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July 17, 2017

Return of the technical editor?

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?