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Mechanic, Mediator, Mentor: Interrogating Common Roles of Technical Editors

By Bailey S. Cundiff | STC Student Member

I completed a technical communication internship at a large technology company last year, for which my sole function was to write single-sourced help content for new software features. Technical communication teams operate agilely at this company, with an iterative internal review process. “Reviewing” is unofficial and lateral, a sort of checks-and-balances approach to internal validity. “Editing,” the writers and managers told me, is built into writing, and it doesn’t involve contextual or design considerations. It is just deciding what words go where.

A few months later, a fellow graduate student, who previously worked as a technical communicator and project manager, expressed a similar sentiment: “Editing,” he said, “comes in after the real work has been done.” When pressed, he insisted: editing isn’t real work.

I, and many other editors I know, beg to differ. But the attitude that positions editing as somehow “less than” persists. Often, this attitude is the result of a writer’s negative interactions with one or more editors, which ruin the profession and practice for that writer forever. These writers, too, become standards by which editors judge future writers. But this attitude toward editing does editors, writers, and users a major disservice.

Several trade books have attempted to address the writer-editor relationship, including Bonnie Hill’s The (Expanded) Freelancer’s Rulebook: A Guide to Understanding, Working with, and Winning Over Editors. These books contain rampant stereotypes of both writers and editors: “editors have no common human decency,” authors are flighty and unreliable, and editors need to “attempt a show of authority” to gain a writer’s trust.

In Technical Editing: The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers, Judith Tarutz provides case studies of common situations editors can expect to encounter. Case titles include “Writer Ignores Editor’s Comments,” “Writer Argues with Editor About Everything,” “Editor’s Changes Panic Writer,” and “Editor Ruins Writer’s Manuscript.” These situations are likely familiar to anyone who has written or edited professionally. Clearly, there is more to editing than moving commas around.

Even job ads and job descriptions for editors leave out the nuances of editing. Skimming online job boards like indeed.com and monster.com provides many examples of brief, technically focused ads that make editing seem like a straightforward, impersonal endeavor. These ads define editing as setting standards, ensuring consistency of expression, and checking documents for accuracy. Editing is thus considered to exist in a sort of vacuum, as a mechanical process and skill.

It seems like a chicken-and-egg situation: which came first, the archetype of the aggressively nitpicky editor or that of the sensitive (or stubborn) writer? Regardless, we in technical communication have a systemic problem with how we talk about and practice editing—in industry and the academy, at entry and managerial levels.

In the workplace, editors and writers are often thrown together with little explanation of what their relationship is to be and how they should deal with one another. Giving feedback on and editing writing is sensitive business, and companies may do little to alleviate the pressure of those practices.

Let’s return to the distinction between “reviewing” and “editing” that was so integral to my internship. Most review comments (not just those on a lowly intern’s writing) took on a teaching, occasionally patronizing tone. If an editor is not a reviewer, is an editor a teacher? Something else? To answer this question, I scoured major style guides, journal articles, and books for aspiring writers and editors—the same materials that perpetuate portrayals of difficult writers and editors—for the ways editors’ jobs are commonly positioned and understood.

In the 15 sources I read, I found these 13 roles: advisor, ally, consultant, diplomat, doctor, first reader, helpmeet, mechanic, mentor, negotiator, servant leader, teacher, and user advocate (see Figure 1). I have encountered many of these roles as an editor and writer, and I keep finding more in casual reading after the fact. The roles imply the kinds of interactions writers can expect to have with editors: thinking of an editor as a teacher, for example, positions writers as students and thus less knowledgeable and in need of instruction. And thinking of an editor as a diplomat can remove the onus of reconciliation and civility from the writer.

Figure 1. Common roles of editors

If writers and editors on a team have different ideas of what an editor is and should be, conflict results: we end up with writers who truly believe that editing is not real work.

Consider, too, that editors have unique responsibilities (see Figure 2). They are beholden to the writer of the content, the user of the content, and the company whose name is on the content—in addition to the rules of the language in which they write.

