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Let's change the career paths for technical editors

by Jean Hollis Weber, Co-Lead of Documentation at OpenOffice.org

Traditionally, trainee editors were expected to become good at copyediting before an employer would allow them to do substantive (or developmental) editing, and senior editors were expected to work well at both levels. In my view, this is a short-sighted and outdated approach to a career path, especially for instructional and technical writing. It does a disservice to both editors and their employers.

The skill sets for copyeditors and substantive editors are different (a focus on details versus the bigger picture; rules versus analysis; strong English-grammar skills versus strong analytical and problem-solving skills). Both skill sets are important, necessary, and valuable; but good substantive editors may be poor copyeditors and vice-versa, although some people are good at both.

I've worked with people who had superb analytical skills (finding problems in the text or inconsistencies between the text and the product being documented, and often suggesting very good solutions to those problems) but who had only a basic understanding of some punctuation and grammatical issues. As long as these people were tasked only with substantive or usability editing work, they were extremely valuable on the project, because they tended to spot problems that the subject-matter experts did not notice: errors in logic and structure, unstated assumptions, use of idiom and colloquialisms, and other problems that native speakers miss. Teamed with a skilled copyeditor, such a substantive editor can be a major asset to an organization.

Today's technical editing environment has expanded to include usability editing, mainly of electronic documents (Web pages, wikis, PDFs) but also printed instructional material such as user guides and repair manuals. Usability editing is concerned with the suitability of a document to meet its readers' needs in terms of organization, presentation, navigation, and other factors. We all know that grammatically correct text is of little use if the instructions are unclear, steps are out of sequence or missing, or if the audience can’t find the information required. Usability is an area in which analytical and problem-solving skills—and people skills—are more valuable than grammar skills.

The best copyeditors go beyond the basics when editing. They find inconsistencies ("Figure 6 shows the back of the machine, but the text talks about the buttons on the front"), check facts ("the Apple Inc. logo has not been rainbow-striped for many years, and the company name has changed from Apple Computer Inc."), and point out audience-specific issues ("your audience is international; most of them think 12/4/2010 means April 12, and many of them think 'summer' is December through February"). They have read widely, so they spot typos like "For Whom the Bells Toll" and a ZIP code starting with 2 for Spokane, WA, and they know that Stephen Hawking is British.

My career has included scientific editing, technical editing (copyediting, substantive editing, and usability editing), technical writing, and documentation project planning and coordination. I am well aware that I am better at dealing with the "big picture" than I am with the details, and I am much happier and more productive as a substantive or usability editor than as a copyeditor.

In my experience, most editors work best at either the detail level or the "big picture" level, and indeed prefer one or the other. Others have reported the same experience. For example, in June 2003, during a discussion on the STC Technical Editing SIG mailing list about the development or "maturation" of a technical editor, someone commented,

"During the last three years, we outsourced the editing... Some [editors] were more experienced with doing substantive editing and some with copyediting...

"We found that the two editors who could perform substantive edits at the macro level both needed intense instructions and deliberate coaching when assigning them copyedits. Otherwise, they would 'go overboard' and perform a more substantive edit every time, which was very unnecessary and didn't match the client's defined processes. BTW, these editors were highly technical and for our client, could very easily understand the jargon and products, which made them expert at seeing gaps in the writers' instructions and conceptual text.

"Conversely, the copyeditors had great difficulty 'stretching' to do more substantive edits."

My conclusion? We should change the career path for technical editors from a progression (copyeditor to substantive editor to senior editor) to some arrangement that allows all editors to be recognized, promoted, and financially rewarded for improvements in skills and productivity in whatever they do. This arrangement could involve having at least two progressions or tracks (one for copyeditors and another for substantive editors), but that might put impediments in the way of people who want to "change tracks." A workable and equitable system would benefit both editors and the companies who employ them, so let's start now to develop one.

Jean has a chapter titled "Copyediting and Beyond" in New Perspectives on Technical Editing, ed. Avon Murphy, Baywood Books, [In Press, due 2010]. She maintains a web site for technical editors, http://jeanweber.com/ .

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