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Where Technical Editing and Journalism Intersect: Stepping into Unknown Subject Matter

By Steve Lemanski | Member

Technical editors’ successes in mastering, correcting, and enhancing the complex narratives of their chosen industries or technical domains often propel them into assignments that are outside of their vocational sweet spot, but for which they are no less expected to add value. Editors fresh out of college or fresh off the unemployment line are no strangers to the same predicament. For developing the skill of rapid learning or assimilation of new knowledge, technical editors can borrow a page or two from the playbook of journalists, another group of professionals whose livelihood depends on how fast they can assimilate new information.

The jobs of technical editors can be both challenging and fulfilling as they master the ever-evolving terminologies and complexities of the subject matter they edit. But many editors will also face a paradox inherent to their success: the more one learns, the more one needs to learn.

Specialist or Generalist—Do You Really Have a Choice?

The better editors get at emending texts in their area of expertise, the more likely they are to be recommended to, and recruited by, different subject matter experts (SMEs) for assignments involving new concepts, different taxonomies, and strange vocabularies. Suddenly, editors are thrust out of their accustomed knowledge domain, out of their “sweet spot”—vocationally speaking. And this happens whether they would naturally rather be a jack-of-all-trades or a master of one. For the most part, technical editors seeking their first job after college as well as recently laid-off seasoned editors find themselves in the same situation.

However, there is another big group of professional communicators—journalists—for whom this situation is a daily reality. News reporters, writers, and editors of all types must continually learn, navigate, and articulate to their readers facts and information that days or even hours earlier were foreign to them. Can technical communicators and technical editors take some tips from our professional cousins, the journalists, in learning how to acquire new knowledge quickly? The answer is yes.

Rapid Learning—A Recognized Editorial Skill

The ability to quickly assimilate and understand new information is recognized as a required skill of the successful technical editor. Carolyn Rude and Angela Eaton, in the fifth edition of their Technical Editing textbook, point this out by saying, “If you are a technical editor … you will almost certainly edit a document about something you have never heard of at some point. You will need to be willing to take the time to figure it out.” As if to console those of us who may find this prospect daunting, they offer the following encouragement: “Being able to learn new technical information is a skill—and one that can be learned.”

Evidencing the wisdom of Rude and Eaton’s admonition, a recent (March 2012) technical editor job description listed by an online job search site places a premium on the skill of rapid learning. In the summary of the job—one for a high-tech corporate headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area—it appears to frame the opportunity for continual learning as a selling point for the applicant. The ad promises: “You will use and further develop your understanding of technical subject matter and terminology used within the technical function, and utilize interpersonal skills by working with multiple internal clients across functions.”

The job description then lists the following skill among its top seven requirements for the job: “Strong aptitude for learning new technologies.” This requirement is juxtaposed with other skills of apparently equal or similar weight such as strong oral and written communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively within a team environment, and a creative approach to problem solving.

Journalists’ Love of the Unknown

Journalists typically love dealing with a sense of uncertainty. More specifically, they love transforming what was previously “unknown” into something known and knowable. They make it their business to continually master new subject matter, at least to the extent of understanding truth from falsehood, fact from hyperbole. University of Oregon journalism professor Ken Metzler, in his book Creative Interviewing, a key resource for many reporters and other writers, hints that a love of the unknown is a key draw for people in that profession. In describing the hypothetical local newspaper reporter Betty Paterson whom he uses for illustrating some of his points, he says this:

Betty counts among her worst faults the fact that she loves learning new things and meeting new people. That’s why she became a reporter—to become a lifelong learner and get paid for it.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Murray Kempton, one of the most admired of the twentieth century, had this to say when asked if a journalist should really be expected to know everything:

Yes. When you’re covering anything, and you’re writing about it at length, you use everything you know. And in order to use everything you have to be interested in an extraordinary range of things.

Columbia University’s Melvin Mencher, who wrote News Reporting and Writing, one of the standard texts for journalism students for the last few decades, echoed that depiction of news people:

Reporters have a deep and wide-ranging fund of knowledge. Much of this stored information concerns structures and processes…

Mencher offered a practical reason for why this is true:

The reporter is expected to know a lot. An error, a missing fact or a misinterpretation cannot be explained away by the reporter.

