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Technical Editors as Advocates

By Michelle Corbin | STC Associate Fellow

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 michelle.l.corbin@gmail.com.

In my professional blog back in 2011, I declared technical editors to be arbiters of quality when I outlined my definition of technical editing. In an article in Intercom from 2012, my co-authors and I asserted that technical editors are advocates for the customer (user), the company (our organization), and the product itself. In one of my “Editing Matters” columns last year, I declared technical editors to be quality champions. In this column, I focus on my previous assertion about our role as quality advocates by addressing how the different types of edits that we do (comprehensive editing, usability editing, and copy editing) are like performing different types of quality assurance testing for each of our stakeholders (see Resources).

To perform these different types of edit, and by extension the different types of quality assurance, we need to know how our company and team defines quality. Each team that you work with will have their own take on quality attributes. At IBM, we use the nine quality characteristics outlined in Developing Quality Technical Information (task orientation, accuracy, completeness, clarity, concreteness, style, organization, retrievability, and visual effectiveness). Yoel Strimling includes an exhaustive list of definitions of quality in his Technical Communication article on what documentation quality means to readers (see Resources), and while few definitions include all nine, at least one of the nine characteristics is included in each definition.

Advocates for the Company

Most people likely consider technical editors to be advocates for the company they work for, by completing copy edits to ensure branding, naming, trademarks, and other legal issues do not arise in the product information. Additionally, these copy edits advocate for the company by improving the clarity and translatability of the information, reducing costs of translation, and ultimately reducing support costs due to incomplete or unclear information. While this is a critical type of editing that technical editors complete for the team, it cannot be the only type of editing completed.

Advocates for the Product

The documentation, in all its forms (embedded, online, printed, and so on), is part of the product, and as such, it must contribute to the overall usability of the product. Even in today’s agile, iterative development environments, technical writers and technical editors still must advocate for the documentation to be done alongside the product. One type of editing that technical editors can complete is a usability edit. Often, usability editing is just merged in with comprehensive editing, but I think it deserves to be called out on its own.

Technical editors certainly ensure that content is accurate and clear, but they must also make sure that it is usable. They test the information and verify that users will succeed by finding gaps, errors, or ambiguities in the information. Technical editors verify the navigation to ensure the information can be found, but they also try to verify the steps in the information, to ensure they can be easily followed (or if there is a usability issue in the product itself).

Advocates for the User

While technical editors do advocate for the company by completing copy edits, and they advocate for the product by completing usability edits, technical editors ultimately advocate most for the users by completing comprehensive editing on the information. In a comprehensive edit, technical editors ensure the technical accuracy of the information, reduce the amount of information to only what is truly needed, organize (or reorganize) the information to help the user find and use it easily, and decide the best way to apply style and word usage, all based upon a detailed understanding of the users. (You cannot advocate for the user if you do not fully understand them!)

Technical Editing Is a Quality Assurance Process

In this special issue about content quality, it seems appropriate that most of my references are to articles written about technical editing as a quality assurance process. It all comes back to that statement: Technical editing is a quality assurance process. You might define quality differently over time—either by characteristic or by stakeholder—but technical editors will always be the ones that help you verify that you’ve delivered high-quality information.

Resources

Corbin, Michelle. “Defining Technical Editing.” Arbiters of Quality. 31 May 2011. https://techeditors.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/defining-technical-editing/.

Corbin, Michelle. “It Depends…” Intercom 65.6 (2018): 27.

Corbin, Michelle, Pat Moell, and Mike Boyd. “Technical Editing as Quality Assurance: Adding Value to Content.” Technical Communication 49:3 (2002): 286–300.

Corbin, Michelle. “We Are the (Quality) Champions” Intercom 65.5 (2018): 27–28.

Moell, Patricia, Michelle Corbin, Mary Jo David, Carol Lamarche, and Jenifer Servais. “The Evolving Role of the Technical Editor” Intercom 59.8 (2012): 6–9.

Strimling, Yoel. “Beyond Accuracy: What Documentation Quality Means to Readers.” Technical Communication 66:1 (2019). https://www.stc.org/techcomm/2019/02/04/beyond-accuracy-what-documentation-quality-means-to-readers/.

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