Features May/June 2023

A View of Technical Editing Through Tools and Technologies of the Past

By Paula Robertson | Associate Fellow

An interpretation of technical editing history drawn from interviews, discussions, and reference material

Defining the Past

To state the obvious, “the past” is a very long time. To define a historical scope for the past of technical editing—the persons, the practice, the profession—one must not only decide, When did the past “end” as time became the present?, but also ask, When did the past begin?

Factual narratives about the history of editing—separate from writing—are few. As of 1961, Clarke stated, “Not much has been written about the history of technical editing at all.” Even now, I found that it’s more fruitful, certainly less frustrating, to trace the history and impact of editing tools and technology. As Pringle and Williams state, “technical communication has always resided with technology” (2005).

Movable Type

This story begins with book publishing in early modern, 15th-century Europe. While an improvement over books printed from single-page blocks, the technology and speed of movable type production allowed for more human error. The accelerated pace resulted in errors from typesetters mis-setting type under increased pressure.

What’s more, for technical or scientific material, printers and authors could not expect accuracy unless someone with specialized subject-matter knowledge reviewed and corrected the material. Printers began to hire freelance scholars to correct books before mass publication. Some say that these specialists, hired for their scientific or language expertise, were forerunners of technical editors.

Style Guides and Proofreaders Marks

Fast-forward to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when printers began to create lists of items for authors, reviewers, and printers alike to check for consistency. These lists expanded and evolved into what we know today as style guides. The common understanding of an editor was the journalism model of newspaper editors, which we might say spawned the embryo of the notion of technical editing.

In the 1940s, a system of communication was developed—a set of proofreading marks—that became the standard shorthand among editors, authors, and printers for as long as handwritten markup survived. This common language of symbols communicated insertions, deletions, formatting changes, and comments to all involved in the process.

20th Century Overview

Before moving ahead, I want to provide a digest version of technical editing in the 20th century, based on an account in New Perspectives on Technical Editing (Murphy, 2010). In the chapter, “History and Trends in Technical Editing,” Thomas L. Warren offers his account of the history of technical editing based on literature review. He lays out “three indistinct periods of editing history,” which he called the Beginning, Middle, and Modern Periods as shown in Figure 1.

Certain aspects in the content seemed to lend themselves to a graphical comparison, which visually oriented learners like me might appreciate. Figure 1 is a compilation of my takeaways from Warren’s chapter; it shows parallels and progressions of selected trends in editing or editors from one period to the next.

Takeaways and Trends
Figure 1. Takeaways from “History and Trends in Technical Editing” (Warren, 2010).

The Beginning Period could be broken into a period leading up to World War II and the period between World War II and 1975. So the horizontal dashed line in the second row of that column indicates movement from the journalism model of an editor to more of what we know as technical editor in specialization, training, and edit focus. The rest of this article bears out and expands on this timeline.

Professional Advancement Spurred by World Disruption

In the first half of the 20th century, world war was the most significant catalyst for advancements in science and technology. Accordingly, “World War II spurred the growth and recognition of technical communication as an occupation…” (Malone, 2020). “Technical writing became recognized as a job title, if not a profession, during World War II, as the technology and logistics of battle became complicated and required standardized procedures, definitions, descriptions, instructions, and training” (O’Hara, 2001).

But by the late 1950s, academic training for the job of technical editing was still almost non-existent. Professional editors usually had college degrees in engineering or another science, English, or journalism, or a combination of both.

In the textbook, Technical Editing: An Introduction to Editing in the Workplace, Edward A. Malone (2020) states, “Editors in the ’50s and ’60s typically edited reports written by content specialists for other content specialists or manuals for nonexpert users, but the focus was not on the needs of the reader.” Technical communication publications recorded authoritative personal experiences and “how-to” explanations from editors’ practical work, which were a valuable source of training for others, not unlike textbooks and on-the-job training. Results of a 1968 questionnaire showed a diversification of editing roles and role types. However, the task of the editor remained similar to or was thought of as that of a newspaper editor.

