Technical editors are great. Technical editors point out problems and they identify mistakes. A good technical editor can make almost any document better. They provide a key component of the document review cycle and ensure that document quality is maintained.
Some editors are little more than proofreaders. They look for spelling errors, grammar errors and typographical errors; they rarely spot larger problems. Other editors take a more structural approach. Comprehensive editors look at the overall document and try to find any way in which it can be improved. They determine if the data is accurate and the instructions are complete. They look for better ways to deliver the information. For example, they decide whether one piece of information should precede another or if a graphic is needed to make the information clearer. There are all sorts of editors with various levels of skills and differing styles. You should take advantage of any editor and cherish a truly talented one.
Unfortunately, you may not always have a good technical editor (or even a good proofreader) available. Many companies that know they need technical writers don’t know that they need technical editors, or they simply don’t want to bother with the expense. At about half of my contracts, there has been no editor and no review process. At some companies, I was able to find other writers to look at my documentation. At other companies, I had to resort to using whoever was available and seemed to have a grasp of the English language.
Every technical writer needs an editor or at least a proofreader to review their work. No matter how strong your writing and grammar skills are, there will be room for improvement. Even if there isn’t, it is good to have someone there to confirm it. Writers have blind spots. When writers edit their own work, they often miss errors because they hear the narrative in their head rather than see the actual writing on the page. An editor with a fresh set of eyes doesn’t have that problem. They aren’t focused on what you think you wrote, but rather on what you actually put on the page.
If you are in the position of working without a technical editor, here are some steps you can take to reduce documentation errors:
- Create an informal editing team. Pick the people who are most likely to have good writing/editing skills and get them to look at your documents. Don’t waste their time, however, only use them once you have polished the document and you are confident that you have removed all the errors you can find.
- Increase your proofreading skills. A great guide to document editing is Line by Line – How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook. It is a guide to both proofreading and document analysis.
- Create an editorial/proofreading checklist to follow for every document. Include separate checks for grammar, spelling, punctuation, fact-checking, graphics review, and page layout.
- Create your own style guide. Keep an ongoing list of spellings, acronyms, abbreviations, capitalization and key definitions. Also include any sections of content that are frequently repeated, such as warnings and product descriptions. Make sure your usage is the same across each document and for all documents. For example, do you use e-mail or email? Some companies provide you with a style guide. If your company does, use it, but also make it a starting-point for your personal style guide.
- Read your document backwards. Start with the last sentence and work your way to the first.
- When possible, let a document sit for a day or longer between the writing process and the editing process. The longer you wait, the fresher your perspective will be when you start the editing process.