RE: What to look for in a technical editor

Subject: RE: What to look for in a technical editor
From: "Mark Baker" <mbaker -at- ca -dot- stilo -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 22 May 2003 11:08:30 -0400

Andrew Plato wrote:

> Neither
> tech skills nor comm skills are that remarkable in and of
> themselves. Its the
> combination of those skills with others that makes a person
> valuable and able
> to produce quality work. As has been repeatedly explained here, a good
> technical writer must have both strong communication skills and strong
> technical skills. A lacking in either area is a lacking as a whole.

I agree fully, but I think some caveats are in order:

1. Communication skills should not be thought of simply as grammar or even
writing skills. Most engineers, being engineers, have a highly mechanical
view of language. They know grammar and believe in the grammar they were
taught with an absoluteness that would make the prescripivists on this list
look positively wishy-washy. They also put together plain precise
business-like prose fairly well. (You can't work as a member of an
engineering team if you can't.) If they fail as communicators it is not
because they express themselves badly, but because they express the wrong
things. They think people want to know how technology works. They don't get
that people want to know how to use it for their particular tasks, and not
learn the secrets of its internal operations. Engineers, who want to learn
the internal operations of everything, cannot conceive that the general
public is not like them in this respect. It is this failure of imagination,
not poor language skills that make them (often) poor communicators. The most
important job of the technical communicator is to figure out what really
needs to be said to the user.

2. The technical skills that a writer needs to document a product are: 1.
The task and tool knowledge of an expert user (but not necessarily their
facility or experience). 2. Enough of the language of the engineers to be
able to talk to them. The writer does not need the engineering knowledge
that is required to design and build the product. (For home and office
products, gaining the task and tool knowledge of an expert users is usually
not tough, and I think many people do not acknowledge it as "technical
skill". But if they assume that they could pick up the knowledge of an
expert user of a complex industrial product as easily, they are going to be
in for a shock.)

3. Precisely because, for complex products, it is hard to find suitable
candidates for technical writer positions, it is appropriate to surround
those valuable resources with supporting players such as editors, designers,
and desktop publishers who can relieve the writers of various burdens and
allow them to focus their scarce talents where they are needed. While it
would be ideal if all these supporting players also had the technical
knowledge that the writers need, it is probably unrealistic to hope to find
suitably qualified people. Supporting technical writers with non-technical
editors is therefore an appropriate strategy to maximize scarce resources.
However, work needs to be structured to recognize the limits of each of the
people involved.

Mark Baker
Senior Technical Writer
Stilo Corporation
1900 City Park Drive, Suite 504 , Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1J 1A3
Phone: 613-745-4242, Fax: 613-745-5560
Email mbaker -at- ca -dot- stilo -dot- com

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

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