Technical Editing: A Rewarding Niche to Consider

by Susan Kokura

A person's hands are seen on a computer keyboard and mouse.

Technical editing can be a painstaking process involving extreme concentration and acute attention to detail. There are few shortcuts that can be implemented. Despite that, after I established a logical workflow, it became a job I looked forward to—almost a Zen-like meditative procedure.

Doing some technical writing for a fireplace manufacturer was my gateway into technical editing. It started out with annually proofreading a 300-page specification book containing the specifications for every product the company manufactured. This was a daunting task in the beginning, but I learned to create a system to tackle it in a logical manner. It took me a few rounds (about two years) to streamline the process—which involved breaking the job down into categories, such as checking for correct formatting, fonts, diagrams, and dimensions—and come up with a system that worked, but eventually I did just that.

The proofing process for this document was painstaking, as I couldn’t simply apply “Find and Replace” commands to many of the components. For example, dimensions require straight quote marks, but if a global “Find and Replace” was applied, any typography quotes and apostrophes would be changed to straight ones. So, each dimension needed to be proofed individually. The documents I proofed had multiple diagrams, so all the dimensions needed to be checked for accuracy. Also, all the conversions from imperial to metric had to be verified, which is a very time-consuming task. After additional technical writers were hired, I also had to copy edit their work. 

When editing the copy component of a technical document—beyond the mechanical aspects of things like grammar and punctuation—the copy needs to be written in plain language, must adhere to the standard the product would be certified to, and must be ordered in a logical fashion. If the copy includes step-by-step instructions, they must be easy to follow. At the company I worked for, the products were certified depending on the standard. For example, The Canadian Standards Association (CSA group) sets the standards for gas fireplaces (and many other products). There are code books filled with regulations to follow depending on the category. Since the content within the documents had to comply with the standard guidelines (e.g., font size of warnings), it was like an additional style guide on top of the house style guide. Not only did every product have to follow the specific standard, but each document had to list the most up-to-date standard. 

Depending on the type of industry or organization, errors not caught in the editing process may cause catastrophic consequences. In my situation, there was the danger of fire or explosion with gas and wood burning appliances, and if it could be traced to incorrect documentation, the organization may be held responsible. 

There are specialties within technical editing depending on the subject matter and the type of documents. It is easier to edit topics that you have some familiarity with, as the learning curve can be quite steep. Also, depending on the type of industry, it can be useful to know the basics of graphics programs to apply minor corrections to diagrams. I edited installation manuals and other technical documents required for product certification, and these documents were a mix of copy, diagrams, charts, and graphs.

I recommend doing your research into the different types of organizations that hire editors for technical documentation to determine if technical editing is a niche you would like to pursue. Many companies are looking for a combination writer/editor, so vet them carefully if you don’t want to do both jobs. There are jobs in public utilities, transit, government, universities (editing policies and procedures), software development, mining, oil and gas, and manufacturing. It is a viable career choice for anyone who enjoys reviewing minute details and working on a variety of mediums (copy, diagrams, charts, etc.). It can also be very rewarding, as accurate technical documentation is considered an integral part of a company’s success.

Susan Kokura is a copy editor living and working in Vancouver, British Columbia. When she is not leafing through The Chicago Manual of Style, or a dictionary, you will find her out cycling or hiking on the North Shore mountains.

Natalia Iwanek is a freelance copy editor and proofreader. 

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