Interview with a… Technical Editor

We love our new ‘Interview with a…’ series because it lets us go behind the scenes of various job titles that we recruit for. Next up we talk to Theresa Cameron, a technical editor based in Paris. Firehead is the market leader in Europe for tech comms recruitment, so we jumped at the chance to ask Theresa more about what she does, how she got into technical editing, what she charges and other highly personal questions… Would you like to blog for us? Scroll to the end for an invite.

Theresa CameronWhat is your job title?
Technical editor.

What does a technical editor actually do?
We transform text into well-crafted, clear communication. In other words, we get rid of all the rough edges and pitfalls of clumsy sentences, inconsistencies of terminology, grammar, punctuation, style, overlong sentences and so on.

Depending on the client and the type of documentation, the focus may be exclusively on the language. For some technical documentation, such as user guides, domain expertise may be required as well. Here, the editor can pick up incomplete tasks or confusing graphics, for example, without actually having the machine or product.

Reading through a task, it is my job to ask myself: does it seem possible to carry out the steps as they are given, or, do I have all the information I need? Certainly a technical writer will be conscious of such things but the editor has the advantage of:

a) having a more objective view
b) not being influenced by an SME (subject matter expert) as to what information is or isn’t needed.

For documentation that has been created by more than one writer, an editor is an essential part of the team. Even where a company has a style guide, everyone seems to have their own interpretation, so as soon as the parts are brought together, a reader can find as many different styles as there are writers unless an editor has smoothed out all the discrepancies.

The expert reviewers will rarely read an entire document, and perhaps a user won’t either, but dipping into different sections of a book, it is the user who trips up on unexpected (inconsistent) terminology or phraseology. The potential problems of working without an editor are compounded if translation is required. Which company wants to pay for five variations of one term?!

What are the tools of your trade?
The standard books that go with me if I have to work onsite for a while are: Martin Cutts Oxford Guide to Plain English (OUP 2007) and Fowler’s Modern English Usage (OUP 2004). At home I also use previous editions of Fowler’s, a huge, 2088-page Oxford Dictionary of English (OUP 2003) and Judith Butcher’s Cambridge Handbook of Copy-Editing (CUP 1992).

For a textbook about the whole scope of editing, see Judith A Tarutz’s Technical Editing – The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers (Perseus Books 1992). This book includes exercises and examples, as well as plenty of information about each aspect of editing.

What skills do you need?
The essential requirements are:

  • expertise in the language
  • sharp eyes to pick up all the fine details
  • an analytical and organisational mind that can deconstruct and reconstruct a sentence or a text
  • a passion for good communication and making things better
  • TACT

Tact is crucial if the workflow requires that an edited text goes back to the author(s). Offending an author through carelessly written comments will not improve cooperation. An editor needs great communication skills here to be able to propose amendments to a technical author who may have battled with deadlines, unfinished products or obstinate SMEs to get the document to you in the first place.

A background in technical writing will provide a potential editor with the rules or recommendations that should be applied to technical documentation. For other texts, it helps to understand different types of writing for a variety of media and purposes.

How did you get into technical editing?
My way in was unexpected. As a volunteer I started judging competitions for technical documentation. Here I discovered the thrill of hearing that competitors appreciated the feedback that I (anonymously) had given them.

What is the biggest challenge in technical editing?
Bad writing that I would rather scrap than mark up. Yes, it happens. We would all like authors to write clear, fluid documentation but for a variety of reasons, such as the circumstances I mentioned previously, this is not always the case.

Too few companies recognise the value that editors can bring and consequently ignore the user’s experience of the document. What is the point of usability testing if the product document hinders the user from having an easy time setting up or working with the product?

And the best thing about being a technical editor is…
Finding the pearl in the oyster shell – the moment when a sentence or a text is as clear and complete as possible.

Any advice for those looking to get into the profession?
For students or newcomers to technical editing, my advice is to write first, then learn to edit. I’m prepared to be challenged about this, but particularly with editing, I’ve found that acquiring all the background experience takes time. Knowing your field of writing by practising it first is invaluable for gaining the necessary skills and the respect from colleagues so that they are willing to accept your amendments.

What are the pay scales?
Similar to technical authors for ongoing work (contract or permanent). For bit-work, pay can be per page, although some editors will not accept this sort of contract. Payment per page may sound more efficient for employers but inevitably the result is usually less satisfactory. Editing often requires going through a document several times, especially a long one, to be able to pick up all the discrepancies but with ‘per page’, the emphasis is getting as many pages done per day. In my house, this method is known as ‘bling-bling’ – do what you can in a once-through and ring a bell at the completion of each page.

Is there job mobility/security?
There should be a lot of work but unfortunately there isn’t. However, editors can frequently work from home if they have the necessary tools, which means they can work for clients anywhere in the world.

Do you have a motto or guiding principle when you work?
Maximise the message and minimise the noise.

Theresa Cameron is currently leading a global project on international English for technical communication and is passionate about clear communication, even on Twitter: @intecommunity.

If you are a client in need of a technical author or editor, do get in contact with us at Firehead. We have many talented communicators on our books who are available for part-time or fixed-term contracts or full employment positions. Visit our Client Services page to read more about what we do. We’d love to talk to you!