Re: What to look for in a technical editor

Subject: Re: What to look for in a technical editor
From: Michael West <mbwest -at- bigpond -dot- net -dot- au>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 22 May 2003 12:21:53 +1000

----- Original Message -----
From: "Andrew Plato"

> You said:
> "Expecting subject-matter experts to be intelligent and capable style
> or expecting style experts to have detailed technical knowledge of an
> technology, usually ends in unsatisfactory outcomes for the consumer and,
> somewhat less importantly, frustrating working conditions for writers."
> Rather than berate me for misunderstanding you, explain to me exactly what
> mean by this.

Sure, I'll try once more.

It is rare to find people who are BOTH skilled technical
editors AND subject-matter experts in an emerging
technology. For most of us, ONE of those specialties
is demanding enough. And, because they are rare, you
will be disappointed if you expect to find them readily
available. And, because you will be disappointed, the
outcome will be unsatisfactory.

Okay so far?

Sure, there are the exceptions -- just as there
are nuclear physicists who can converse intelligently about,
say, the music of the Italian Baroque, and perhaps even
knock out some passable Correli at the harpsichord.

But in my experience, most people who are technology
experts often fail when they attempt to play the role
of technical communicators.

It is true that good technical communicators, if immersed
in a technical subject, will naturally develop some familiarity
with it. But their level of expertise will RARELY attain that
of those who are qualified practitioners in the field.

It is also true that some technology practitioners
(engineers, scientists, system administrators, etc)
may possess above average language skills. But
good technical writing requires more than the absence
of technical errors and linguistic solecisms. It requires
a FLAIR for communicating in print (or other visual media).
The chances of finding those skills in a technology
specialist are very slim across the general population.


a) If, as a writer, I expect to get high-quality substantive-
editing AND high-quality style editing from the same
individuals, I will, on average, be disappointed.

b) Furthermore, the quality of my publications will be
lower than it would be if I followed the age-old practice
of implementing separate review cycles using specialist
reviewers -- one set of reviewers for substance editing,
another for style and copyediting.

A final point: you made some vague reference to "ignorance."
Do you call an engineer "ignorant" because he isn't sure
about the proper use of a semicolon? I don't.

And if you don't either, then "ignorance" has no relevance
to this discussion, and I will assume you are attempting
to incite some sort of controversy by dragging it in. Perhaps
that's easier than reading and comprehending what others
have to say.

Michael West
Melbourne, Australia


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Re: What to look for in a technical editor: From: Andrew Plato

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