By Michelle Corbin | STC Senior Member
In Editing Matters, Michelle Corbin covers matters (topics) about editing that matter (are of consequence) to communicators of all kinds. Watch this space to understand more about editing and what you can do to improve the quality of your content. To suggest a topic or ask a question, contact Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Almost ten years ago, I wrote a chapter for the book New Perspectives on Technical Editing titled “The Editor Within the Modern Organization.” In that chapter, I narrowly focused on technical editors who edit for technical writers. I say narrowly, because ultimately fewer and fewer teams have dedicated technical editors on their teams (only four percent according to David Dayton’s study more than 15 years ago). The other interesting statistic from that study is that 33 percent of technical communicators reported they were writer/editors, and 25 percent reported that they participated in peer editing. I don’t think these stats have changed much over the years.
In this edition of my column, I will explore some technical editor tips and tricks for the technical writers and writer/editors who are not lucky enough to have a dedicated technical editor. These writers likely face these three very different editing tasks:
- Editing your own writing,
- Editing your SMEs writing, and
- Editing your peer’s writing.
Before I talk about each of these three editing tasks, here is a bit about the different types of editing. While technical editors often explore many different types of editing (or levels of edit), Carolyn Rude and Angela Eaton simplify them down to just two types of editing: comprehensive editing and copy editing.
In comprehensive editing, you review the overall content, its organization, style, and visual design to ensure readers can find and use the information.
When copy editing, you review the sentences for correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar to ensure readers can understand the information.
Editing Your Own Writing
If you are a team of one, or if you are on a team where peer reviewing is not happening, you must often determine how to edit your own writing. In this scenario, I offer these tips.
- Build time into your schedule to write your draft, and then put it away for a couple of days. By putting some time between writing something and editing it, you will catch more errors or issues. You’ll find missing information, organizational issues, and grammatical issues. Focus on the comprehensive editing, and don’t get too bogged down in the copy editing.
- Some writers swear by editing their writing in a different format. They use a different font in the source file, print it out, or read it online in a PDF file or in the delivery format. By working in a different format, you’ll likely find more errors or issues than if you work in your “familiar” source file.
- For copy editing, take advantage of whatever grammar checker or spelling checker you have available. Be sure to spend some time customizing it to focus on only those rules that matter to your team, and then let it be an “objective” set of eyes on your writing. I wrote an edition of this column about grammar checkers last year (Corbin 2018).
For example, I wrote this column one day, edited it the next day, and before sending it to the Intercom editor, I ran my grammar checker on it.
Editing Your SMEs’ Writing
Many technical communicators today have the title of “Writer/Editor,” and that’s because they are often editing—or really revising—the writing of their subject matter experts (SMEs). Their SMEs will write the document and then hand it over to them to edit (revise) and publish. In most cases, the SMEs will do a final technical review, coming behind the writer/editor. In this scenario, you likely perform both comprehensive editing and copy editing as you revise the content. In some teams, the SMEs will want to see the changes you are making (be sure to use a track-changes feature of some kind), but on other teams, the SMEs will happily review the revised content. My only tip or trick here: over-communicate with your SME about their expectations relating to your editing (revisions) before you begin your edit and when returning your editing for the final technical review.
Editing Your Peers’ Writing
I saved this scenario for last, because I think it is most important for teams without a dedicated technical editor to define and implement a peer editing (peer reviewing) process. If you’ve been reading my column over the past year, you know my soapbox: technical editing is a quality assurance process; all technical writing requires editing before it ships. To this set of writer/editors, I offer these tips:
- Create a standard, peer-editing checklist that everyone can use. Be sure to include a style guide cheat sheet for the most common issues that your team faces. If everyone works from and uses the same checklist, you’ll get a more consistent review of your content across the team.
- Remember the physician’s Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” The technical editor’s corollary to this oath is: “Always have a reason.” As you do your peer review, especially as you do any copy editing, you need to make sure that you have a valid reason that is backed by your style guide—or any style guide—for suggesting a change to the writer’s content.
- Be sure to show your work. Use a track-changes feature to let your peers see what you changed, and then insert comments for the changes to let them know why you suggested the change. By doing this, your peer will more readily accept your changes, or make changes of their own to address the issues that you identified.
In the end, the ultimate goal of any technical editor is to be invisible. Users rarely notice great writing, because they are too busy getting their job done; users often notice writing that has not been edited, when content is disorganized, missing critical information, or riddled with grammatical errors or typos.
Corbin, Michelle. (2010). “The Editor Within the Modern Organization.” New Perspectives on Technical Editing. Baywood Publishing Company, Inc.: Amityville, New York, 2010.
Corbin, Michelle. “[Grammar] Check Please!” Intercom 65.4 (2018): 28–29.
Corbin, Michelle, Pat Moell, and Mike Boyd. “Technical Editing as Quality Assurance: Adding Value to Content.” Technical Communication 49.3 (2002): 286–300.
Dayton, David. “Electronic Editing in Technical Communication: A Survey of Practices and Attitudes.” Technical Communication 50.2 (2003):192–205.
Rude, Carolyn, and Angela Eaton. Technical Editing (5th ed.). Pearson Longman: New York, NY, 2011.