Some of you know I’m doing part-time office work that entails a lot of technical editing. I like it: It’s an excellent company high up in its field, treating staff well and producing work of which one can be proud. Half the staff have advanced degrees. For me, it’s a little steadier income without cutting into my freelancing work.
While they were excited to bring a pro on board, I think some aspects of the change took them by surprise. For one thing, I think they expected me to rip their writing apart a lot more comprehensively; for another, pretty sure they expected some debates about industry usages. The best handling of those situations brings with it some lessons specific to tech editing but also germane to other editorial work.
We come across it all the time: this idea that editors are the people who go in and dismantle your writing with ruthless precision. There are times for that…but not when one is already dealing with capable and very coachable writers. If one of my colleagues’ writing were weak, I wouldn’t hesitate to fix anything that needed it, but even our subcontractors write fairly well. My work as an editor is not to criticize or correct; those are just aspects of progress toward the goal. My work as an editor is to help the content become the very best it can be. If that means critique and correction, we do those. If that meant burning a photograph of a lemur over a purple candle flame at midnight while chanting in Old Slavonic, I’d be doing so. In this case, the best way to improve the content is to offer minor corrections with sound explanations. These are people of science and reason who expect me to know more than them about English, and to help them become more proficient. If a para needs a complete recast, I’m glad to do so, but more often the need relates to subtler acts such as changing phrasal order for clarity and flow.
I haven’t said a word about style guides: AP, Chicago, etc. That’s because I understand that these are not bibles unless the management says they are (and ours sensibly does not). Style guides are like military regulations: They are for the guidance of command, not as straitjackets to it. The idea of writing something in a way that fails to communicate, but conforms to the hallowed style guide, is idiocy. Our management knows this, as do our writers. So the writers will ask me: “What is the rule here?” If there is one that sensibly governs, I’ll tell them; in many cases the area is grey, often straddling the gap between popular imagination of the rule and its strict letter. Join an editors’ group online and you can see posts daily bleating for help with some arcane point of style guide nitpickery they’ve been agonizing over for hours. Okay, if it’s a mandated usage, very well…but if you’re an editor, isn’t it your job to make the damn decision? Whose, if not yours? People look to us as informed guides to quality writing. Someone’s saying they’re afraid to guide? This is like a professional taxi driver afraid to trust/deviate from a map or a navigation system. Decide, and use the comments to explain the decision. And if the style guide isn’t even mandated, there’s even less pressure to conform. Do something intelligent in furtherance of the original goal, and help your people understand why you felt that was so. If you can be a professional editor, you have the writing skills to persuade and explain.
The other side that surprised my colleagues was that I take a very relaxed attitude toward industry usages, even where the common presentation strictly speaking violates some basic guideline. Should it be “small diameter poles” or “small-diameter poles”? Objectively, the latter; but the industry usage most often omits the hyphen, and we are communicating with industry members. It’d be idiotic to die in a drainage ditch over a hyphen. I’m the industry newcomer and this is tech editing. It is my job to drink from the industry firehose and learn language specific to expected usages. We should be consistent and clear; we should sound informed and intelligent; we should convey the views of highly expert people with professional voicing and presentation. If that means we don’t write this item name in what I consider the obvious way, because one of our people learned in school that there was a specific reason not to do so, I can either joust with my colleague (and his MBA plus thirty years of experience) or I can accept that he’s using sound logic based in educated thought. I should worry far more about helping my people sound their brilliant best than about imposing a foolish consistency.
That’s why tech editing is an unglamorous but very necessary field. A percentage of editors simply can’t operate without some form of Scriptural guide, and will inevitably find themselves asked to make decisions for which there is no clear direction cited in Chicago, and concerning which they thus won’t be able to convince the subject matter expert without that biblical backup. And yet so many technical specialists, unlike my colleagues, just can’t write worth a damn. They starve for editorial support–not from style guide literalists, but from colleagues who make them better and help them grow.
If I were starting as an editor right now, I would still set up a blog/website and I’d still take jobs involving manuscript fiction and non-fiction, but I know what my marketing would be. I’d imagine the industries I understood best and I’d start sending pitches to firms in those industries. I would invite them all to reach out to me with a page of text and whatever context they considered germane, and let me have a crack it it. I’d send back the samples in prompt fashion and see what happened. A good outcome would be a cost estimate query for a full report/manual/other doc, because then they’d be asking themselves whether this were affordable (and could they bill it out?). The secret of technical editing is that your client can usually bill their client for your work. If they find this to their best advantage, they’ll probably start sending you rush jobs with urgent needs (because they procrastinate or get swamped). Do them no matter how late you have to stay up. They’ll come to consider you part of the support system and they won’t want to deal with anyone else once they are comfortable with you. Nice work–you now have a client. Treat them right. Their greatest hours of need are your greatest moments of potential and value.