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"Jabberwocky" and the Technical Editor

Peggy Emard

Technical editors may experience anxiety and trepidation when asked to edit documents with unfamiliar content. As an example, you may be a talented and an experienced editor of computer handbooks, but how would you edit a graduate-level textbook on biochemistry? A dictionary, a coach, style sheets, and a basic biochemistry textbook would be useful tools. However, you may not have time to gain extensive knowledge about an unfamiliar topic. If you know how to understand the meaning of unknown words through context, you can achieve editing expertise more quickly.

You can learn about context by studying "Jabberwocky," a poem by Lewis Carroll. "Jabberwocky" has many nonsense words and unfamiliar terms. What's the relationship between poetry and technical editing? When you understand the context of unknown words and examine their use, such as in "Jabberwocky," you can begin your editorial review. Here's the first stanza of the poem:
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Does this stanza show any action? Is the stanza descriptive or narrative? You don't understand some of the words, yet you can put them in context. One way to put the words in context is to underline the words you understand in the line below.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did you underline three words? You know that "'Twas" means "It was," "and" is a conjunction, and "the" is an article.

Now that you've identified those elements, what can you say about "brillig," "slithy," and "toves"? "Brillig" is a reflexive pronoun, because it reflects back to "it." "Toves" is a noun because it's plural and because it's logical to place a noun behind "the." "Slithy" must be an adjective, because it describes the "toves."

Let's identify context with a biochemistry sample. Underline the words you understand in the line below, then edit the text.
The synthetc oligonucleotide can be used as primers for D NA replication in vitro.

You probably underlined at least eight words. What can you determine by looking at the context of the words you don't understand? "Oligonucleotide" is a noun, because "synthetic" is an adjective. Placing "primers," "DNA," "replication," and "in vitro" in context can also help you understand the sentence structure and grammar.

What did you mark as edits? Correcting the spelling of "synthetic" and eliminating the space in "DNA" are two corrections. Did you notice that it's difficult to determine if the subject, oligonucleotide, should be singular or plural? When you apply rules of parallelism to oligonucleotide and primers, the context helps you to identify the problem. Should "in vitro" be in italics or roman? If your style sheet doesn't answer the question, consult a scientific dictionary.

The final exercise is a computing sample, "Viruwormy," written by Ed Combs. Underline the words you understand in the stanza below, then edit the text.
'Tws eunicks and the asky chars
Did grepp and skanneff at the nk:
All mimdy were the hiperstars,
And the radddddd ravs outsmick.

A bit more difficult, yet context helps you begin the editorial review. You know that "'Tws" probably means "It was," so the spelling should be corrected. The author should decide whether to use the unique spelling or the conventional "ASCII," while "nk" probably needs a vowel. "Hiperstars" is a nonsense word, yet context might cause you to question whether or not to replace the "i" with a "y," to spell "hyperstars." Finally, context and experience tell you that words in the English language don't have six "ds" in a row.

Writers want technical editors that help them communicate clearly, succinctly, and accurately. When you, as a technical editor, use context to work on unfamiliar topics and concepts, you maintain self-confidence and credibility. This leads to trust and good communication between you and the writer, goals that would be shunned only by a Jabberwock.

Thanks to Keith Lim for permission to use "Viruwormy," available on his Jabberwocky Web site at http://www76.pair.com/keithlim/jabberwocky/index.html .

Peggy is a medical editor at a pharmaceutical company in Indianapolis, Ind. She has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience in medical, scientific, computing, business, and consumer-related fields. When she's not snicker-snacking technical documents with her vorpal pen, Peggy writes romantic fiction. You can reach her at pegemard at aol.com.

Page last modified on Sunday, June 01, 2003 08:00:00pm EDT
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