Professional Organizations

In 1953, two technical communication organizations formed independently in the U.S. They merged in 1957. That organization joined with another like organization in 1960 and in 1971 became the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a community of academics and practitioners dedicated to advancement of the field of technical communication.

Spell Check and Levels of Edit

In 1979, IBM was granted a patent for a “system for automatically proofreading a document” (Malone, 2020), one of the first spell checkers for a word processing application. However, it would be a while before word processing tools became ubiquitous. Editing was still done on paper.

In 1980, Van Buren and Buehler released The Levels of Edit, which they developed for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology. This 26-page plan introduced strategy and structure into editors’ work. The Levels of Edit became the basis of editing education and raised the professional status of technical editors as producers of valuable, tangible customer products.

Electronic Editing

In 1980, a major development for the field of technical editing was the first word processor, Scribe, which allowed editing and formatting in a markup environment. Then the mass-marketed personal computer spawned the technological leap to desktop publishing. Needless to say, editors began the transition from paper to electronic editing. For some of us, the transition from print to electronic content delivery was a slow one; we were still marking up hard copy in the 1990s.

In terms of editing education, publications related to technical editing became more frequent and marked a move toward a research-based understanding of communication as a process. However, course textbooks for technical editing were few. Available texts about editing were still targeted to journalists.

In 1986, Microsoft introduced “redlining” in Word 3.1.1. In 1987, this capability was improved to “Marked Revisions,” which got the attention of more editors. In 1997, the feature was renamed “Track Changes” as we know it today (Malone).

The needs of the reader became a prime consideration as editors took on the role of reader advocate. Editors began to specialize in different areas of technical editing or different editing roles. In 1986, the first listservs (email groups) provided community and access to first-hand knowledge and experience of other technical editors.

Desktop Publishing

With creation and spread of the World Wide Web and the proliferation of computers, desktop publishing became more widespread. However, Rude and Smith (1992) found that very little software had been designed for editing someone else’s work. By 1995, the editor’s tools were WordPerfect, MS Word, FrameMaker, and similar applications. Other tools available were online dictionaries, encyclopedias, style manuals, reference works, and online archives. The discussion group, Copyediting-L was formed in 1992 for “editors and other defenders of the English language who want to talk about anything related to editing” (copyediting-l.info).

Technical editors began to use evidence from research to explain specific edits. Research gave insight into the cognitive strategies of the editing process and why editors can use the “knowledge base stored in their memory” (Warren, 2010) to justify edits. Higher education began to offer courses in technical editing. However, textbooks specifically to teach technical editing did not exist.

At least, writing and editing were acknowledged to be separate activities that require different skills: “Editors were seen as professionals who are highly skilled, not only in language, but also in communication…skillful in helping authors achieve their communication goals” (Warren, 2010).

Communication Technology Revolution: XML and DITA

In 1996, the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) published a working draft memo on extensible markup language (XML). Sheehan-Johnson wrote in his 1997 introduction to The Evolution of Technical Editing, the “Discipline of technical editing is evolving rapidly as our editorial methods and tools change. We now find ourselves in a much more complex editorial environment, as new media—such as hypertext, intranets, and multimedia—call for our attention.” Malone (2020) termed these changes “revolutionary developments in communication technologies and practices.”

These advancements in media types broadened the scope of content products that editors worked on: “Digital publishing environments spawned new genres, such as the help system, website, podcast, video demonstration, and wiki-based documentation. Editors [could] prepare docs for multiple outputs with emphasis on reduction of content” (Malone, 2020).

Online chat or email groups continued to provide community and access to first-hand knowledge and experience of other technical editors. STC programs provided another means of knowledge transfer. Web-based tools such as online forums, social networks, and the Google Suite enabled quick discussion and collaboration.

In 2001, IBM unveiled DITA for structured authoring. IBM editors noted in 2007, “this new focus on DITA elements and technology has recreated the role of the tech editor in the age of topic-based authoring” (Malone). However, DITA has not proven to have such a wide-reaching impact. Editors continued to use tools like Word, Acrobat, and Google Docs for collaborative markup.

