Scholarship Winner: Discovering the Breadth and Depth of Technical Communication and Technical Editing
by Lindsay Taylor
Editorâ€™s Note: Once again this year, the STC Technical Editing SIG offered scholarships to one undergraduate and one graduate student in technical communication. One part of the scholarship application was to describe a project or research that the applicant was involved in. We asked the scholarship winners to write a newsletter article summarizing their project or research. This is the first of such articles from our undergraduate scholarship winner.
Before taking my first undergraduate courses in technical communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had never imagined how complex and broad the field of technical communication really is. My coursework made it clear how much more I had to learn about technical communication, such as the different fields one can work in (science, engineering, etc.) or the different approaches to editing (individually and in a team).
To exemplify the variety of lessons I have learnedâ€”all precedents for future studiesâ€”I would like to describe two projects that were of particular value. Each demonstrates very different but equally important elements of my technical communication education. The first, for an introductory technical communication course, was writing and editing a semester-long research project on treatments for Parkinsonâ€™s disease in the fall of 2008. The second project, for a technical editing course, was a comprehensive team technical editing assignment on the UW Engineers Without Borders (EWB) handbook in March of 2009. I will describe what each project taught me about technical communication and how I will use that information in my future work as a technical communicator.
As an English major, I have written many research papers throughout my undergraduate career. In my first semester of the Technical Communication program, however, I was assigned to write a comprehensive, 15-page research paper on a scientific or engineering-related concept. While my background in science prepared me for the material, I was intimidated by the idea of writing a research paper of such magnitude outside of my own discipline. Even my work directing an interdisciplinary writing-tutoring program did not fully prepare me for the writing style used in technical communication, a style very different from what I was used to in the humanities. To write this particular research paper, I read countless samples of science writing and technical documents, meticulously followed my professorâ€™s (Laura Grossenbacherâ€™s) handbook on technical communication, and capitalized on peer-editing sessions with my classmates, all of which exposed me to different styles of technical writing. Though the report was supplemented by the edits and comments of my classmates, the paper was essentially an independent project that tested my ability to think critically and learn a new skill. By the end of the semester, I felt that I had produced an effective research paper and had discovered a new appreciation and passion for technical communication. This individual project reminded me of the importance of revision, word economy, and researching skills, all of which continue to contribute toward my success writing in a variety of disciplines. I know that I will remember this project one day when I am faced with a challenging technical communication assignment that tests my ability to be flexible and open-minded in learning new skills. I also value the independence that this project gave me: the ability to own a document from start to finish.
The second compelling technical editing project I worked on was with UWâ€™s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) handbook in a technical editing course in spring 2009. Last year, two senior UW-EWB members informally produced a comprehensive, 50-page manual for new EWB members, describing everything from the groupâ€™s mission to how to use Skype when working in developing countries. The handbook was an important resource but would benefit from improvements in content, organization, and design. Our class was assigned to help improve the overall appearance and effectiveness of the document. In teams of four, our class worked to comprehensively edit the entire document. Iâ€™d like to describe this project because the team editing approach was so distinct from writing an individual technical document.
While I have worked on group projects before, I had never quite tackled a project of such magnitude. I learned how to collaborate with a team of editors who all see different positive and negative elements of a document. Just to interact within a group of four editors was challenging, but beyond that, the five groups in the class had to agree upon several universal editing points within the document. This project was particularly fascinating because of the amount of communication that went on among and between groups. Editing this large document would have been time-consuming and rather impractical for just one editor. This team editing project truly taught me about the effectiveness of a group of editors, something that I had not completely understood before this course.
One additional technical editing lesson I learned from the EWB handbook editing project was the great difference between copyediting and comprehensive editing. As a Writing Fellow (a UW writing tutor), I was trained to prioritize global issues in a document; then, as the copyeditor of the Wisconsin Engineer magazine, UWâ€™s undergraduate engineering publication, I focused specifically on local, mechanical edits in documents. However, in addition to these issues, my work on the UW-EWB handbook taught me that the field of technical editing also requires analysis of organization and content and maintaining an open communication line with the author. My group and I closely collaborated with the authors of the handbook, and we were responsible for making universal changes throughout the document on both objective items, such as capitalization, and on more subjective topics, like the tone of the handbook. I discovered that several elements of editing are interdisciplinary, despite the great differences between writing styles and fields.
Both of these projects stemmed from great assignments set by excellent professors. I am grateful for the distinguished professors I was able to learn from during my undergraduate technical communication studies at UW. The lessons I gained from their projects were diverse, yet each provided fruitful practice for a future career in technical editing. I realize now that technical communication crosses many disciplines, topics, and writing styles, and as a recent graduate deciding on a career path, the diversity of the field is the most compelling factor to me. I will retain the lessons I have learned from both of these projects and will apply that knowledge in my continued education of the field of technical communication.