media, and content for mobile devices. Not only can technical editors adapt their editing skills to the audience of these media types, but they can also structure the content to make it more suitable for the type of output. For example, technical editors might consider video scripting guidelines, closed captioning, and other accessibility guidelines for video presentations. They might look for ways to synchronize audio content with visual graphics such as slides or product screens. They might also develop wording guidelines for gestures used with mobile apps, produce easy-to-understand labels on user interfaces, create guidelines for embedded user assistance, and address content-appropriateness issues and flow issues on mobile devices.

Maintaining Quality

As technical communication incorporates more video, audio, and flowing text, technical editors must continue to provide quality assurance. Technical editors will need to adjust their processes and apply the appropriate standards or guidelines to these emerging media. On whatever media the content is delivered, the technical editor is responsible for understanding and meeting standards for the consumer, the organization, and the product itself.

Technical editing is important because organizations cannot afford to ignore the quality of their documentation. Quality can affect their bottom line in several ways:

  • The quality of the documentation reflects upon the quality of the product.
  • Well-written documentation makes the product easier to use, which helps reduce the number of technical support calls and thus the number of technical support analysts needed.
  • Documentation that is well edited and uses global English guidelines reduces the cost of translation and allows for better machine translation.
  • Properly copyrighted and recorded documentation protects against lawsuits.
  • Improper use of product names can weaken trademarks and product branding.
  • Documentation that does not meet standards for accessibility could mean lost sales.
  • Technically inaccurate documentation could lead to customer losses and lawsuits.
  • Poorly produced documentation with typos and with organizational and grammatical errors can adversely affect an organization’s brand and its reputation for quality.

As advocates for the customer, technical editors ensure the clarity, comprehensibility, accuracy, appropriateness, and usability of the text. As advocates for the organization, technical editors ensure that all legal standards are met, that the content is easily translatable, and that the documentation reflects well on the organization. As advocates for the product, technical editors ensure that the documentation contributes to its overall usability and purpose.

Providing a Total Information Experience

With the advent of new products, new media, multiple platforms, and global authors, technical editors can no longer be content with being experts in just textual elements. They must engage with the total information experience, while remaining vigilant about quality assurance. For example, when editing a graphical user interface, technical editors must review and edit the text, but also edit the choice of user interface controls and the placement of elements on a screen. Or, for example, when editing a screen-cast demo (posted on YouTube), technical editors must review and edit the text. However, they must also edit the demonstration of the user interface and the syncing of the audio or text bubbles to the interactions on the screen. Ultimately, technical editors need to advocate being information architects and content strategists, instead of taking on technical writer assignments. Technical editors need to embrace being technical communicators overall and not just editors of text.

Suggested Reading

Corbin, Michelle, Pat Moell, and Mike Boyd. Technical Editing As Quality Assurance: Adding Value to Content. Technical Communication 49.3 (August 2002): 286–300.

Entirenet. The Importance of Technical Editing in Knowledge-Base Content. Entirenet.net. www.entirenet.net/Documents/Importance_Of_Technical_Editing.pdf.

Hart, Geoff. Demonstrating the Value of Editing. Corrigo 7.1 (March 2007): 1–3, 8. www.stc-techedit.org/Demonstrating+the+value+of+editing.

Kunz, Larry. Managing Documentation Projects in a Collaborative World. Proceedings of the Technical Editing Special Interest Group teleconference (September 2010). www.stc-techedit.org/tiki-list_file_gallery.php?galleryId=25.

Murphy, Avon J., ed. New Perspectives on Technical Editing (Baywood Pub Co, 9 September 2010).

Technical Editing Special Interest Group, Society for Technical Communication. “Understanding the Value of a Technical Editor,” Technical Editing SIG wiki page: www.stc-techedit.org/tiki-index.php?page=understanding%20the%20value%20of%20a%20technical%20editor (last modified 8 November 2010).

Technical Editing Special Interest Group, Society for Technical Communication. “Managing Documentation Projects in a Collaborative World—New Best Practices for Editors,” with Larry Kunz. Technical Editing SIG watercooler chat transcripts, www.stc-techedit.org/tiki-list_file_gallery.php?galleryId=30.


GoGulf.com. “How People Spend Their Time Online,” compiled by GoGulf.com with source data from Comscoredatamine.com, Nielsen.com, PewInternet.org, and Tnsdigitallife.com, 7 May 2012 (www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/online-time_b22186).

McGrane, Karen. Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content. Presentation at the Society for Technical Communication Summit. Rosemont, IL (May 2012).

Steinberg, Brian. Study: Young Consumers Switch Media 27 Times An Hour: Survey of “Digital Natives” Indicates Brands Must Step Up Creative Game to Hold Their Attention. Advertising Age. Crain Communications, 9 April 2012 (www.adage.com/article/news/study-young-consumers-switch-media-27-times-hour/234008/.)

Michelle Corbin is an STC Fellow who works as a senior technical editor, terminologist, and information architect for data quality and big data products at IBM. She has over 20 years’ experience in technical communication. She has won the Frank R. Smith Distinguished Journal Article Award twice. She wrote the chapter, “The Editor in the Modern Organization,” in New Perspectives on Technical Editing, edited by Avon Murphy. She is currently teaching an online certificate course for STC called Technical Editing Fundamentals.

Mary Jo David (maryjo@writeawayent.com), owner and president of Write Away Enterprises, has been a technical and business writer and editor for over 25 years. She has served on the Technical Communication Advisory Board at Lawrence Technological University, where she has taught courses in technical and professional communication and technical editing. She is a senior member and a past president of the Southeastern Michigan Chapter of STC.

Carol Lamarche (carol@healingtreecommunications.ca) is the president of Healing Tree Communications, whose vision is to provide a range of innovative services that meet the needs of organizations and individuals in the fields of health care and medicine. She brings to the company eight years of experience as a communications specialist. Carol is a senior member of STC and co-manager of the Technical Editing SIG.

Patricia G. Moell (pat.moell@sas.com), STC Fellow, is a manager of the technical editing department at SAS Institute with over 20 years’ experience as a technical editor and manager. She served as co-manager of the STC Technical Editing SIG and has presented at the STC annual conference on several occasions. She is the recipient of the Frank R. Smith Outstanding Journal Article Award for “Technical Editing as Quality Assurance: Adding Value to Content.”

Jenifer Servais (j_servais@msn.com) is a lead technical editor for IBM with 14 years’ experience in the IBM Redbooks publications organization. In addition to editing, she consults on publishing matters; leads special projects; writes and updates guidelines for editors, writers, and project leaders; and provides regular education and training to the editors on her team. She is a member of the IBM Style and Word Usage Council. She is a senior member of STC.

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