Editorial Maverick: tech editing

My world is a diverse one, with wide variety between different styles as well as modes. By modes I refer to developmental, substantive, line, and other forms of editing. By styles I refer to the subject matter: fiction (with many divisions), non-fiction (same), screen editing (don’t look at me), and technical editing among others. Only some of the knowledge carries over from one style to another. One of my favorite people, the awesome and capable Maggi Kirkbride, edits only non-fiction. I know academic editors, self-help editors, and so on. I have acquired a skillset in technical editing.

Since tech editing involves reviewing and changing subject matter experts’ work (we call those SMEs to show that we’re in the club), the first thing that happens is that one drinks from the knowledge firehose. If one has little knowledge in a given field, the question is how one works into a level of competence. Much looking up of terms, asking of questions, and hesitation before barging ahead with changes. In this style, any reference that sounds odd could in fact be an industry term loaded with meaning. After a time, one gets a sense for these. I have tech edited roleplaying game rulebooks, engineering documents, and forest products analyses. In all cases, while I had some fundamental understanding going in (longtime RPGer; father was an engineer and I was a computer nerd; father was later a forester and I worked summers in a mill), there remained much to learn. Most tech editing work requires at least a good grounding in Word document formatting, unlike say fiction in which one can get by with saying “I’m the language jockey; formatting is up to someone else.”

How it’s different from, for example, travel editing:

You are less concerned with preserving style than with conforming the ms to a style guide. Most organizations have specific looks, styles, colors, and branding terminology they like to see. You mostly do not, for example, have to explain to sixtysomethings why they can’t use two spaces after a period just because Mrs. Blunthead taught them to type that way in the 1960s. Either the person in charge says one space is required, or mandates two, and either way, the tech editor can make a case but rarely gets to be the decider.

Your content is vertical in that it pertains to some particular field of study: agriculture, marketing, engineering, software. This requires you to drink from the proverbial firehose in order to absorb enough terminology and technical detail that you do not need to ask questions SMEs will find dumb and annoying. So if you’re editing timber industry documents and the term “board feet (Scribner)” means nothing to you, you must change that–your level of understanding, that is, not the meaning.

Rush jobs are very much the norm. People who write manuals, papers, analyses, and so forth usually take more time then they expected. Where is the shortfall made up? On the computer of the person with the red pen. What this means is that you will not always be able to make this a work of sweet perfection, and you must make sure the au (as we refer to the author when she’s not looking) knows this and has reasonable expectations. It will sometimes boil down to: “Look. You have given me three hours and there are eighty pages here, with captions, footnotes, graphics, and so on. That’s not long enough to do it right, but I will give you the best three hours I’ve got.” If the au doesn’t like that, then she needs to get it to you sooner.

There’s a lot of opportunity and retention. Tech editing clients are less concerned with price (they are typically billing the work to a client) and more with excellence and alacrity. Think about it. Suppose you run a demolition consulting firm. Companies commission you to tell them the best way to blow up stuff with the least impact on the surrounding area, best recovery/disposal outlook, and so on. You know secrets and they fuel your business. Your work product is the report and its supporting data. You can make it good, but you find an editor who can make it “wow”–and will, at need, make your report her priority. You love the new level of professionalism in the impression your product makes. You do not want to lose that editor. You do not want to try your luck with a new one, see how well they learn your business terms, or go without. You’re going to make sure you pay your editor. The cost is tiny relative to the benefit. You would be a ninny to do without that editor, or her equivalent, once you’ve had a taste of the good stuff.

What kind of editor can be a tech editor? I find it’s mostly the same properties as make a good editor of other material, but with an emphasis on adapting. Eloquence is less important than communication flow. You aren’t asking whether readers will like this story arc; you’re asking who your audience is and how to help your au convey information as concisely and professionally as can be done. You can’t go on anti-adverb and anti-passive voice crusades because technical writing often creates situations where the surgery is worse than the injury, if you will. Your reader will be in one of two categories: She either knows what makes good English (rare), or she does not (the norm). If the former, she will see that you could not recast those passives because there was no non-cumbersome way to come up with a subject to perform the action. If the latter, she just knows it reads real smooth and the au gets props for clear information delivery. You win either way.

It’s a useful skill to build, because some types of non-fiction mss involve tech editing skills. Textbook editing is a perfect example, its vertical market being very specific to a discipline and audience type. There will be descriptive paras to check for common writing flaws, but there will also be examples to check; sidenotes to review; ever the question of clarity. Will our audience understand the au here? The au engages you because she thinks you can make her book better. You adapt your work to what will serve that end.


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