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Learning the Ins and Outs of Technical Editing

by Kelcie Sharp, Graduate Scholarship Winner

I first discovered my interest in technical editing during my undergraduate studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where I worked as an intern for a semester at a publishing company that provided healthcare and medical information for magazines, newsletters, and websites for hospitals. I enjoyed learning about such a variety of topics while still using my knowledge of writing and editing. I edited some of this content, which involved informing a public audience about scientific, medical information. During this experience, I realized that I could actually find jobs doing this type of editing. Thus, I ultimately decided to pursue a master’s degree in technical and professional communication at Auburn University.

During my first year in my master’s degree program at Auburn, I had the opportunity to work as an editorial assistant for the inaugural edition of Auburn Speaks, an anthology chronicling Auburn’s research related to a particular topic. This first edition focuses on the BP oil spill of 2010, featuring research by professors and graduate students from a variety of departments on the immediate and future impacts of the spill on the environment and society. For example, one article discusses the impact of the spill on Alabama coastal wetlands, and another describes its economic impact on marine-based industries. The final project is a published anthology that includes profiles and photographs of some of the contributing authors and illustrations accompanying each article. Overall, the anthology serves to showcase the work of Auburn University to the general public.

As an editorial assistant, my main task was to copyedit articles. While editing the articles, my first priority was to ensure that the articles appealed to the intended audience—the general public. Because the articles featured academic research, I frequently had to make editorial decisions that would best accommodate the general public, such as explaining measurements, including illustrations, and using less technical language. I also ensured that articles did not include technical jargon without accommodating or explaining the information for a lay audience. Accommodating a lay audience also involved eliminating overly technical figures and tables and providing context for all materials within the book. The editors and graphic designers also developed a timeline with images at the front of the book to further provide context to readers.

When copyediting, I checked articles for accuracy, consistency, correctness, and completeness. Outside of individual articles, I helped check for these four principles throughout the entirety of the anthology—across the articles and profiles as well as throughout the front and back matter. The book in its entirety underwent multiple stages of editing and proofreading to ensure consistency across articles. Additionally, I checked all the references for the book, using these principles, and often had to edit citations by searching for the cited material online.

While copyediting the articles, I helped develop the Auburn Speaks style guide by frequently making editorial decisions concerning language usage and style and subsequently including the decision in the style guide. For example, I made the decision to capitalize “the Delta” throughout the book when referring to the Mississippi River Delta (rather than using the lowercased alternative) and added this style choice to the official style guide. For all the editors working on this project, we relied heavily on this style guide to maintain consistency throughout the book.

Another aspect of this project that I helped with was the glossary. The editors of the book wanted to include images within the glossary as an attempt to appeal to the lay audience and assigned me to find open-access images to visually explain the terms. In order to find such images, I consulted the technical definitions that these images would represent (for example, coastal zone, estuary, or marsh) and used Creative Commons to search for images that illustrated these definitions. I also used Wikimedia Commons to find these images because this website allows image-specific searching as well as Creative Commons-licensed image searching. These sites provided me with a variety of images for the glossary terms, which I then browsed based on the following criteria: region appropriateness, how well the image illustrates the glossary term, copyright restrictions, and image quality.

Because images on open-access sources often include no explanatory file name, I needed some technical knowledge to identify satisfactory images. I also had to adhere to Creative Commons copyright agreements in order to use the images in our publication. This task ended up being more difficult than I anticipated because Creative Commons offers several different copyright agreements that each differ in their restrictions. That is, some require no attribution of any kind, while others require attribution with use of the image. Understanding and ensuring adherence to these agreements proved to be quite tedious but also informative for subsequent projects involving image use.

During this part of the project, I realized that many of the definitions overlapped and therefore decided a single map or illustration could simultaneously represent several terms (for example, continental shelf, continental slope, and continental rise). However, the only existing illustration I could find did not include all the terms I needed it to, so I altered an open-access illustration via Photoshop, using the technical knowledge I gained through this task.

As one of my final tasks for the publication, I wrote captions for full-page images that served as artwork throughout the book. The editors of the project gave me images relating to the oil spill with a brief explanation that I had to elaborate in a short paragraph. For example, one image depicted a pelican perched on a dock over water. In order to write these captions, I had to research what was in the image and compose a brief but informative paragraph (for example, pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico and the effect of the oil spill on them). I also had to keep in mind the audience and therefore avoid overly technical language.

Overall, this experience allowed me to hone my editing skills and provided me with a valuable opportunity to learn about what goes into the processes of publishing a book. Through this experience, I learned how to develop a style guide for consistency across editors, how the manuscript and publishing processes work, and about finding Creative Commons images and adhering to their copyright agreements, which involved much more than I initially realized. Finally, I would like to thank the Technical Editing SIG for awarding me this scholarship. I am grateful to have been chosen and look forward to using the award to help me pursue a career in technical editing after I graduate.

Page last modified on Thursday, December 06, 2012 10:35:06am EST
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