64.4, November 2017

Reconceiving Technical Editing Competencies for the 21st Century: Reconciling Employer Needs with Curricular Mandates

Susan Lang, Ohio State University and Laura Palmer, Kennesaw State University


Purpose: Current technical editing courses aren’t meeting the needs of industry. This manuscript provides readers with a survey of recent editing-related job requirements, gives a brief assessment of popular technical editing textbooks, and describes two iterations of an editing course redesign in which the authors gave students a broader exposure to editing than text and markup.

Method: The authors examined the job postings in conjunction with course descriptions, popular technical editing textbooks, and other media to gauge how well undergraduate classes were helping students gain necessary competencies for entering the workforce. Following, the authors redeveloped the curriculum for a 4000-level technical editing class. The curriculum reduced the focus on text editing and markup; instead, it framed the diversity of the profession to students through working with editing manuals/standards, MS Word and Adobe Acrobat, and audio, video, and websites. At semester’s end, students were asked to provide feedback on course and content.

Results: The revisions to the course disrupted student notions of pencils, paper, and grammar as the backbone of editing. Students were surprised by the new media focus but found it to be very useful. Most had little idea about the breadth of technical editing and enjoyed the exposure to multimodal editing. Most students, however, wanted more work with language basics.

Conclusion: Editing jobs are morphing and students need practice in new media environments. Students are able to consider editing competencies as extending beyond text and traditional markup. Yet, most still feel uncomfortable with their own expertise in those areas. Programs should develop more than one editing class: a basic class for language, tools, and technologies, and an advanced class focusing on specific editing topics, such as video, audio, images, and Web.

Keywords: technical editing, editing curricula, multimodal editing, new media editing competencies

Practitioners’ Takeaway:

Practitioners should:

  • Actively seek opportunities to join advisory boards with the goal of helping academics shape editing courses that meet real-world needs.
  • Create internship opportunities for students to contribute their expanded editing skill set in your company.
  • Speak to students in technical editing classes (face-to-face or online) about technical editing in your organization.
  • Review current job postings across multiple websites in order to modernize and better specify requirements for editing positions within your organization.


While the graduate curriculum in technical communication focuses on such topics as intercultural communication and the like, a staple of the undergraduate curriculum, technical editing, receives far less attention in academic programs. In this text, we argue that in academic programs, the pedagogy of technical editing is in critical need of a reevaluation, and that perhaps by reexamining the technical editing course, curricular committees can reconsider how well their program offerings are meeting the needs of their undergraduate students. We contend that technical editing receives relatively little attention in the academic world of technical communication, and, as such, the course has remained relatively static—and perhaps has even moved more toward a “classical editing” course. Yet the skills employers now expect of grads go far beyond classical editing. They expect some competencies in editing video, audio, Web—in short, content defined broadly, as discussed in the following pages; yet many programs still send students out with only classical editing skills, doing a disservice to both the student and employer. What to do? Our response was to examine job descriptions, articles, and textbooks, then revise a traditional technical editing course from one focusing primarily on text and markup to one that introduces students to editing demands of Web, audio, and video. This article focuses on what we learned about current technical editing needs in the workplace, how they informed the revision of our technical editing course, and the results of that revision.

The definition of “technical editing” is one that looms large for us as it seems many technical editing classes have morphed into classical editing—a review of grammar and language use for the printed page. Per Rude and Eaton’s (2011) description, technical editors work on documents with technical subjects; such editors may require specialized disciplinary knowledge in addition to language expertise. The other part of the technical equation for Rude and Eaton informs the ways in which an editor works with the subject matter “to analyze, explain, interpret, inform, or instruct” (p. 11). In sum, the authors situate the art and skill of editing as requiring knowledge in “both language and the methods by which we make sense of information” (p.11). For us, this frames editing as almost entirely a textually based process. To confirm our assumptions, we explored the field of technical editing in more depth. We began by examining job postings; reviewing the literature in technical editing, including articles and textbooks; and analyzing course descriptions from a variety of universities.

