Comparison of tech writers and science editors?

Subject: Comparison of tech writers and science editors?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com, Karen Graber <graber -at- iodp -dot- tamu -dot- edu>
Date: Tue, 03 Feb 2004 09:53:27 -0500

Karen Graber (long time, no write, K!) wondered: <<My department wants to hire technical writers to write some manuals on tools and labs. We have a Publications department that has focused it's time and energy on science editing of the Initial Reports and Scientific Results from each cruise. They do a fine job and are very proficient. However, my boss understands that there is a big difference between a technical writer and a science editor but we're having a hard time getting this point across to the previous Manager of Publications who is now a Deputy Director. She says Publications can do the manuals.>>

You'll probably have the best luck if you forget about the job titles and focus on the skills required to do the job. I'm primarily a scientific editor and French translator, but technical writing fascinated me enough that I invested the time to learn the skills and discover how the approach differed from science writing. Among other things, the vocabulary (jargon) and rhetoric (e.g., expository logical positivist vs. instructional and procedural) are very different. You can learn to adopt the two very different styles of writing, but need to be aware that the styles differ before you can do so.

Moreover, there's a very big difference between the acts of editing and writing. Some editors can't write to save their lives, whereas some writers can't edit to save their lives. (Others, myself included, do a credible job of both tasks.) Each profession involves a different skill set, and learning the new skills may take considerable time even for those who learn quickly and will eventually become proficient in both jobs.

The tools are also obviously different; scientific editing primarily uses word processors (particularly Word), whereas technical writing may use either Word or something more powerful (e.g., Frame) supplemented by many other add-ins to accomplish different functions (e.g., WebWorks, RoboHelp, HTML authoring software). Learning new tool skills may be a barrier to some of your editors--not necessarily one based on competence, but rather based on time constraints and training resources.

<<We want to use structured writing and framemaker to work toward a single sourcing process.>>

That raises an initial hurdle right there for your editors: Do they already understand Frame? (Many people who learned how to type with Frame running never learn the software's mental model and how to work with it effectively.) If they know Frame, do they understand single-sourcing and structured writing? Have they done enough technical writing to get good at it again with practice? If not, will your management provide time (probably a year) and resources (formal training) for them to become proficient in these areas? If not, you need to hire someone who can already do the work.

<<Our publications people have framemaker experience but not structured writing and not interviewing experience. They do not often write copy.>>

See above: this clearly reveals where you'll need to provide training. If you're not willing to spend the time and money required, and unwilling to guarantee your staff that there will be no harsh consequences if it takes them time to come up to speed and they make mistakes along the way, don't bother trying. Hire someone who already has the necessary skills, and train your editors to work well with the new people.

I also have to wonder why your managers think that people who already have a full-time job can add another whole job to their workweek. Something has to give: more projects means less time per project means less quality means more errors. Do you have enough worker-hours to do both jobs with existing staff? If not, plan to hire more people.

<<I find it hard to believe that a really good tech writer would come to work here given the low salaries they pay the editors...>>

Depends on the job market. Here, there are enough people out of work that any job is starting to look good. (So why did I go freelance right now, you might ask? <g>) But suggesting they hire technical writers might be a good way to educate your employers about the value of the editing work too. Just a (seditious) thought...

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)

Comparison of tech writers and science editors: From: Karen Graber

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