Return of the technical editor?

Bill Swallow / Opinion8 Comments

red pen with editing markup

I’ve seen quite a few comebacks in my time, from bellbottoms to grungy flannel. But most of these trends are short-lived. A once long-standing staple among technical writing and content authoring groups has nearly gone extinct: the technical editor. Is it time for this role to make a comeback?

But first, an anecdote

One of my favorite work stories of all time took place many years ago, and involves a wildly creative technical writer and a cheerful but curmudgeonly technical editor. After several iterative reviews, a visibly angry writer storms over to the technical editor’s cubicle.

red pen with editing markup

The classic weapon of choice for editors.

Writer: “You rejected my draft again!”
Editor: “I did.”
Writer: “Why can’t I add a bit of creativity and uniqueness to this manual?”
Editor: “Because your conventions are not to style. We have a specific voice, tone, look, and feel to maintain in our documentation. Every manual we produce needs to conform.”
Writer: [deep breath, and in a screeching yell] “What is this? A dictatorship?!”
Editor: [calmly and with a smile] “Yes.”

As amusing as that exchange was, it hammered home a point; technical editors were the last line of defense for brand integrity in technical content. They did not need to be subject-matter experts, but needed to be experts in the style and design that set their company’s brand apart from others.

The tipping point

Some time around the turn of the century, the role of technical editor seemed to disappear. This was around the point when single-sourcing also happened to hit its stride. Not to say that single-sourcing itself contributed to the decline of the editor role, but it did mark the point when the average technical writer became a jack-of-all-trades, from subject-matter expert and writer to editor and publisher.

Around this same time, branding, style, and corporate tone became wholly owned by corporate marketing departments. Focus shifted from print collateral over to the web, and a new focus on customer engagement and brand was born. While technical content was necessary, it quickly took a backseat to corporate blogs, social media, and other forms of online engagement as far as branding was concerned.

For technical content, adherence to design became enforced by templates. Style was borrowed loosely from marketing, and enforced mainly through self control and (if you were lucky) peer editing. Publishing happened at the last possible minute with the push of a button and a variable amount of final tweaking and uttered profanities. All of this happened at a very local level with little if any true governance.

Convergence and control

As the number and type of publishing targets grew with the explosion of the social web, companies soon noticed a shift in the consumer base. Interaction and engagement was important, but customers were placing more stock in technical content when making purchasing decisions.

Companies also began investing in centralized content management, sharing content among teams and departments. With a significant increase in contributing authors came a need for better style management and enforcement. While enterprise software can manage style and the use of terminology, these systems need care and feeding. Likewise, authors need to be trained on the correct conventions to use and the correct processes for running their own content audits.

This seems like a prime time for the technical editor to make a comeback. As content silos are bridged by technology and processes, standards need to be enforced across these bridges. The editorial role can include many of the classic duties, but instead of reading every line of content produced, they would work upstream to train content optimization systems and content creators on proper conventions.

What do you think? Can technical editors making a comeback, or are they doomed to the fate of the dodo as systems continue to evolve?

About the Author

Bill Swallow

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Director of Operations. Techcomm, content strategy, and localization. Enjoys taekwondo, craft beer, and homebrewing.

8 Comments on “Return of the technical editor?”

  1. Unfortunately, you’re repeating a common misunderstanding about the roles of editors. First off, what you describe is copyediting, not technical editing. A copyeditor’s primary responsibility relates to basic issues of style (including but not limited to maintaining consistency with “house style”) and grammar. A technical editor will generally do this work too, but their primary responsibility is correctness, completeness, clarity, and ensuring that text is appropriate for the audience (e.g., that a description builds on what the reader already knows and provides any prerequisite knowledge they don’t already know). A technical editor should be enough of an expert in the subject that they understand what the author is trying to say and the nuances required to help them say it, but is also and always an advocate for the audience’s needs; for example, we offer enough distance from the writing (distance a writer lacks) that we can identify and fix implicit assumptions the author doesn’t share with the audience. These are not things you can automate via a content management system or via any other automatic tool — and especially not using the current state of the art in mass-market grammar checkers.

    The difference between the types of editorial job is a crucial distinction that you need to make when you discuss editing. You may find the following short quiz illuminating in terms of how a substantive editor, including technical editors, differs from a copyeditor: http://www.geoff-hart.com/home/whyedit.html

    I’m surprised you see a need for us technical editors to stage a comeback. We never went away — at least not in companies that value their technical communication products and recognize that eliminating the editorial role is going to work about as well as it’s worked for newspapers that decided to replace professsional editors with peer review — which is to say, not so well at all.

    1. Hi Geoff,

      Good to hear from you. Yes, you are right that a technical editor does focus on more than just style. As for needing to stage a comeback, I think it’s needed. While some companies still employ them, many do not. As you suggest, many companies fall back on peer review or on SME or QA review rather than rely on a technical editor. And yes, this doesn’t always work well.

  2. Geoff makes a good, if under-emphasized point: technical editors are present in institutions where their contributions are recognized as valuable. Those institutions are becoming rarer, I think.

  3. A technical editor will generally do this work too, but their primary responsibility is correctness, completeness, clarity, and ensuring that text is appropriate for the audience.

    Let me do a comparison. In newsrooms, copy editors do check not just for ” correctness, completeness, clarity”, but also for legal issues also. The audience for a newspaper copy editor will be the general public, but there will be demand for specific editing based on the sections or special interests. For example, a copy editor dealing with the science and technology page has a different set of editing guidelines in mind, compared to the one overseeing the front page or the business page.

    What makes things different in technical editing is the fact that it is about human-computer interaction. And the technical editor has to edit documents, that in most parts, do not make any sense to the readers. That is a huge challenge, but in no way undermines the larger scope of copy editing.

  4. Fewer and fewer companies are hiring technical editors, at least in the software industry, where I have been a technical editor for many years. I used to have no problem landing work as a technical editor–now it’s almost nonexistent. More and more, I hear that even subject matter experts are doing the writing instead of technical writers. (I had a recent contract where I was hired to edit materials written mostly by SMEs.) Fewer and fewer companies are seeing the value in experienced technical communicators, at least where I am in the Pacific Northwest. It’s quite disconcerting.

  5. What are the criteria for being called an editor, technical or otherwise?

    I ask because I perceive that in a technical authoring environment where “everyone can contribute”, what is now being referred to as editing is often little more than the tidying up of disparately structured and written contributions received from a sprawl of untrained writers.

    As a trained technical *writer* I can rework those contributions so that they conform to the technical writing formula. But when I do that am I truly an editor? Or a sort of glorified secretary / clerk with a fancy title?

  6. In my nine years as an officially titled technical writer ( have 25+ years writing experience), I have yet to work for a company that hires technical editors. As pointed out by other readers, peer reviews are the norm. A very large Fortune 100 company that I worked for has its engineers author the documentation, and the technical writers actually perform editor tasks, not authoring tasks. Technical editor positions are rare, indeed.

  7. Technical editing, in all forms, has not faded (well, except in the Pacific Northwest as another poster mentioned and where I also live). The demand depends on location, industry, and often company size. Many of my clients are small- to medium-sized businesses, and that’s where I find most of my editing work. They understand the importance of quality, accurate communications, and how editing plays a role.

    Technical editing also involves making sure the content is accurate.

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