Re: What to look for in a technical editor

Subject: Re: What to look for in a technical editor
From: Andrew Plato <gilliankitty -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 21 May 2003 23:35:20 -0700 (PDT)

"Michael West" wrote ...

> 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?

No. Everybody has communication skills. A person couldn't survive in the modern
world without some communication skills. Sure, not everybody is a good writer
or can string together a document. But then again, a lot of people think such
work is tremendously boring and beneath them. Apparently, writing documentation
isn't so glamorous? Why?

Apart from the many reasons, one of them is because communication skills in and
of themselves are just not that remarkable. They are considered common. Thus,
what really differentiates people isn't their communication skills, its those
skills in combination with other skills (ie subject matter expertise.)

> 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.

Funny, because I consider myself a technology expert and a decent technical
communicator. I would also argue that most technical experts are actually quite
good communicators, it just isn't their focus. They have other things to do and
therefore they don't put a lot of effort into their communication. Put on the
spot, most engineers could write perfectly fine docs. Its just they don't want
to. Its a waste of their time. Their efforts are better spent developing things

The inverse, however, is not true for tech writers. Very few tech writers have
strong technical skills. Therefore they are operating from a disadvantage. The
engineer can do a tech writers job a lot easier than a tech writer can do an
engineer's job.

I would argue that its impossible to truly have good communication skills if
you don't know what you're talking about. I could babble all day about monkey
poop, but the fact is, I don't know squat about monkeys or their poop. So, I
wouldn't be communicating, I'd be babbling (or lying).

> 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.

Again, that ignores numerous people, like myself, who transitioned from tech
writing into technical work. Apparently, it is possible for tech writers to
obtain a level of technical expertise on-par or beyond "qualified
practitioners." Since becoming a security consultant, I never lost my ability
to write. I can still document technologies. However, I can do so a lot faster
and at a advanced degree of accuracy and insight.

I also am able to communicate more effectively and efficiently with other
technical people. Because I have an intimate understanding of certain
technologies, I can learn things quicker, understand complex systems more
readily, and explain those systems to people with greater accuracy and insight.

But if I had told myself 5 years ago that as a tech writer I could never be a
technical person, well then I probably would agree with you, since I would need
to justify my lack of tech skills.

> 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.

Again, this is an awfully narrow view of the universe. Just because a
scientist doesn't think its necessary to spend 6 months designing FrameMaker
templates, doesn't mean he suddenly is unable to communicate. Most scientists
put their focus on what matters - content. And content will always be
overwhelmingly more important than any style guide, FrameMaker template, font,
or single source system could ever be.

I've repeatedly pointed out, much to the deep chagrin on the font-fondler
community, that some of the most influential documents in human history
contained virtually no formatting, are cumbersome to read, and break just about
every STC-seminar rule you've ever heard. Read some of the RFCs for the
Internet. Or better yet, read some religious texts. Here are documents that
break every possible tech writing rule, yet they have had a more profound
impact on human history than any single-sourced help system you, I, or anybody
on TECHWR-L has every developed.

How can that be? According to your line of thinking, only through extensive,
specialized editing from somebody who has no idea what the material is about,
can a document possibly be considered "quality."

> Therefore:
> 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.

Yes. He's semi-colon ignorant. Which probably won't make a big difference in a
document vs. the editor who tries to spell-check function names in source code.

> 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.

My whole point with "ignorance is an asset" is to dispel the common argument
that many tech writers attempt to use. They try to justify their lack of
technical and scientific skills saying that knowing how to use a semi-colon is
some amazing skill worth deep respect and professional pride. It isn't.

The simple fact is, communication skills are like being able to drive a car.
They're so basic, that those that only possess those skills are extremely
limited in what they can do. A person who can only edit for grammar and layout
offers and extremely limited set of capabilities. And why should an employer
pay for that, when there are plenty of technically skilled people who can
quickly learn editing skills and then offer BOTH tech skills and editing

Andrew Plato

Do you Yahoo!?
The New Yahoo! Search - Faster. Easier. Bingo.


Robohelp X3, from eHelp, lets you quickly and easily create
professional Help systems for all your Windows and Web-based
applications, including Net.

Order RoboHelp X3 in May and receive a $100 mail-in rebate, PLUS
free RoboScreenCapture and WebHelp Merge Module.

Order RoboHelp today:

You are currently subscribed to techwr-l as:
archive -at- raycomm -dot- com
To unsubscribe send a blank email to leave-techwr-l-obscured -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Send administrative questions to ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com -dot- Visit for more resources and info.


Previous by Author: Re: What to look for in a technical editor
Next by Author: Re: What to look for in a technical editor
Previous by Thread: RE: Re: What to look for in a technical editor
Next by Thread: Re: What to look for in a technical editor

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads