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Standards at Work: Technical Editing

Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards (PES) describe the responsibilities of an editor. The scope of PES is broad; this series explores how the standards apply to a variety of editing contexts.

user guide document on table book manual
Bakhtiar Zein ©

Ellen Lupu has been a technical editor for 12 years. Her current project involves writing and editing training material for an oil and gas company.

She and her team of five professional writers and a subject matter expert work remotely, and Ellen has met just one of the other team members. They communicate by phone and email and meet online. Of standard A6.5 — “[B]e familiar with software commonly used for design, formatting, electronic publishing, and web authoring” — she says, “For remote editing, this standard is key: the writers write their manuals using online authoring software, and I edit the manuals in PDF form using online markup.”

She stresses the importance of good relationships and of standard C15: “Clearly and diplomatically, request clarification of meaning and intent, explain changes as appropriate, and propose or negotiate significant editorial changes.”

Ellen is responsible for the project style guide but also consults the online Chicago Manual of Style, chosen because it’s comprehensive and easy to search. Her use of these guides relates to standard A10.3: “Know where to find and how to use current, reliable reference works such as style guides, dictionaries, and databases.”

A big part of her job is aligning the team’s work. With her “higher-level view,” she ensures consistency within each manual and across all the books, per standard D8: “Identify and consistently apply editorial style.” For example, for new diagram captions, the team had to decide which format to use: “Generator G-123 (Phase C)” or “Phase C Heater H-45.”

Ellen once worked in traditional print magazine publishing but now uses hard-coded publishing software that deals with formatting issues. She says, “The priorities are different. The text falls where it falls.” Inserting hard breaks to avoid widows and orphans is taboo, e.g. because text that looks good on a desktop screen or in a PDF may not display properly on a mobile device, and content could be repurposed in the future. Understanding the content’s single-source, multipurpose nature involves standard A1.4: “Understand the different types of publications and media and the implications these have for editing and production choices.”

Because the software sets the training manual structure, Ellen has had to apply a structural editing standard just once, standard B2: “Reorganize material to achieve a coherent structure and sequence, a logical progression of ideas, and a narrative or expository flow and shape appropriate to the audience, medium, and purpose.” In this case, additional pieces of equipment had been added over time, so her team restructured a chapter designed for just one piece of equipment to accommodate multiple pieces.

Although Ellen says she isn’t “a perfect stand-in” for the trainees who will use the manuals, she imagines being one of them while editing. This involves standard A2: “Know the importance of the audience and the purpose of the material.”

And knowing the audience and purpose is key to clarity. She often applies standards C1, C2 and C3, which concern “more effectively convey[ing] meaning” by improving sentence and paragraph construction and word choice. For example, she ensures that, whenever possible, manuals use the active voice, simple sentences and simple language.

Do you edit technical material? Or do the standards mentioned apply to your editing of other genres? Please comment and tell us how!


Previous post on the PES: Standards at Work: Fiction Editing.

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About the author

Shelley Egan, Standards Communication Task Force

Find Editors Canada's Professional Editorial Standards on Twitter at @ProEdStandards. The Standards Communication Task Force is Shelley Egan, a freelance editor and proofreader who lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick; Elizabeth d’Anjou, an editor and instructor of editing who lives in Picton, Ontario; and Amy Brown, a Toronto-based freelance academic editor-turned-coach.

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