Current job postings

Our early research began with a scan of the job descriptions for editing positions. The descriptions made it very clear that editing, as conceptualized and taught in academia, is undergoing change. Positions today involve more than our textbooks and syllabi have ever envisioned. While it’s true that the basic tasks of any editor—researching, writing, and editing—are still part of many jobs, it’s not uncommon to see positions that ask for the aforementioned in addition to publishing articles, multimedia products, and other materials across a variety of platforms and channels. A quick canvas of such websites as Monster.com and Indeed.com revealed the following descriptions:

  • A university seeking an editor who uses the Web, audio, video, images, and other electronic media to support written material in telling campus stories and delivering strategic messages.
  • A satellite radio provider seeking an editor who can work with audio.
  • A major cable provider seeking an editor who can work with the Web, audio, video, images, and other electronic media.
  • A major governmental organization seeking an editor who can conceptualize, edit and publish blogs, stories, videos, photos, infographics, and audiovisual content.

This informal look at technical editing job descriptions gave us pause. As our brief review of technical editing course descriptions reveals, few of these competencies are present in our technical and professional editing classes. This is a serious weakness in terms of the future of editing, especially in light of emerging and morphing new media literacies. Five years ago, the 2011 report “Future Work Skills 2020,” examined the key drivers that would reshape the landscape of work and identified key work competencies required (p. 1). In its forecasts, Future Work Skills 2020 identified six predicted drivers of change for the workplace. In their list was New Media Ecology, defined as a new communication era with communication tools that will require literacies beyond text. The report states that:

New multimedia technologies are bringing about a transformation in the way we communicate. As technologies for video production, digital animation, augmented reality, gaming, and media editing, become ever more sophisticated and widespread, a new ecosystem will take shape around these areas. We are literally developing a new vernacular, a new language, for communication. (p. 4)

We saw that editing had a far broader purview than imagined, requiring not only competencies in multimodality but with various technologies related to the Web or to content management systems (CMS). We also noted that what we in academia call “multimodality” is called “content” in the professional world. In the postings, we often saw phrases related to “content design” or “content development.” While many academics may think of the word “content” only in relation to text, for practitioners, content refers to text, photos, multimedia, illustrations, video, and more. Content is therefore a broad term and, as such, has significant implications for how we think about the structure and design of a technical editing class.

A sample of jobs re-tweeted by the @stc_te_sig demonstrates the breadth of what editing positions may encompass:

STC Tech. Edit. SIG ‏@stc_te_sig May 19Documentation Engineer – Facebook – Menlo Park, CA http://dlvr.it/LLfsqc #job #techcomm

As one of our fantastic technical content editors, you will be part of the team responsible for quality, discoverability and accuracy of the content on developers.facebook.com. Your primary responsibility will be to make the content on the site as amazing as possible. This means sometimes you’re documenting something yourself, sometimes you’re editing someone else’s contributed content, and other times you’re fixing existing documentation in the site. Basically you will need to be a jack of all trades – writing, structuring content, coding, some light project management, and lots of communication.

STC Tech. Edit. SIG ‏@stc_te_sig May 21Web Editor, Consumers, Google Technical Services – Google – Mountain View, CA http://dlvr.it/LMXz12 #job #techcomm

In this highly cross-functional role, you’ll help writers develop clear, user-friendly online content for millions of people who use Google’s consumer products every day.


  • Help set and shape guidelines for online help content and user education.
  • Edit articles, scripts, and other educational materials.
  • Develop content strategy for multiple Google help centers. Set quality standards and measure content quality.
  • Work with content at many levels (Information architecture, style guides, templates, analytics).
  • Advocate online writing best practices.
STC Tech. Edit. SIG ‏@stc_te_sig May 25
Senior Technical Writer/Editor – Information Innovators Inc. – United States http://dlvr.it/LPSLMf #job #techcomm
The Web Editor’s primary responsibilities include developing and maintaining existing HTML template libraries and Adobe flash activities, preparation and/or editing of graphics and imagery, deciphering content and design from storyboards or other assets, HTML4/5, CSS, JavaScript, and other scripting-based tagging and coding, proofreading, and loading product content into the proper online content repositories within the company workflow and quality standards.

  • Create online web content per design of storyboards/documentation and in compliance with company standards and quality expectations.
  • Create multimedia assets per design and standards of storyboards. Graphic preparation and/or editing. Conversion and/or integration of audio/video into web friendly formats such as flash or HTML5.

Editing, it would seem, was changing dramatically in response to the emergence of delivering information in workplaces that had become multiplatform rich.

