Technical editing

It is a commonly held belief that if a document is written by an engineer or scientist involved in a project an editor is not required. The typist can correct any spelling mistakes and the technical content is bound to be beyond criticism.

Perhaps you have tried to learn from a technical manual and found it totally unintelligible? You have. Join the club!

What went wrong? The engineer, if he were serious, would be trying to transfer ideas from his head to yours. He writes his thoughts down and then reads them over to make sure they say what he wanted. As soon as he reads the words the right thought jumps back into mind -- of course it does, it was lurking there all the time, and only needed prompting to return to the surface. For some poor soul who does not have his thought, and is only trying to learn, it might as well be written in Chinese.

An editor's job is to test the communication value of the words on the page. If he can't make sense of them it is probable that few other readers will either. More often than not, the document, instead of being sent to an editor, is given to the technical director to approve and he can hardly fail to understand it, since he is familiar with all the concepts.

The editor's most precious posession is his ignorance of the writer's thoughts. As he reads, the engineer's logical ideas must spring to his mind and be supported by all the background required for full understanding. How often in a computer manual are vital steps left out because everyone who has handled the document takes them for granted?

Another common mistake is for the engineer to repeat words, supposedly for emphasis, but often just because they sound good together. So he might write of the "pace and tempo" leaving the poor reader to puzzle over the meaning hidden in the two words, when in fact each word contains all the meaning there is.

The technical editor must not only make sure that the right words are used, but that their meaning is made clear in the context in which they are placed. To this end he may well require the engineer to enhance the document with explanations of 'generally understood' concepts where publication is to a readership that extends beyond the research environment.

Peter spent eight years as a sub-editor first on the Western Morning News and then on the Johannesburg Star, before taking a post with the National Building Research Institute in Pretoria. He was responsible for writing all technical material for publication in mass circulation media, and produced a series of "Introductory Guides" on technical topics for the public. More recently he has edited technical books for Faber and Faber.

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