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Editing More than Words

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 prior “Editing Matters” column (see Resources), I explored the idea of how technical editors are advocates of quality, or as I like to say, arbiters of quality (it’s the name of my professional blog). For me, it all comes back to the argument that technical editing is a quality assurance process, whereby technical editors must verify the quality of the entire technical communication product and not just the words.

I’ve actually been musing about this idea of “editing more than just the words” for almost a decade, publishing an Intercom article about editing embedded assistance (see Resources), writing a blog post (titled “Let Go of the Words?”), working a module into the STC Technical Editing Fundamentals certificate course that I co-taught with Linda Oestreich, and most recently, presenting this topic at a WritersUA East conference in 2018.

Thinking Differently About Technical Communication Materials

As technical communicators, we deliver all types of technical communication materials—print, online, and multimedia. All of these certainly contain words, but they contain so much more than words. In fact, I would argue that all of these have user interfaces. Why am I making a connection between technical communication materials and user interfaces? Because I think this concept helps us step away from focusing on just the words.

Wikipedia defines a user interface in these words:

The user interface (UI), in the industrial design field of human–machine interaction, is the space where interaction between humans and machines occurs. The goal of interaction between a human and a machine at the user interface is effective operation and control of the machine and feedback from the machine which [sic] aids the operator in making operational decisions.

They provide examples of hardware and software user interfaces, but I believe that our technical communication materials—whether they are in print, online, or multimedia formats—are also a user interface, as they are a “space where interaction between humans and machines occur.” You might say that the technical communication materials are an extension of the hardware or software and become a part of the interaction. For example, instruction booklets for putting together furniture become user interfaces to all that hardware in the box. Consider, as well, your printer and the iconography on the status display or on the paper drawer.

Let’s look at each type of technical communication material and see how we can edit more than just the words.

  • Printed materials, including books, reports, pamphlets, and quick-reference cards. While we obviously consider tables of content and indexes in the longer forms of printed materials, what should technical editors consider about the user interface of pamphlets and quick-reference cards? What about the quality of the card stock on which it is printed? What about the amount of whitespace used in what’s likely to be a single piece of paper? Both elements have an impact on the experience users have with this user interface for the product.
  • Online materials, including PDF files, online help files, embedded user assistance, online documentation, and Web pages. Because these are delivered online, it is sometimes easier to see the connection to the software user interface (especially with embedded user assistance being an integrated part of a product’s user interface). What else should technical editors consider to be part of a user interface, where they should go beyond editing the words? Consider a Web-based online documentation system: How is the linked content displayed to the user, either replacing the existing window or opening in a new window or in a pop-up window? If different styles of linking are available, the editor must be aware of these link styles and know which type of interaction their users need.
  • Multimedia materials, including animation, screencasts, videos, and podcasts. While technical editors can certainly edit the words that display or are heard in these types of multimedia materials, technical editors need to consider whether the tone of voice of the speaker is going to lull the users to sleep, and they should consider whether the animation is too simplistic to communicate the technical concept.
Editing User Interactions

To be an effective technical editor and edit these user interfaces—and the user interactions—we must get involved earlier in the process in the design phase. Andrea Ames has frequently said (see Resources) that technical communicators need to “think more, write less,” and contribute to the design of the interaction, not just the design of the information. This idea of “less is more” is also weaved throughout Ginny Redish’s chapters on purposes, personas, and conversations in Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (see Resources).

Finally, I acknowledge that the words are part of user interaction, and we must be able to choose the right ones in the user interfaces we are developing. I stumbled across a wonderful UX Booth article, “The Grammar of Interactivity,” that does a great job of marrying the words to the user interaction design—specifically in the case of buttons, but I believe that his argument can be applied to other user interface elements as well.

Let me wrap up this column with what seems to be my common refrain: Technical editors must know their users and those users’ tasks to understand the user interactions, consider all of the words in the users’ contexts, and ultimately go beyond editing more than just the words.

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.

Resources

Ames, Andrea. “Enabling Progressive Information Disclosure with the ‘Stages of Use’ Model.” Proceedings of the Society for Technical Communication’s 59th Annual Conference. Arlington, VA: Society for Technical Communication, 2012, pp. 177–188.

Cantella, J., and Michelle Corbin. “Embedding the Editor: Tips and Techniques for Editing Embedded Assistance.” Intercom, December 2012.

Corbin, Michelle. “Technical Editors as Advocates.” Intercom, December 2019.

Corbin, Michelle. “Let Go of the Words?” Arbiters of Quality (blog). 12 February 2013. https://techeditors.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/let-go-of-the-words/.

Redish, Ginny. Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, 2nd Edition. Waltham, MA: Elsevier, 2012.

Richards, Jonathon. “The Grammar of Interactivity.” UX Booth. Accessed 10 November 2019. http://www.uxbooth.com/articles/the-grammar-of-interactivity/.

“User Interface.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed 12 January 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_interface&oldid=922836727.

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