Articles and Other Media

We then turned to articles and other media to see if technical editing was covered more thoroughly with respect to what editors may be doing today. Some articles discuss expanded roles for editors, such as the 1998 piece by Williams and Harkus, “Editing Visual Media.” While extremely helpful in the era in which it was published, the Williams and Harkus piece focuses on static media. It appears a decade out from the time when multimodality is prevalent. In 2001, Don Bush, writing in the Intercom column “The Friendly Editor,” noted the changes in the field in “Editing is Magic.” Bush noted that technology is changing the face of technical editing and that many emerging jobs would require competencies with HTML, XML, or even usability testing. Bush aptly predicted that, as technology grows, editors will create their own positions.

Comments from a 2015 thread on the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) was enlightening as to how editing was being taught in academia. One of the queries on the thread asked if it would be “more important for a student to be able to identify problems in a manuscript than to mark a paper with a particular squiggle or slash.”

A reply to the post questioned this traditional editing practice and asked, “Do we really need to teach students to edit hardcopy anymore?” It was a worthwhile question and one that generated excellent conversation on the topic. Of those who responded on the thread, most still included copyedit marks on paper as a component of their teaching. This finding was interesting to us. That teachers of technical editing classes in 2015 were still talking about paper and the proofreading marks an editor might place on the page seemed very dated. We began to consider if practice and pedagogy had drifted apart beyond our expectations and what this meant for our students.

Publically accessible online resources, in contrast, provide students with myriad resources but little in the way of information on how the field may be changing or the need for new editing competencies. Sites vary in what they offer anyone seeking more information on technical editing, but little is groundbreaking. Online resources such as Technical Editing: Resources (https://www.prismnet.com/~tcm/program/course_resources/editing_resources.html) or Bay Area Editors Forum (http://www.editorsforum.org/) provide links to standard fare such as style guides, professional societies, and general resources. It is important to note, however, that most of the monthly forum activities are dated 2012 or earlier, with a number still showing dates from the 20th century.

What’s ironic is that most of these resources seem to ignore the job descriptions of the contemporary technical editor—a finding we have found compelling in terms of how we begin our courses. One of the initial exercises we have students complete is a survey of job sites, such as STC and monster.com, for technical editing jobs. We also ask them to talk about their ideal editing job—what would they be doing and need to know?

Considering the Technical Editing Textbooks

Next, we wanted to examine the popular textbooks used in technical editing classes. To determine which books were in demand, we used the seller’s ranking numbers from Amazon.com to verify which of the technical editing textbooks are most popular. Amazon’s ranking model has a best seller’s rank and, in a sub-category system, ranks books in additional detail. For our purposes, we were interested in the following ranking model:

  • Books > Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Technical
  • Per Amazon’s ranking system, the books examined here are:
  • Rude and Eaton (2010): #38 in Books > Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Technical
  • Tarutz (1992): #242 in Books > Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Technical
  • Amare, Nowlin, and Weber (2011): #480 in Books > Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Technical
  • Murphy (2010): #693 in Books > Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Technical

Where a publisher’s package existed—a textbook bundled with an online resource product—we selected to examine the textbook-only rank.

First, Rude and Eaton’s text, at #38, provides students with reliable information concerning copyediting, grammar, and even the architecture of information. One chapter discusses electronic editing through a brief overview of how soft copy editing can be accomplished; however, like the others, Rude and Eaton’s work does not address what technical editors are doing now on a daily basis. And it seems that those composing textbooks tend to believe that an editor’s tasks haven’t changed that much—digital editing still takes a backseat to hardcopy and traditional copyediting symbols in most of these texts.

Judith Tarutz’s 1992 text has not been revised since its initial publication but still ranks as #242 in bestsellers sales for the subcategory. Her text covers what one might have considered “the essentials” of print-based technical editing 25 years ago—in addition to discussing the role of the editor, she discusses the topic of editing in desktop publishing environments and whether or not “software can replace you.”

Amare, Nowlin, and Weber’s Technical Editing in the 21st Century (2011) situates itself as focusing on “not only the process of editing and the product that is being edited, but also on the process of becoming an editor” (Preface, xviv). Their text, ranked at #480 in sales, does include a chapter on working with tools and technologies with a discussion of Microsoft Word basics, such as using styles and generating tables of contents. Additionally, editing that can be done in Adobe Acrobat—comments, page-level modifications, minor text changes—is also briefly covered. Amare, Nowlin, and Weber include a timely three-chapter unit on editing for online publications. They discuss key issues such as HTML, readability, and organizational structures for Web-based documents. However, while their publication is more modernized than Tarutz’s, Amare, Nowlin, and Weber still omit what editors will undoubtedly need to know for current practice.