In 2009, the category of Technical Writers was added to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), lending credence to the technical communication profession. It seems a given that technical writers had to develop and be recognized as a profession before technical editors could be. Does this pave the way for technical editors to be recognized?

Although the U.S. Government has had job titles of “Technical Writer/Editor” and “Technical Manual Writing/Editor” since World War II, “technical editor” is not listed among types of editors in the OOH. In their view it seems, “editor” is still associated with news reporting or traditional publishing. As of 2012, there were still no undergraduate degree programs in technical editing in the United States (Malone, 2020). Regardless, I’m hopeful and excited to hear what happens next in our story!

Back to the Past

Was journalism where technical editing started? Or was it with the subject-matter specialists who reviewed the mass of technical content produced in support of the Allies in World War II? It’s probably safe to accept that our earliest “amphibian ancestors” were mainly technical reviewers and editors of journalism in the heyday of the printing press. But it’s well known that the profession and practice of technical communication including editing got its legs courtesy of the U.S. Government for the purpose of war.

Since mid-20th century, “major changes in editing parallel the transition of the world’s economy from manufacturing based to service, technology, knowledge, and information based” (Malone, 2020). Sources call out the transition from manual and print production to the vast array of computerized components and aspects of publication as “the evolution” in technical editing. Today’s technical editors are specialists in the methodology and practice of technical editing, versatile, and adaptable to new tools and subject matter.


Clarke, E. 1961. A Guide to Technical Literature Production.

Johnson-Sheehan, R. 1998. “The Evolution of Technical Editing: An Introduction.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication.

Lytel, A. 1960. “What Kind of Editor Are You?” STWP Convention Proceedings. Society of Technical Writers and Publishers.

Malone, E. A. 2020. “Introduction: Looking Back and Moving Forward” in Technical Editing: An Introduction to Editing in the Workplace. Textbook.

Murphy, A. J., ed. 2010. New Perspectives on Technical Editing.

O’Hara, F. M. 2001. “A Brief History of Technical Communication.” STC 48th Annual Conference Proceedings.

Pringle, K., and S. Williams. 2005. “The Future Is the Past: Has Technical Communication Arrived as a Profession?” Technical Communication.

Rude, C., and E. Smith. 1992. “Use of Computers in Technical Editing.” Technical Communication.

Van Buren, R., and M. F. Buehler. 1980. The Levels of Edit, Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Walton, T. F. 1968. Technical Manual Writing and Administration.

Warren, T. L. 2010. “History and Trends in Technical Editing.” New Perspectives on Technical Editing.

Additional Reading

Carliner, S. 2015. “Technical Communication at a Crossroads.” Technical Communication.

Corbin, M. 2010. “The Editor Within the Modern Organization.” New Perspectives on Technical Editing.

Dayton, D. 2003. “Electronic Editing in Technical Communication: Part 1, A Survey of Practices and Attitudes.” Technical Communication.

Dayton, D. 2004. “Electronic Editing in Technical Communication: Part 3, A Model of User-centered Technology Adoption.” Technical Communication.

Grice, R., and R. Krull. 2001. “A Professional Odyssey: An Introduction to This Special Issue.” Technical Communication.

Kynell, T. 1999. “Technical Communication from 1850–1950: Where Have We Been?” Technical Communication Quarterly.

Malone, E. A. 2006. “Learned Correctors as Technical Editors: Specialization and Collaboration in Early Modern European Printing Houses.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication.

McDowell, E. E. 2003. “Tracing the History of Technical Communication from 1850–2000.” Technical Communication.

Paula Robertson HeadshotPaula Robertson (finelinesdba@gmail.com) has been in technical communication since 1995. Her history as a technical editor began in 2000, which prompted her to join STC. Throughout her career, she has written and edited a montage of technical content in diverse industries including commercial air, sea, and rail transportation; defense; telecommunications; civil engineering; pharmaceuticals; and STEM education. She has served the Society at local and international levels in various roles. Currently, she facilitates the STC Solo Technical Communicator SIG.