In our present day, broadcast journalist Charlie Rose, who reportedly has conducted over 100,000 interviews in his 40-year career, is known both for his uncanny ability to deeply engage with those he interviews and for the huge spectrum of personalities and topics he covers—what his show’s producers cite as “the world’s best thinkers, writers, politicians, athletes, entertainers, business leaders, scientists and other newsmakers.” How does he grapple with this diversity of content, night after night, year after year? When asked how he prepares for one of his interviews, Rose was quoted as saying:

Just read and read and read and read. And talk. Get on the phone with somebody and say: tell me, what is it you think I should know? And then they may tell you seven things you know, and they may say something you hadn’t thought about.

A love of the unknown, however, is somewhat counterintuitive for technical editors who have experienced the fact that the more they learned about a given subject matter or discipline, the more they were able to add value to the finished communication product. They have seen how their confidence and skill in performing not only copyediting but also substantive editing has blossomed the more they learned about their genre or their technological niche. So the question becomes: how does one transfer the same or similar level of competency one has achieved in one domain to the new knowledge space one is operating in? The answer always comes down to how fast and well one can learn and assimilate new information. The more quickly an editor can master the basic vocabulary, naming conventions, and underlying tenets of a new technical discipline, the more comfortable and capable that editor will be with making editorial decisions about a document’s overall structure, style, tone, and completeness—not to mention its basic word usage and sentence constructions.

A Systematic Approach to Research—One Used by Journalists

So how do journalists do it? Do they follow something that resembles an actual process in their absorption of new information, as they ramp up on a new assignment or prepare to cover a breaking story (which by definition affords little time to prepare)? Two researchers in the computer science department at University College London, Simon Attfield and John Dowell, discovered that newspaper journalists do tend to systematically seek and mentally (if not physically) store information, whether they are aware they are doing it or not, as they move from uncertainty to certainty in their understanding of new subject matter. Their study, “Information seeking and use by newspaper journalists,” published in 2003 in the Journal of Documentation, was part of a project that ultimately aimed to identify system requirements for an automated information retrieval and authoring system based on how journalists gather and synthesize information. The information-seeking process used by the 25 journalists these authors interviewed at The Times, in London, consisted of these five basic steps:

  • Establish an angle—you start out with proposition or hypothesis to guide your further research activity, but it must be an idea that meets the primary criteria of being original, true, and newsworthy
  • Develop a personal understanding—you reinforce and motivate yourself for more information seeking, and come up with an informed interpretation that may help readers
  • Discover potential content—you find lots of potentially relevant or useful ideas
  • Gather information—you collect all the highly relevant, useful ideas in a “basket”
  • Manage multiple information sources—you develop ways to organize, cross-reference, or pull information out of the “basket”

Attfield and Dowell explained how the reporters they studied and interviewed used this relatively simple process to move from the general to the specific; from the unknown to the known; and from uncertainty to certainty. But can technical editors apply a similar process in ramping up for an assignment in which they’ll be dealing with a new domain of knowledge, new technologies, new reference points, new acronyms, and an entirely new jargon? Why not?

The Journalist’s Information Seeking Process (Attfield and Dowell) Example case: A technical editor, knowing little or nothing about how software is developed, must prepare to edit material about Agile software development.
1. Establish an angle 1. You determine, from talking with the SME author and a little cursory reading, that all software development has a SDLC (software development life cycle), but Agile is said to effect a shorter or condensed SDLC because it promises to bring products to market faster. This becomes somewhat of an “angle” for you to continue on your learning curve—why is Agile faster?
2. Develop a personal understanding 2. From further research, you find out that there are actually several different types or flavors of SDLC: waterfall/traditional, rapid application development, Agile, etc.
3. Discover potential content 3. From further research, you discover there are also several industry standards that apply to an SDLC: CMMI, ISO, Scrum, an IBM standard, etc.
4. Gather information 4. From further research, you determine that the Agile SDLC is one of the newest trends in software development, and that Scrum is one of the most popular standards for Agile. These specialties now comprise your lingua franca for your editing assignment, and you concentrate your energies on “deconstructing” your newfound knowledge about Agile and Scrum, including its acronyms, naming conventions, and overall structures and processes.
5. Manage multiple information sources 5. From all of your research up to this point, you discern some commonalities and universal principles among all of the varieties of SDLC, and you also have a basic knowledge of why and how doing software development using the rules of Scrum/Agile produces more software in less time overall. You organize your newfound knowledge about all of the above into an easy-to-use, prioritized, personal knowledge base for future reference, while editing.

