As an academic who teaches technical editing to undergraduates, I wanted to know what employers’ expectations are for their new hires. In September, I asked the discussion list: “What would you expect from a new hire who has completed a technical editing course (beyond being well-versed in grammar, mechanics, and punctuation)?”
I received 18 responses to my question, and the range of issues raised by the listserv participants surprised me. While some of the responses stressed knowledge of the basics (strong knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and style guides), other responses were less focused on editing mechanics, concentrating instead on adept interpersonal skills and familiarity with various technologies. The technical editor’s responsibilities extend beyond grammar checking; the editor must be able to ensure consistency, logical structure, completeness, usability, and effective communication among all parties.
Grammar and Mechanics
While any company should be able to safely assume that a new technical editor would have a solid command of grammar, punctuation, usage, and mechanics, this is not always the case. Several respondents emphasized that this basic knowledge, which I assumed applicants would possess, was lacking. One respondent, Candy Jenkins, said, “I don’t believe enough emphasis is stressed on grammar and mechanics in institutions of higher learning, so having a good foundation in that is important.” Many companies use editing tests to ensure that their applicants have this most basic editing knowledge.
New editors must be familiar with standard proofreading marks and be experienced with using more than one style guide, especially the more widely used guides such as APA, Chicago, and AP. Because editors are divided regarding the use of soft copy and hard copy edits (see “Paper, Screen, or Scissors? Editing on Hard Copy or Soft Copy,” Corrigo, July 2007), editors continue to use proofreading symbols and authors rely on a standardization of these symbols to understand the edits. With the knowledge of various style guides comes an ability to create and maintain an in-house style guide (or a document-specific style sheet) to promote consistency. Furthermore, new editors must acquaint themselves with whatever style guide the company uses. Virginia Janzig remarked, “The editor needs to find out what style guide is used and then use it even if the editor doesn’t agree with some of the guidelines.” This knowledge allows the editor to edit with confidence by referencing a standard to support edits and make only necessary changes.
Editors must be able to adeptly defend their edits across many levels of an organization’s hierarchy. Their edits must be based on sound reasoning (or a notation in a style guide) and readability (as defined by the user or audience). To do this successfully, a new editor must make intelligent edits, write helpful and respectful queries, and persuasively communicate the changes to the author(s). These skills allow the editor to assist the author and to advocate for the user without projecting an “I-just-got-my-degree-and-know-it-all” attitude. When a new editor explains her edits to an author, she must do so with tact. And, according to Jennifer Coury, “[Editors] should always be able to gracefully explain [their] edits (either by e-mail or on in person).” Not only should effective editors be able to write clear queries within the document, they should also be able to discuss the emendations with the author through e-mail, in person, or on the phone.
While many technical writers and editors wish they could work alone, it just isn’t so. “Gone are the days when the editor sits alone in a corner, rarely to be approached except in times of grammar crises,” wrote Catherine Rudiger. New editors, especially, must integrate themselves into whatever project, big or small, they need to accomplish. This element requires, as Stephanie Weiss explains, “teamwork, flexibility, follow-through, and project management skills.” All too often, junior employees defer to their more senior colleagues. A successful technical editor, regardless of rank, must communicate clearly to writers of all skill levels and not be intimidated by a person’s degree or seniority. Good communication allows consistent editing of documents across organizational lines and document versions.
Documentation consistency requires an editor to look beyond sentence-level edits to examine page design, template use, layout, and font. With this editing task, a new hire must refer to a style guide or documentation guidelines to maintain the organization’s “look and feel” for documents, whether delivered in e-versions or in hard copy.
New hires must be familiar with various technologies: Web, content management systems (CMSs), advanced features of word processing, XML/DITA, and FrameMaker, to name only a few. As Jim Purcell wrote, “Nothing irritates writers more than editors who know language but have no idea about technology.” A familiarity with technology allows a new hire to acclimate quickly to a new position without extensive (and expensive) training. With the job market growing ever tighter, new employees in technical writing and editing must demonstrate complex skill sets. This includes, as Christina Bottomley emphasized, “the ability to upload docs to a website, learn a CMS, follow a style guide, and update changes in multiple docs.” An interest in technology helps new hires investigate editing options and delivery methods. It also and keeps them on the cutting edge of software packages.
In the global economy, technical writers and editors must prepare for their documents to be translated into other languages. With this in mind, an editor must be able to “meet the challenges of creating documents that will be translated” and understand “strategies for keeping translation costs low,” according to Julie Kumasaka. This editing skill involves an eye for consistency in usage and terminology, avoidance of jargon and idioms, and clarity of expression. In addition, a new editor may have to justify these types of edits to an author persuasively and confidently. Furthermore, knowledge of another language aids in the task of translation and deepens an editor’s understanding of English usage.
As I have researched undergraduate technical editing courses across the country, I have found that many address the issues expressed in this discussion This discussion opened my eyes to the complex nature of technical editing and created an avenue for more effective instruction. The editor is ultimately responsible for ensuring the author’s message seamlessly reaches its audience. At times, educators become removed from the work world, and we (educators) need to update our skill set and corporate knowledge. From the detailed comments I received, educators cannot take anything for granted when it comes to preparing undergraduates for “the real world.”