Avon Murphy’s 2010 edited collection, New Perspectives on Technical Editing, offers a good overview of technical editing but is not a textbook. While the chapters provide insights on the origins and practices of editing (e.g., Geoff Hart’s assertion that editors will need soft skills, software skills, and survival skills in their future jobs), they do not offer a complete course of instruction for what editors may be expected to do on the job.

Thus, what we see in the current literature is an impasse: No one has a singular direction with respect to our next steps. The common textbooks for technical editing classes, while covering text and print-based copyediting well, don’t address the diversity of the actual profession. Chapters detailing work with audio, video, accessibility requirements, and more were notably absent from these texts.

The State of the Technical Editing Course Description

For us, the question of how technical editing courses are framed for students was paramount. We had assumed that course descriptions would describe a fairly traditional model, one in which there is an emphasis on copyediting, markup, and other similar practices. It was important, however, to confirm if our assumptions were correct by seeking out samples of typical course descriptions.

An online search using the keywords “technical editing course descriptions” provided us with overviews of various classes at a variety of universities. These classes, all part of the offerings in well-established programs, told a compelling story. A sample of our results from the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) is as follows:

Rutgers University—Technical Editing 355:365

Technical Editing will introduce you to the basic principles of editing documents for grammar, syntax, organization, style, emphasis, and audience awareness. The course will focus on the role of the editor in organizational settings; the common methods of copy marking documents using established symbols and conventions; distinguishing between grammatical and stylistic emendations; the principles of contextual editing; basic editorial activities, especially in the context of collaborating on long documents; methods for analyzing, critiquing, and revising manuscripts for different audiences; and techniques for creating successful writer/editor dialogue. The course will also review the most common writing errors to increase your mastery of grammar, mechanics, punctuation, and spelling

University of California Extension—Basics of Technical Editing WCWP-40307

Learn the tools and techniques of technical editing and practice marking indisputable errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, and usage in technical documentation. Edit technical writing using MS Word and Adobe Acrobat (Reader or Professional), learn to communicate with authors and editors, and practice writing queries and creating style sheets. Get a perspective on the field. Whether new or seasoned, students completing this course are equipped to use and implement technical editing skills and tools in a variety of work situations.

New Jersey Institute of Technology—Professional and Technical Editing PTC 624

This seminar introduces students to contemporary editing strategies. As information managers within organizations, twenty-first century editors must be able to demonstrate proficiency in a wide range of areas, from working with writers to improve the tone of a manuscript to providing warranted evidence in support of copyediting changes. Topics will allow students to encounter a wide range of experiences, from production-oriented aspects of project management to document-based forms of electronic editing. Students will undertake simulations of information management, edit print and electronic media from a variety of fields, and complete a case study of their choice.

Northeastern University—Technical Editing TCC 3210

Examines the role of the technical editor in business, industry, the sciences, and within organizations. Identifies technical editorial techniques: proofreading, correcting grammar and syntax, correcting spelling, and researching technical terms and methods available for the analysis and critique of manuscripts/media. Describes working with authors, technical writers, and subject-matter experts (SMEs) such as scientists and engineers. Offers students an opportunity to practice technical editing skills, project editing, creating a consistent look and feel to documents/media, revising and rebuilding projects, working collaboratively, and presenting edits and corrections.

Arizona State University—Technical Editing ENG 374

Advanced writing course that prepares students to make informed decisions as editors and information designers. Involving the rhetorical and social perspectives of editing a text, this course simulates many of the experiences that editors and writers face in the workplace and provides opportunities for students to work collaboratively with authors inside and outside the classroom.

Throughout this interactive course, students will: learn principles for critical analysis of technical discourse; learn proofreading skills, copyediting techniques, and comprehensive editing procedures ,including working with authors from the beginning of the writing process to completion of a document; gain expertise in traditional areas of editing, such as style, grammar, punctuation, and formatting; work on editorial teams to learn to make informed rhetorical choices about the process of producing professional/technical documents; and learn to communicate professionally in a variety of business and technical applications.

