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Entering the Field of Technical Editing: Many Approaches

A summary of a panel discussion at the Bay Area Editors’ Forum, by Micah Standley

Panelists: Patricia Egan, Robyn Brode Orsini, and Lyn Smirnov
Forum date: Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Forum organizers: Patricia Egan and Karen Asbelle

Our September meeting focused on the educational opportunities available to those who want to enter technical editing. Three distinguished technical editors led the discussion: Patricia Egan, who teaches in the Technical Communication program at UC Berkeley Extension; Robyn Brode Orsini, who teaches Professional Editing in the SF State Technical and Professional Writing program; and Lyn Smirnov, technical writing instructor at De Anza College in Cupertino.

One of the main functions of an editor is to serve as “another pair of eyes”–evaluating and refining an author’s work to make it as clear as possible. In technical communication, an editor’s role is often critical to a project’s success. One classic example is Edward Tufte’s analysis of the O-ring charts that NASA engineers used before the space shuttle Challenger’s fateful launch, as shown in his book Visual Explanations. The data in the charts were so poorly presented graphically that it’s easy to see how the engineers glossed over the information. If the data had been shown in a more easily comprehensible way, the Challenger disaster might have been avoided.

So, what’s the difference between technical editing and general editing?

It comes down to subject matter. When asked to name some industries where technical editing is used, the panelists listed these examples: software and computers, medical, manufacturing, finance, engineering, science, bio-tech, legal, government, and gaming. According to Orsini, the need for technical editors in the fields of “green” technology and sustainable energy sources is definitely on the rise: “We’re at a major tipping point in that industry, and the need for technical editors will be huge.” The panel agreed that the first thing you need when entering technical editing is interest in the subject matter. “You might have a degree in it, you might have a professional background in it, or you may have interest in it and you want to just go in and learn, but you have to decide what interests you and go after it,” said Orsini.

What if you have an interest in a particular field, but no experience?

Get creative. One audience member expressed an interest in the biotech field but said that all of her experience was in software development. Smirnov immediately suggested applying the audience member’s background to the biotech field by seeking out those companies that develop medical software. “Reach out to them and see if you can come in through the high-tech side; then you can absorb all the buzzwords by osmosis and slide in. You may be narrowing your choices initially, but you would be leveraging your strengths to get your foot in the door.”

Egan offered a handout discussing how technical editors add value to content and contribute to quality assurance as a compelling case for including technical editors in the publication process from the earliest stages of development, as described by Corbin, Moell, and Boyd. (Corbin, M., Moell, P., and Boyd, M. (2002, August). Technical editing as quality assurance: Adding value to content. Technical Communication, 49(3), 286-300.) Even if an editor is not a subject matter expert in a particular field, he or she can certainly bring significant value to a project. Egan recounted a project early in her career when she was asked to edit a peer-reviewed article written by a team of researchers from two different companies with four different native languages represented–and the article was being published in the Netherlands. “I was very clear and told them, ‘I can’t validate your content; I don’t have that background. What I can do is make sure that your work conforms to a style guide and ensure that there are no inconsistencies in the article.’”

The Bay Area has long been a technology hub in America; many employment opportunities exist for technical editors with an interest in a specific industry and the necessary skills. According to Egan, one of those necessary skills is successfully passing an editing test. When she first moved here, Egan was sent by a recruiter to a potential employer who administered an editing test that lasted an entire day. A grueling experience to be sure, but Egan passed and got the assignment. One of the first handouts she gives her students is an article Geoffrey J.S. Hart wrote for Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication. The article explains what to expect from such a test and some strategies for successfully completing it. (Hart, G. J. S. (2003, April). Editing tests for writers. Intercom, 12-15.)

As educators in technical editing, the panelists also reviewed the specific aspects of their respective programs and the educational opportunities available to those who may want to enter the field. Each program takes a comprehensive approach by teaching the general skills necessary–grammar and syntax review, editorial querying, creating style sheets, creating and developing the author-editor relationship–and then applying those skills to real-world situations in technical communication.

In Smirnov’s experience, “A technical editor needs to be a jack-of-all-trades. You need to be able to go in and do the ‘deep dives’ as well as the copyedits.” Smirnov said that most of her students are working professionals who want to branch out into new aspects of their field and develop new skill sets to give themselves a competitive advantage. Orsini summed it up this way: “There are many approaches to entering the field of technical editing. When I started editing corporate annual reports, I didn’t know what I was doing. But I was fascinated by what was being presented, so I sat down, analyzed the information, and took it one step at a time.”


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