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Scholarship Winner: Internships Stretching One’s Abilities as a Communicator


by Daniel Seipert

Editor’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 graduate scholarship winner.

I first discovered my interest in technical editing while an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I earned an internship with the Environmental Assistance Office on campus. As an intern I edited several laboratory reports on soil composition and water quality, some of which provided the extra challenge of editing for authors who were non-native English speakers. I enjoyed this work so much that I decided to pursue my Master’s in technical communication at East Carolina University (ECU). My graduate assistantships at ECU gave me many opportunities to work as an editorial assistant on projects for IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and the program committee for the 2008 Conference of the Council for Programs on Technical and Scientific Communication. I have also been able to work with the Renaissance Computing Institute at ECU, designing their website, newsletters, and brochures.

Perhaps my most challenging and fulfilling project, however, was a comprehensive edit of 12 chapters for an academic book on the global digital divide. One of the project’s most valuable qualities for me was the opportunity to again edit for English as a Second Language (ESL) authors. On the surface, this process required me to address syntactic and lexical issues common among ESL authors, such as misplaced prepositions, incorrect articles, and non-parallel structures. But, I also had to be aware of any underlying cultural considerations that may have led to these errors, rather than simply attributing them to lack of language knowledge. Even a seemingly straightforward issue such as spelling can be complicated by strong cultural opinions. For example, because each chapter was written by a different author from a different country, it was decided early on to use each author’s preferred spelling in his or her respective chapter, whether American, British, or Australian. I had to study and recognize these spelling variations rather than insensitively correcting them according to American spelling.

However, my role as editor went beyond linguistic copyediting. Indeed, as Enkvist (1997) notes, “the text is the father of the sentence”; thus, sentence-level errors were edited out of necessity, but my focus was comprehensive editing for the organization, conciseness, and style of the chapters as a whole. Some of the common issues addressed in my editorial comments included unrelated information packed into paragraphs, under-supported or ambiguous assertions, redundant and repetitious passages, and inaccurate assumptions about audience knowledge. Each of these items had to be addressed in a way that conformed to the authors’ original strategies and purposes for their chapters, not by merely re-writing bulky sentences. One chapter, for example, discussed the effect of globalization on traditional African music. Styles of music from different nations were listed, but unless the audience shared the author’s local knowledge of African music, they were unlikely to understand the significance of the different styles or their effect on each other. This example, like many others, could not simply be “corrected,” but had to be highlighted by a diplomatic comment to the author, addressing the author’s purpose in discussing African music and providing suggestions on how to better meet that purpose.

While these issues are not unique to ESL texts, editing for them as part of this project provided a particular learning experience for me. One of the overarching challenges was achieving cohesiveness among the different chapters while maintaining the authors’ individual voices. As the readers’ advocate, my goal was to collaborate, not co-author. This process, again, required cultural awareness on my part, as the authorial voices of this project were much more diverse than those in other projects.

On the sentence level, this meant allowing unusual—yet clear and correct—phrasing to remain as a type of “written accent” rather than enforcing my own American accent (Harris and Silva 1993, 531). At the organizational level, this meant being aware of cultural expectations and communication norms, especially the differences between what Edward T. Hall (1976) terms high-context and low-context cultures. As a member of a low-context culture that tends to favor the direct and explicit, I had to recognize that an author from a high-context culture may not necessarily view ambiguous statements or unnecessarily exhaustive introductions as areas needing improvement. In the author’s culture, the “ambiguous” meaning may be implied and the indirect presentation expected. Thus, rather than dictate American structure, my editorial comments reminded authors of the different contexts and expectations their readers may have and the effect the current version of text may have on those readers’ ability to understand the authors’ arguments.

Providing such commentary, however, was a challenge in itself. Because idioms common to my culture may not make sense to those of another, my comments had to be specific and concrete in order to avoid confusion. I could not use the shorthand of figurative language. Conversely, rules of politeness rely on a measure of indirectness, especially in high-context cultures. Thus, if too direct, my comments may be perceived as rude. Balance was required in order for my comments to be both effective and diplomatic.

Despite these challenges, I found the project very fulfilling. Not only did it give me valuable experience as an editor and provide me with promising professional contacts, but it also stretched my abilities as a communicator and collaborator as I learned to respect and interact within a more diverse community of writers.

Finally, I express my sincere gratitude to the Technical Editing SIG for awarding me this scholarship. It is both a great honor and a relief as it enables me to take another step forward in my career.

References

Enkvist, N. E. 1997. Why we need contrastive rhetoric. Alternation 4(1): 188–206.
Hall, E. T. 1976. Beyond culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday.
Harris, M., and T. Silva. 1993. Tutoring ESL students: Issues and options. College Composition and Communication 44(4): 525–537.




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