The descriptions of classes at a broad sample of institutions demonstrate a focus text-based editing work. As we had expected, there was an emphasis on copyediting, markup, grammar, and other similar practices.

Multimodal Composing/Communicating and Editing

For over a decade now, scholars have noted the need for students to compose in multimodal environments: “In an increasingly technological world, students need to be experienced and skilled not only in reading (consuming) texts employing multiple modalities, but also in composing in multiple modalities” (Selfe & Takayoshi, 2008, p. 3). Indeed, many have echoed Takayoshi and Selfe’s call to have students become conversant with multimodal composing (Miller & McVee, 2014; Bowen & Whithaus, 2014; Anderson, 2008; Wysocki, 2007). Additionally, Gunther Kress (2001; 2014) and others have been examining from both theoretical and practical perspectives the role of multimodal communication in the sciences, particularly the scientific classroom. However, perhaps in the rush to teach students to create multimodal artifacts, we in technical communication didn’t think as much as we should have about how to teach them to act as editors of the same artifacts, especially those that are team-generated. We heard time and again “get them working with x because they are familiar with x,” whether “x” referred to Web-based writing, audio, video, or social media writing. But because students are familiar doesn’t mean that they are good at those things or that they recognize strengths or deficiencies in others’ digital publishing platforms or know how to articulate what they do see in those platforms. And if they don’t have these other abilities, as editors, they will not be able to articulate the issues with an artifact and make changes or issue recommendations for others to make changes.

Designing the Course: First Iteration

The course description of the Technical and Professional Editing course under examination provides only cursory information:

Methods of editing and publishing in business, science, technology, and the professions. Practical experience with editing reports and publications produced in the university and community.

In redesigning the syllabus, then, we clearly faced several challenges. First, based on our examination of course descriptions, textbooks, and other media, as compared to the jobs we saw online, our first step was to redesign the syllabus to make skills being taught match more closely what current editing jobs asked of applicants. Second, we needed to properly introduce students to the profession through the syllabus. We surmised correctly, as our results would bear out later, that students were unsure about what “editing” means, especially “technical editing.” They presumed editing meant grammatical correctness in text only. Or, as many hoped, the course would be centered on helping an author shape multiple character trajectories in swords and sorcery fantasy adventure. Key to our success would be how we brought multiple competencies into the course via the syllabus to encompass both the traditional and new conceptions of technical editing.

Our initial description and learning outcomes read as follows:

Course Description. While most people associate editing with red pencils and markup symbols, contemporary technical editing involves much more. In this course, you will gain experience editing print, Web, visual, audio and video “texts.” We’ll begin this course by asking “what do technical and professional editors do?” We’ll then spend a few weeks reviewing the tools of the trade that are critical to good editing—understanding rhetorical principles, elements of writing, basic rules of grammar and style—and learn to apply those using MS Word and Adobe Acrobat. We’ll then move on to theory and practice of editing audio, video, and websites.

Expected learning outcomes

Upon completion of the course, students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the principles of structural editing and copyediting
  • Use electronic tools to assist in the editing of text and Web documents
  • Apply principles by articulating editing strategies for websites, audio, and video artifacts through the construction of editing plans

We divided the course, then, into four modules. Each module would run several weeks, and, ideally, scaffold skillsets throughout.

  • Module 1: Editing Essentials
  • Module 2: Audio
  • Module 3: Video
  • Module 4: Editing for the Web

Module 1: Editing essentials

In the first seven-week module, students were introduced to the core concepts of editing. For us, that included considering the breadth and depth of what an editor does, so topics covered included a review of key rhetorical concepts, comprehensive editing, copyediting, and editorial markup. It also covered other activities we felt were important to the growth and development of our editors-in-training. We spent one day discussing the particular needs of editing for non-native English speakers and doing an in-class activity built around this premise. Also, because the class is “technical editing,” we felt it was important to have students explore not just job descriptions but the idea that medicine, biology, and even engineering have their own style guides that dictate conventions. Finally, this was the module where we introduced students to the advanced functionality of two commonly used software programs: Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat. Here, students explored advanced features and created and edited print-based tutorials for the class.

