Let Us Now Praise Technical Editors

Jim Purcell, Microsoft Corporation

Gary Kamiya’s July 24 article in Salon.com, “Let Us Now Praise Editors,” has raised spirits among editors everywhere. Kamiya’s comments apply as much to technical editing as to journalism and book publishing, which are his focus. Like the newspaper or literary editor, the technical editor represents and is responsible mainly to the reader. The difference is that the reader we represent is more specialized. Another difference is that we define elegance differently. “Editing,” Kamiya says, “aims at making a piece more like a Stradivarius and less like a microchip.” Most technical editors will cheerfully settle for a microchip if it performs to spec. That isn’t a knock on technical editing, only a recognition that our goals are very different from those of other editors.

Kamiya argues that editors have to be as confident as writers. I would argue that technical editors generally have to be more confident than writers. We don’t have to be as confident in our technical knowledge, although we do need to be able to carry on a conversation, and we have to be able to revise a manuscript without introducing technical errors. Where we need more confidence is in our understanding of the reader and in our assessment of how the writing before us meets the reader’s needs. We need to be confident enough that when a writer pushes back, we know when we are right and should stick to our guns. Just as important, we need the confidence and good sense to back off when the writer makes a good argument for rejecting a change without losing faith in our edit as a whole.

In many situations the technical editor’s role is more that of a coach. We give writers encouragement. We provide tactics for the immediate situation and techniques that they can use in the long term. We try to coordinate the work of many writers so they can produce a document or a set of documents that form a unified whole. We provide the broader view that writers are not well positioned to take when they are working as part of a team.

Kamiya asserts that writing is harder than editing, because writing is a creative task and editing is a reactive task. I’m not completely prepared to concede that, but in any case I don’t think it’s relevant. Which is more difficult really depends on an individual’s temperament. The technical writer does most of the research and then stares down a blank piece of paper until a manuscript appears on it. Editors typically work with a number of writers to make a team effort look like the work of one person. Writers spend a lot of time talking to subject matter experts; editors spend a lot of time talking to writers. Editing requires tact and diplomacy; writing, not so much. Writers can edit and vice versa, but I haven’t met a lot of people who want to do both.

In technical editing, preserving the voice of the writer is less important than it is in book publishing or even journalism. The putative author of the work is the company that makes the product, so it is the voice of the company, not that of the individual writer, that has to come through. Many technical writers are not especially skilled as writers; they are hired for their technical skills. That doesn’t mean we substitute the writer’s voice with our own, because we labor under the constraints of house style and the conventions of the genre, as all writers and editors do. What we do, like all editors, is help the writer communicate with the reader as effectively as possible in the particular context a piece is intended for.

How do we do it? How do we stand in for, say, a system administrator or a medical technician when we have no experience of being either? It’s a bit of a mystery, as Kamiya puts it, and it’s something we learn over time. We rely on what we can learn from writers, from the project team, and from the marketing department. In the end, I think it’s a bit like acting, except we don’t have to do it in front of all those people.

Kamiya worries that the editor is an endangered species because “We are in an age of volume; editing is about refinement.” Technical editors feel more endangered than most, even in the face of explosive growth in technical content. When budget cuts come down, editors are often the first to go because nobody in management quite understands what we do or why writers can’t do it for each other. Convincing them that you do more than check spelling and fix comma splices is sometimes a job in itself, but if you care about your craft you have to do it, preferably before your boss’s boss starts asking questions. Having writers who know the value of your contribution to their work and their colleagues’ work is the best start you can make. After you’ve done that, send your boss a link to Kamiya’s article.

Jim Purcell was the lead editor for the third edition of the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. He is currently a technical editor at Microsoft.

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