This is a report on a presentation I did for STC-Montreal.

Event Report on Technical Editing: To Boldly Go Beyond Copy Editing
STC-Montreal Article | Posted April 6th, 2011

Written by Lynne Wright.

Dinner-seminar featuring Poppy Quintal, at Au Bistro Gourmet, March 29, 2011.

A gregarious and diverse crowd packed out the venue to hear veteran technical editor Poppy Quintal demonstrate what sets her ilk apart as a special breed.

Too often, project managers assume that, by the time a manual has cycled through writing and technical review, all it needs is a quick proofread to catch typos and other minor errors. But an editor with a trained analytical eye can ferret out a myriad of more insidious problems, by checking mind-numbing details like part numbers and other values that are peppered across hundreds of pages; making sure that tables are complete and easy to interpret; verifying that illustrations are inserted in the correct locations; and ensuring that information is coherent across the manual.

Photos and the presentation slides are available below.

Aside from possessing near super-human acuity, the technical editor’s toolkit includes:

  • Knowing how and when to lobby for enough time to comb through and fix highly problematic documents; and when to accept that “good enough” will have to do.
  • Being proficient at both copy editing (a rule-based check of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and basic consistency of style/presentation); and substantive editing (a more comprehensive analysis of how well the content delivers in terms of effectively communicating information to the user; including how the information is organized and structured, whether information is complete and pertinent, usefulness of the table of contents and index, and whether language usage and writing style is appropriate to the audience).
  • Knowing how to pick your battles and when to let go. Save your energy for the important stuff; it’s not worth inviting a bout of fisticuffs by challenging a writer to an ideological duel over the finer points of style.
  • Being able to see the forest and the trees: You need laser-like focus that can be sustained across reams of complicated details, but also need to recognize whether all those details add up to create an intact and consistent big picture.
  • Being confident in your ability to adapt and learn. You don’t necessarily need to be a subject matter expert to do an effective edit. If you roll up your mental sleeves and ask engineers for clarification when you need it, you’ll build up knowledge as you go along. And often, being new to the material allows you to see things that others have missed, and to approach the material from the perspective of an end user.
  • Knowing where errors commonly lurk. Be diligent about checking the types of details that reviewers often gloss over, including verifying unit conversions (for example, values for degrees Celsius versus degrees Fahrenheit); ensuring that diagrams are labeled accurately; making sure that illustrations show what is cited in the text and/or figure title; and verifying cross-references.

Using examples that showed the types of mistakes that can slip past reviewers, and how seemingly minor errors can have dramatic consequences, Poppy proved that a thorough technical edit is a crucial part of the document production cycle… and that doing the job properly requires a formidable set of skills.