A note about the editing plan memos for modules two, three, and four

Given the emphasis in today’s workplace on workflows, simultaneous editing and synchronization, and access and versioning control, we wanted to impress on students the importance of a clearly composed memo to convey an editing plan to a team of developers and authors. The editing memo became the critical artifact produced, as it demonstrated each student’s ability to articulate ideas for improving the product in a tone and vocabulary considered professional and knowledgeable in relation to audio, video, and Web.

Module 2: Audio

The course then transitioned into the second module, audio editing, which lasted two weeks. During this time, students were introduced to a free audio creation and editing application, Audacity. After discussing basics of audio and audio editing and working with multiple track recordings in class, students created a 60–90 second clip on an editing topic that used at least two tracks (a minimum of voice and music, incorporating fades and transitions). We played these in class, had authors discuss the content, technical, and editing challenges they dealt with in creating the clips, and then every class member, based on their notes from the crowdsourced feedback sessions, wrote a brief memo to each of their peers with suggestions for an editing plan.

Module 3: Video

The video module also ran for two weeks. We first discussed basic elements of instructional videos, including establishing audience and purpose for the video, the scripting of standard introductory and concluding material, steps of the process to be videoed, and location and perspective for shooting. The class also looked briefly at the issue of quality of audio, images, and video. Armed with this information, students were to pick a poorly executed instructional video on YouTube for a task like learning a function in Word or Acrobat. Then, they were asked to determine, as editors, what feedback they would give the creators of the video for editing and improving the piece.

Module 4: Editing for the Web

In this module, the class was introduced to the basics of HTML and especially the relevance of HTML 5. Writing and editing for the Web, with an emphasis on a variety of screens was covered. This module also focused on two important editing tasks for the Web: 508 compliance and SEO (Search Engine Optimization).

Section 508 requires that technologies including websites are accessible to persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, the tags and code on many webpages do not meet compliance standards and require the work of an editor; thus, this was covered in our second module. SEO was another important task for an editor. SEO involves code-level work similar to that of 508 compliance. It also involves creating meaningful tags, researching/implementing key words, writing meta-information, and more.

Students turned in two assignments: the first dealt primarily with the 508 compliance—students were to evaluate public-facing site pages for compliance and write a memo to site creators with recommended changes. The second assignment was an editing memo to site creators that dealt with both content and design elements, recommending changes as appropriate.

Student reflections

Following the final class meeting, students were emailed a few questions and asked to respond via a hard copy memo left in the instructor’s mailbox (so that feedback would be anonymous). The questions included the following:

  1. Based on examining the various job skills and requirements (technical/inter-personal) for editors, how do you see yourself as prepared to enter the workforce?
  2. What do you think is the best thing you learned in this class? Explain.
  3. What surprised you the most about this course and its content? Explain.
  4. Do you feel your competency with written grammar has increased? If yes, how? If no, should this course focus more on integrating writing basics into the curriculum? Explain your ideas here.
  5. Do you see the content of this course as being valuable to other courses you’ll take both in the program and as electives? How?
  6. What should the course do differently next time, if anything? Anything else you’d like to add?

We received responses equal to course enrollment, and perhaps the most surprising response was that the majority believed that they would benefit from more time working on grammar and copyediting. However, a few respondents felt that grammar should not be heavily emphasized. As one student noted:

I believe the short lesson addressing particularly tricky grammar issues was perfect for this course. Basic grammar should not be an issue in a 4000 level English course, so soliciting students for grammar questions was an efficient and effective way to address the issue without sacrificing too much focus from the meat of the course. Furthermore, compiling the lesson into a short reference document was ideal. At this level, competency with written grammar should be part of the foundation that students bring into the course, so the goal should be to give us the tools to build on that foundation, and I think that goal was met. Taking time to look at style guides was also very beneficial: Not only does this help with grammar issues, it teaches us that even within the scope of “correct grammar”, there are still important choices to be made.

Another echoed these thoughts:

I enjoyed the grammar review. I don’t believe that this course should focus more on integrating writing basics; it’s a senior level English class. That’s got to be covered somewhere else. If that need isn’t already filled, I could see a one hour (online) required copyediting course being helpful, but there is really too much extremely valuable material to cover in the rest of the class to focus on something that English students should already know at this point in their career.

