Understanding the Value of a Technical Editor
Not all companies understand why it's important for them to have technical editor(s). In fact, many technical editors must justify their existence on a regular basis. If you have some information that would help others understand the value-add, please share it below. Please also preface your comments with your name and/or email address.
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Corrigo Articles on the Topic
A few articles have been published in Corrigo, the TE SIG newsletter, on this topic:
Other Articles on the Topic
Please see the following links for two brief, well written articles on the value of technical editing by Jean Hollis Weber (Australia):
- Who Needs a Technical Editor? http://www.jeanweber.com/newsite/?page_id=19
- The Role of the Editor in the Technical Writing Team http://www.jeanweber.com/printer/edrole.htm
The Value of the Technical Writer
The technical editor offers an organization many of the same advantages that a technical writer brings. The July-August 2009 issue of Intercom has some great articles on the value that technical communicators provide, especially during rough economic times.
Geoff Hart's article also sheds some insight to this topic. You can view this article at www.accessmylibrary.com.
How the Technical Editor Role May Differ from the Technical Writer Role
An editor may not do some of the things suggested by Geoff Hart (such as testing product, sometimes will need to work with SME/developer content...). A primary role for an editor is to review, update, correct, make improvement suggests for materials by authors. It seems logical that perhaps justification for a tech editor could be made along the lines of the various levels of edit. Some of the various roles an editor plays (in no particular order):
- Assistance with the development of technical materials (not writing)—organization, presentation, coaching if necessary, brainstorming
- Supporting and developing a sound review cycle for materials within an organization
- Developing, updating, implementing style sheets
- Proofreading, physical markup of documents
- Manage documentation updates
The Role of the Technical EditorIn some organizations, there is little distinction between a tech writer and a tech editor. To be relevant, the distinctions must be defined from a business perspective.
To define the role of the technical editor, it may help to start with a job description, maybe even Work Instructions with what the position entails and is responsible for. Many people don’t understand the roles and responsibilities associated with a job; it helps to get the job into writing and start from there. Work Instructions help employees (or volunteers) know what they need to know to carry out all tasks for success, as well as let potential workers know what the job will entail.
- Sometimes editing may be contracted out—to remove the final phases of editing from the tech writers or SME authors. The purpose may be to remove the "blind eye" we all develop from editing our own materials, or because of time or schedule crunches.
- In some cases, the technical editor plays a parallel role of product subject matter expert; an individual who is well versed (on a technical level) in the item or items being written about, perhaps an engineer. They contribute the raw and in depth technical data to the technical writer who in turn, voices it to the correct audience. The technical editor would provide input solely on the “technical nature” of the product at hand, but not necessarily become involved with grammatical edits, etc. They confirm procedural steps and technically-related input and critique. (The design documents may contain the technical data, but “on the fly” changes may happen quicker than the technical updates. This may also vary depending on the product or the institution.)
- A technical editor could also serve as a technical analyst who verifies the technical accuracy of what was written so that the writers can focus on pure writing (grammar, word usage, Simplified Technical English, etc.).
Other roles that a technical editor may serve, from a technical editor on a project that covers everything from platform planning and installation to end-user accessibility through the client:
- Technical editor need not be a SME, but must have enough general knowledge of the subject matter to be familiar with industry terminology and have an instinct for knowing when something sounds off target, even if s/he could not write the correct info. (This assumes there are SME's available for review of product specifics.)
- Must be able to read for logic—contradictory statements, missing material (e.g., "if this", "then that" but missing "else"). Must be able to read for clarity—if the editor cannot follow the material, the user may not be able to.
- Tech editor sets and enforces standards of capitalization, format, styles, and can have a big role in working out terminology and consistent use of terminology, such as naming of backend product parts.
- Copy editor. By the time a writer has revised 2-4 times, simple copy editing requires a new eye.
- Identifying and educating team on standard practices—how to work with source control, use of the documentation tools, etc.
- Communication center for writers, who may tend to be in their own silos.
How Technical Editors Contribute to Financial Success
Many of us technical editors think of our value first as that of adding or raising the quality of a document or other product. However, executives of a corporation are usually more interested in the bottom line. Here are some items that point out how quality affects the bottom line.
- NASA's 1999 mishap with its $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter subjected the agency to countless late-night TV jokes. The orbiter careened off course because contractor Lockheed Martin failed to convert thruster-firing data from English units to metric. No one noticed until it was too late. A good technical editor (or several, working under "corporate" standards) would have noticed the inconsistency.