Figure 2. Responsibilities of editors

Technical communicators must, in other words, be attentive to how these responsibilities and the roles outlined above can form the basis of writer-editor interactions. This working relationship has a direct effect on the quality of content users receive.

Rather than constantly fighting these roles (and one another), I propose a different approach. Perhaps it would be more productive to interrogate the assumptions and misunderstandings themselves—to determine how these kinds of metaphorical roles shape understandings of technical editing. Perhaps we should all take a step back and think about how we portray, enact, and train people in editing—how those of us who understand editing as a significant part of any writing process can dispel potentially dangerous misunderstandings about what editing is and does. It’s more than quality assurance. It’s more than “fixing.” It’s more than an annoyance that satisfies a certain few accuracy-obsessed individuals within a company or academic department.

So how might technical communicators advocate for editors in practice, whether you’re a writer, editor, or manager?

1. Reconsider the roles in which editors are cast on your team.

Break down the roles in Figure 1 (and any others you have seen or experienced): consider how you and your team fill them in your daily work. (Susan Haire’s article in the April 2017 issue of Intercom is a great example of this exercise, and I’m glad to see someone else engaging with the different roles technical communicators must take on.) Determine what stereotypes everyone might be bringing to the table—and how those stereotypes could undermine your editors’ and writers’ authority and effectiveness.

These conversations could take place in a panel, workshop, or roundtable setting, or editors could write short posts for internal communications networks. If writers see editors as mechanics, and editors see themselves as teachers, they should work together to remedy that mismatch. Also consider what benefits the roles might have for users, for the team: appreciate the unique skills editors bring.

2. Advocate for the users of your content by allowing editors to attend to all their responsibilities.

Encourage editors to work on behalf of users without having to worry about stepping on writers’ toes or stepping outside predetermined roles. Integrate user experience testing with editing processes to learn how users prefer to access and read your content and where users could benefit from an extra level of consistency. Apply this new knowledge at every turn.

One way to connect editors to user advocacy is to provide access to user personas that outline typical user needs and behaviors. Update the personas regularly with the results of user testing, and build user advocacy into company style guides. Also consider training editors in accessible design principles to centralize the work of making content inclusive for all users. The overall goal should be to bring editors and writers together to improve working relationships and produce high-quality content.

3. Remember that editing is inherently relational and treat it as such.

Allow editors to represent a link to the user, not simply an authority on mechanics. Avoid the temptation to distill editing to hard skills like fixing grammar, formatting, and style. Attend to soft skills like negotiation, encouragement, and compromise. Consider providing training on relationship building for editors and writers. Further encourage the team to consider users as people, not as characteristics on paper. A common goal of meeting user needs can reduce friction and allow editors and writers to work more effectively, both independently and together.

4. Don’t lose sight of the importance of editorial accuracy.

No matter the context, no matter the team, editors can serve as the last line of defense against careless mistakes and serious comprehension issues. In a 2014 blog post for The Guardian, freelance journalist Nell Frizzell offers her own list of roles that illustrates this point well:

An editor may be butcher, but they are also a midwife, a parent, a nanny, a matron, a therapist, a conspirator and a friend. But don’t forget that, in the end, only a butcher can turn a live, stamping, snorting, animal into something you can stomach. So perhaps it’s time we heard it for the butchers.

Be critical of the roles editors appear to take on. Advocate for users through your editors. Develop productive working relationships. But even if your team isn’t fully ready to consider editing a relational skill, let editors do what they do best.

Reference

Frizzell, Nell. “Beyond Cuts: The Many Roles of a Writer’s Editor.” The Guardian. 12 March 2014. Accessed 15 May 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/mar/12/writers-editors-eleanor-catton-booker-winner.

BAILEY CUNDIFF (bailey.cundiff@ttu.edu) is a PhD student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX, where she teaches introductory technical communication to nonmajors. She has worked as an editor and writer in multiple industries and capacities and integrates this work with her academic exploration of technical editing.

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