More representative of the group’s thinking in terms of grammar and copyediting were the following comments:

Overall my competency with written grammar has increased over the course of this semester. I think one way to further help students in this area would be to require a thorough grammar book to read and engage with over the semester. Perhaps, ten minutes per class period could be dedicated to talking about that required section.


This course was structured very well, but I would have liked to spend a bit more time with grammar and copyediting.

Other respondents also noted that they needed more practice applying rules of grammar in their own work, even to the extent of giving regular grammar quizzes. However, it was also clear that the group valued the variety of experience. Perhaps the following best reflects that thinking:

The best thing I learned is how little I know about the vastness of the editing field today. Specifically, I learned that I need to learn more about audio and video editing as well as web design in order to better equip myself as a prospective editor. I also had a very important realization early on in the course: When we analyzed that poorly written furniture assembly instruction manual […], as we passed the pages around, it really dawned on me that what we do as editors has a tangible impact on the world around us. This seems trivial, but I can be somewhat of a “tactile learner”. There is much to be learned from studying easily distributed PDF’s and books, but something about holding an artifact from the real world which epitomized poor editing drove home the idea that our job has serious implications and responsibilities. Needless to say, I found the exercise to be very beneficial.

These responses highlighted and generally praised the redesign; alongside, though, they demonstrated the inadequacies that several respondents felt in terms of what should be foundational knowledge for editors—grammar, mechanics, and the like. This bifurcated feedback indicates that the senior-level editing course needs a more structured system of prerequisites. However, before addressing that larger question, we chose to revise and reteach the course.

The second iteration: Fall 2015

We believed, based on instructor observation and student response, that we had a viable new syllabus; however, armed with what both instructor and students reported, we made a few changes to the syllabus for the Fall 2015 semester. Module 1, Editing Essentials, remained as was. However, we added supplemental readings that focused on basic grammar and mechanics that students were to complete during the first eleven weeks of the course. We also began the course with an editing exam that enabled students to see quickly what they knew and did not know in regard to grammatical conventions. The culminating activity of the first module, creating a knowledge base for using editing features of MS Word and Acrobat, remained the same.

Changes also occurred in Modules 2 (Audio) and 3 (Video). Another surprising development, given lore, was that many students were not familiar with working with audio or video as content producers, let alone editors. One or two were, as part of their current jobs, but for many, this was their first exposure to producing or editing audio and video. Given this inexperience, we told students to repurpose portions of their knowledge base material as the content to adapt for their podcast or screen capture video rather than making them develop new content. Thus, students could focus on the medium as the primary content—by using material that they’d previously developed, they could carefully consider how strategies they found effective for communicating in text were or were not adequate in the different medium and spend more time producing and editing material. To address the common concern that students needed more practice with print-based editing and mark-up, we workshopped the editing memos for both modules in class. Finally, we were able to introduce another workplace element, the dispersed workgroup, as the Fall 2015 course was a hybrid—half of the students were onsite, and half were online, and collaborations occurred in virtual space.

Student reflections

This group of students was posed a similar question set for a final reflection. Overall, students again found the course content useful and surprising in the ways it moved beyond copyediting—which was what most entered the course thinking was the primary task of editing. However, students in this cohort seemed to value the non-text based work more so than the work involving text-based editing, as the following indicates:

I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of editing projects that went far beyond old-fashioned copyediting. I found the Audio Editing Assignment and Video Editing Assignment particularly enjoyable, because they stretched my comfort levels. I had never created a podcast or a close-captioned video, so I was thankful for the opportunity to expand my multimedia-creating horizons.

Another student, a graduating senior, had this to say about the course:

Before taking English 4366, I thought a professional editor read and corrected grammatical errors. I did not however, understand how important it was to utilize basic editing tools that were in Microsoft Word or Adobe products. Using tools and techniques that aid your overall editing process increases how effective of an editor you can be to clients or a project team. I now understand being a technical editor goes beyond merely editing for grammatical errors and sentence structure, but also incorporates the purpose and structure within the documents during the editing process.

And, lastly, some students still returned to the focus on grammar and mechanics (here lumped under the term of “copyediting”):

There were a lot of things that we went over throughout the semester and they all had a major impact on me, but the one thing that stuck with me the most was copy editing. I am not in the field yet so I don’t really know how much it is actually used, but one thing I do know is that in the four years that I’ve been in college this was the only class that I’ve ever gone over it.