Table 1. The Information-Seeking Process of Journalists Applied to Technical Editing

Table 1 shows an example of the intellectual process through which technical editors might conceivably progress as they prepare—knowing little or nothing ahead of time about software development—to edit a technical white paper on best practices for Agile software development. As implied in the example given, the journalist’s “angle” equates to an SME author’s research “problem” or thesis statement, used by the technical editor as a touchstone for further research.

Interviewing Trade Secrets—for SME Brain-Picking

Technical editors may indeed find they can more quickly expand their repertoire of editable subject matter by following a systematic approach such as one outlined previously, when faced with needing to acquire new knowledge for an assignment for which they are otherwise unprepared. But they will also benefit by following a few tenets of effective interviewing techniques used widely by journalists (and readily apparent in the work of pros such as Charlie Rose) when they get the opportunity to query their SME authors for more details concerning the subject and the project. The working relationships of technical editors to their SMEs and reporters to their informants are similar in that one party is gleaning new information from a source and the end product is a communication piece. However, when it comes to audience analysis (one big facet of the technical editor’s line of questioning) the way in which the editor views the target audience can be quite different from the way a reporter views his. Since the SME is actually the author of the material being discussed, the audience is viewed collectively by editor and SME as “our audience.” The reporter, however, is usually focused squarely on “his audience,” an audience which may or may not be of primary concern to his respondent. This distinction between how the two sets of parties view their “audience” bodes well for the editor-SME interviewing interaction. It should be somewhat less complicated than that of the reporter-informant.

Preparing for the interview

If the technical editor has already done as much background research on her new subject as the time permits and has used a systematic approach such as the one outlined previously, she is probably well prepared for a face-to-face (or phone-to-phone) interview with her new author. However, by practicing a couple of tips from interview guru Metzler, the editor will ensure a productive interview experience: (1) jot down the topics or issues that you want to cover or for which you believe you need further clarification; and (2) plan potential follow-up questions to whatever answers you may get from your initial questions.

Conducting the interview

Once you’re sitting down with your SME author, remember a couple of other rules of engagement that make for good results: (1) make your goals clear to the interviewee respondent (SME); and (2) don’t ask the obvious.

On that last point, Metzler cautions, “The well-prepared interviewer does not seek answers that merely confirm what is already known.” So, after breaking the ice with your SME, don’t waste your time or hers by asking about things you believe you already know. Cut to the chase with questions that explore the relationships and dependencies between the various concepts you’ve discovered. Ask her about causes and effects. Ask her about the current issues or controversies in her field.

Conclusion

The work and career of a technical editor can be daunting at times, but also rewarding. At no time is this truer than when the editor is faced with climbing the steep slopes of brand new and highly technical subject matter. By emulating the techniques for background research and interviewing that have proven to be effective for journalists, technical editors may find that they can master much more of a new subject in a limited amount of time than they ever thought possible. And in so doing, they will continually expand the scope of subjects they can comprehensively edit and thereby add maximum value to their authors and readers.

Steve Lemanski (slemanski@citi-us.com) is a member of STC’s Washington, DC–Metro Baltimore Chapter. He has worked in the IT field for 20 years, first as a techie himself, and now as a writer/editor for techies. At Creative Information Technology, Inc. (CITI), he enjoys constantly changing editorial gears, from writing and editing technical documentation and proposals to producing feature articles, marketing content, and internal communications. In a previous life, he worked for the media after getting his bachelor’s in communication. He is currently pursuing a master’s in English/technical writing from Utah State University.

References

“About Charlie Rose,” Charlie Rose Inc., www.charlierose.com/about/biography/.

Attfield, Simon, and John Dowell. Information seeking and use by newspaper journalists. Journal of Documentation 59. 2 (2003): 187–204.

“Biography for Charlie Rose,” IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/name/nm0741299/bio.

“Job: Technical Editor,” Jobing.com, http://bayarea.jobing.com/technical-editor/job/employment/34781372.

Mencher, Melvin. News Reporting and Writing. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1977.

Metzler, Ken. Creative Interviewing: The Writer’s Guide to Gathering Information by Asking Questions. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

Rude, Carolyn D., and Angela Eaton. Technical Editing. Boston: Longman, 2011.

Van Diggelen, Alison. “Charlie Rose: Quotes from Fresh Dialogues,” Fresh Dialogues.com, www.freshdialogues.com/2009/02/26/transcript-of-fresh-dialogues-with-charlie-rose/.

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