- An article by Janice Redish called "Adding Value as a Professional Technical Communicator" appeared in Technical Communication, volume 42, February 1995, pages 26–39. The costs that Redish cites to correct mistakes at various stages of development are more than 14 years old and have obviously increased since then, but the principles are sound, and the same ratios would likely apply. Here they are:
|Problem found in||Cost||Ratio|
Here's a link to the article. (You may need to log in to access it.) The complete article is 14 pages long, and there's much more to it than the little table above. The whole TC issue is full of information about value, and that topic is always timely. Here is a list of the contents of the February 1995 issue of TC, entitled Measuring the Value Added by Professional Technical Communicators:
- Janice (Ginny) Redish and Judith A. Ramey, "Introduction"
- Janice (Ginny) Redish, "Adding Value as a Professional Technical Communicator"
- Judith Ramey, "What Technical Communicators Think About Measuring Value Added: Report on a questionnaire"
- Cathy J. Spencer and Diana Kilbourn Yates, "A Good User's guide Means Fewer Support Calls and Lower Support Costs"
- C. Al Blackwell, "A Good Installation Guide Increases User Satisfaction and Reduces Support Costs"
- Denise D. Pieratti, "How the Process and Organization Can Help or Hinder Adding Value"
- Reva Daniel, "Revising Letters to Veterans"
- Martha Cover, David Cooke, and Matt Hunt, "Estimating the Cost of High-quality Documentation"
Benefits of Having a Technical Editor(created by Li-At Ruttenberg)
A Technical Editor can help with the following:
- Improve document readability and usability
- Consistent writing within a document and across documents makes the information easier for users to find.
- Clean and clear writing helps users move through the document without stumbling over typos and unclear sentences, which means they can more easily focus on the message (on trying to gain the knowledge they’re seeking from the document).
- Increase the writers’ overall productivity
- Writers have time to write more documents if they just focus on describing the product itself.
- New writers are brought-up-to speed on writing-related matters faster, and without taking away from a writer’s writing time.
- (If peer editing was used instead, writers would be taken away from time they could have spent writing documentation.)
- Increase writers’ product knowledge
- If the writers stay focused on the products, rather than shifting between format and content, they can delve more deeply into understanding the product.
- Reduce translation costs
- Consistent language (standard phrases) means a sentence needs to be translated only once.
- Word count is often reduced just by the act of editing.
- Protect the company from legal oversights by helping keep copyright info and other legal lingo current within a document and consistent across documents
- Reduce calls to Customer Support by frustrated clients
- Improved readability and usability leads to happier clients, who can find the information they’re searching for without feeling frustrated at the product.
- Increase sales
- High-quality documentation (online help and print) can be used as a selling point.
- Clear and clean documents (white papers, posters, and so on) can be used to describe our products and services to potential clients.
- Eliminate lost revenue and costs involved in saving face after a poor, negative, or offensive message has been sent out
- Example: I changed the tone of a letter that would have gone out from the company president to all current clients that needed to be made aware of the product’s incompatibility with Windows Vista.
- Example: I changed the tone of a poster/ad that made our company sound pompous and self-serving instead of client-centered.
- Eliminate lost revenue and/or confusion by double-checking contact info on conference material
- Example: All conference registration forms were almost directed to the wrong department’s fax machine.
Some statistics that Li-At Ruttenberg came across during research:
- A survey of American users of all technology products showed:
- 12% don’t read the manual at all
- 12% read it cover to cover before doing anything
- 76% (the majority) read it only if something goes wrong (or seems to) or before trying a new feature
So, contrary to conventional wisdom, typically 88% of consumers read at least some of the manual.
Source: Schriver, Karen. Dynamics in Document Design, (John Wiley & Sons, 1996) (taken from www.manuallabour.com)
- “We were recently featured in a Case Study for translations,... Through a combination of strict editing for voice and consistency between several writers, initiating a content reuse strategy (without a CMS), and implementing the use of translation memory, we reduced our translation costs by 72% for one project over a 3-yr period. I would estimate our overall savings across all projects since I started is in the 40-50% range.”
Source: Martinek, Carla. From e-mail exchange on STC Technical Editing Special Interest Group
Here are a few quotes that are relevant to this topic:
- “In scientific writing, words take on more significance than in other types of communication, because the subject matter being discussed is, by definition, precise and exact. The communication of the facts, figures, and methods used in science, as well as the description of the results, also has to be precise and exact. Sloppy writing is often considered synonymous with inexact and, thus, questionable science. For this very reason, reviewers of manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals will often reject a manuscript if there are too many typographical and grammatical errors.” Elaine R. Firestone and Stanford B. Hooker, “Careful Scientific Writing: A Guide for the Nitpicker, the Novice, and the Nervous,” Annual Conference of Society For Technical Communication, 2001
- Loss of business: "If we receive a business proposal that is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors … we may choose to go with another tender that comes across as more professional."
- Adverse customer reaction: Remember that every time that you present information to customers, it impacts upon how they perceive your brand."
- Confusion / misleading communications: "At its most extreme, poor writing may cause confusion and dilute the value that you were looking to get from your communication.” http://www.helium.com/items/327455-the-importance-of-good-writing-for-professionals-on-all-career-paths
- “Perception is more important than reality.” —Albert Einstein