Lessons Learned

Given our experience with the first iteration of the course, did the lack of comments in the reflective writing indicate that we had solved the “grammar/mechanics v. other types of editing” dilemma? It’s tempting to think that, but likely not. Granted, the course’s official documents proposed more discussion of the rules of grammar and mechanics, but the realities of the course made us consider the following:

  • In a course with 160 minutes of instruction per week for 15 weeks, there wasn’t enough time to complete a systematic review of grammar and mechanics along with the many other demands of the course.
  • Students enter editing courses with a wide range of competence in fundamental skills (not only writing correct, standard, edited English but the ability to articulate and fix errors in said work); some need a much more comprehensive refresher than others—so is the editing course the place to make it happen?
  • The revised curriculum of the editing course adds demands on the instructor—she should be able to teach the composition and editing of artifacts in print, digital print, Web, audio, and video—current faculty teaching the technical editing course may or may not have that level of expertise in all areas.
  • The revised curriculum also turns the editing course into a survey course of sorts; while students can now claim experience with editing various types of artifacts, they certainly cannot claim professional competence with any of them.

Thus, while we can claim to have created an editing course more in step with the needs of those hiring professional editors, we can clearly do more to prepare our students for the 21st century workplace in terms of technical editing:

  • Integrate editing components into such courses as advanced Web design, information design, and the like.
  • Create a supplemental “intensive copyediting and grammar course” to meet the needs of students who believe they need a refresher in rules of standard edited English along with additional practice in recognizing and marking up these errors.
  • Create a second course, “Editing for Audio, Video, Images, and the Web,” that students take following the print and digital text editing course

In Higher Ed

While we see our recommendations for revised technical editing classes as necessary for technical communication programs and their students, we also understand that implementation may present several obstacles, as follows:

Faculty competencies

As we stated earlier, many faculty may possess neither the comfort nor expertise with moving a technical editing class toward multimodality. Rather than feeling obligated to be the “Sage on the Stage,” faculty should embrace learning with their students and exploring tools and technologies. Many universities offer free short courses as part of their teaching and learning opportunities for faculty.

Curriculum battles

The pitfalls of the curricular approval processes at colleges and universities are especially noteworthy. Thus, implementing our recommended changes in terms of both modify existing courses or creating new ones may not be easy. Digital technologies and emerging media courses are hotly contested commodities in higher education. Programs in communication studies, new media, instructional design, and more all lay claim to the digital domain and argue vigorously against other programs or departments adopting technology-focused classes. It will be critical for departmental committees to frame the context of technical communication and technical editing carefully in order to pass various committees reviews

Student perceptions

Students weren’t displeased with the course—far from it. However, marketing technical editing classes, especially with the content proposed here, will be critical. Differentiating the content from editing classes in other disciplines (journalism, public relations, marketing) will be important as will ensuring students in other disciplines aren’t blocked from taking the class due to a lengthy string of prerequisites. Beyond freshman English classes, students should only require the institution’s introductory technical writing class.


We believe technical editing courses require significant revision in order to meet the marketplace demands for new editing competencies. While some editing jobs will fit the framework of the traditional technical editing class, it is clear to us that the field is changing. Students, however, still want to be comfortable with copyediting but are receptive to the idea that editing now encompasses more than spelling and grammar.

To make these changes, academic programs will need to consider not only one course in editing but potentially a sequence of courses that incorporates the fundamentals and new digital competencies required for editing. These changes won’t come without challenges for colleges and universities, but our students will be better prepared for the work they will do right after college and throughout their careers.


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About the Authors

Susan M. Lang is Director of the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing and Associate Professor at The Ohio State University. In addition to technical editing, her research interests include big data as it applies to teaching and assessment, writing program administration, and social media integration. Prior publications have appeared in CCC, JTWC, WPA Journal, Computers and Composition, College English, and various edited collections. Email: lang.543@osu.edu.

Laura Palmer is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Technical Communication and Interactive Design at Kennesaw State University. Her current interests include programmatic redesign and development of technical communication programs. Additionally, her research interests center on new directions for the profession in the areas of social media and regulatory compliance, SEO, and analytics. Email: lpalme32@kennesaw.edu.

Manuscript received 8 September 2016, revised 13 March 2017; accepted 3 April 2017.