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Who needs a technical editor?

by Jean Hollis Weber

Keyword 1 (2), May 1990, pp. 15-16. (Journal of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (NSW) Inc.)

The short answer to this question is: Just about everyone who is involved in technical communications.

Most technical communications professionals would probably agree with this statement, although there may be a few technical writers around who consider editing to be an expensive, time-consuming and unnecessary interference with the writing process.

Unfortunately, too many administrators and managers (who authorise the expenditure of money, or the hiring of staff) see editing as an optional extra that they are unwilling to pay for. These people, who make communications decisions but don’t actually do the work, may say technical editing is:

  • unnecessary because it can be done quickly and easily by the writer using spelling checkers and other inexpensive software tools
  • unnecessary because good writers should be able to edit their own work
  • a good idea, but too expensive and time-consuming
  • a good idea, but they don’t have enough writers to justify employing an editor.

It’s certainly true that an organisation can produce good documentation without employing a person solely as a technical editor, but it’s also true that you cannot edit your own work as well as someone else can, except (sometimes) after a long enough time has passed to allow you to see the material from a fresh perspective.

What is technical editing?

When discussing the importance of technical editing, it’s important to understand just what it is (or should be) and what it is not.

To begin with, a technical editor should not be responsible for verifying the accuracy of the technical content of a publication. That is properly the responsibility of someone on the technical side of the company (an engineer, for example). Editors should, of course, question any item they suspect may be incorrect, and ensure that the responsible person verifies its accuracy.

Technical editing is really a quality control job.

There are several aspects of documentation that should be examined as part of quality control. These divide the editing job into several tasks, which can be performed by different people. This subdivision results in what’s been termed ‘the levels of edit’, described in detail in an excellent paper by van Buren and Buehler (1980), and elaborated on by Brockman (1986).

The levels of edit concept allows you to make several decisions:

  • how many levels of edit are required for each document
  • how many levels of edit can be reasonably done, given time and money constraints on a project
  • who can or should look at each of the levels identified.

Your management can thus make a realistic cost-benefit analysis, based on an understanding of what technical editing is really about.

The types and levels of edit

Nine types of edit were identified by Van Buren and Buehler, and combined into five levels of edit, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Types and levels of edit

Type Level of edit
  1 2 3 4 5
Coordination x x x x x
Policy x x x x x
Integrity x x x x
Screening x x x x
Copy clarification x x x
Format x x
Mechanical style x x
Language x x
Substantive x

A coordination edit is concerned with manuscript handling, planning and estimating, job monitoring and control, dealing with printers, and so on.

A policy edit ensures that the document conforms to the policy of the company, in presentation, content, legal requirements, and so on.

The integrity edit ensures that the document is internally consistent. For example, are references to figures, tables, sections, part numbers, product numbers, and other documents correct, and do the referenced items exist?

Screening and copy clarification edits examine many of the topics I’ve seen referred to elsewhere as ‘copy editing’. For example:

  • spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct
  • incomprehensible statements (for example, resulting from missing material) are identified and clarified
  • illustrations are correctly inserted
  • mathematical equations are typeset correctly

A format edit determines that the document conforms to the organisation’s standards on typography, layout and illustrations.

A mechanical style edit examines whether the document meets the organisation’s standards on such matters as capitalisation, spelling, hyphenation of compound words, use of symbols, bibliographic references, use of italics or bold type, and so on.

A language edit is concerned with how ideas are expressed, regardless of the format or mechanical style. The language edit is one of the most important types of edit from the point of view of the reader of the document, and the area in which much technical documentation needs the most work. For example:

  • sentence complexity and use of active or passive verbs
  • conciseness
  • clear, logical development of ideas
  • use of jargon or technical terms appropriate for the intended audience

The substantive edit deals with the overall structure of the publication:

  • Does it all fit together into a coherent whole?
  • Is the order of presentation logical?
  • Is all the necessary information included, and unnecessary information deleted?

It should be clear that some of these types of edit can be (indeed, often should be) performed by different people, or they could all be done by one person designated as ‘the editor’.

An organisation that doesn’t want or need a full-time editor could consider these options:

  • use a contract editor
  • have writers edit each other’s work
  • if there’s only one writer, have one or more other staff edit the work.

The technical editor as the reader’s representative

Boomhower (1975) offers a complementary view, dividing editing into two types, ‘literary’ and ‘technical’. This division suggests slightly different ways of dividing up the work, but agrees that all the items listed should be done.

The literary editor is primarily concerned with the language and mechanics of writing and producing a document (the first seven types of edit described by Van Buren and Buehler).

The technical editor is primarily concerned with the document’s technical content and how well it is presented to the intended audience: Van Buren and Buehler’s ‘language’ and ‘substantive’ edits.

Technical editors should therefore have a general familiarity with the subject being presented, and should be familiar with the technical terminology used to describe it. They should not, however, be as familiar with the details of the subject as the technical writer.

Such editors should judge a manuscript on the basis of whether it tells them, as representative readers, what they need to know- and only what they need to know – completely, concisely, clearly, and accurately.

Therefore, the technical editor need not know too much about the subject beforehand, but should be able to learn about it from what the writer has written (just as the intended reader should).

Duties of a technical editor

If your company chooses to employ a technical editor, either as a staff member or on contract, a reasonable job description could include the following (modified from Power, 1981):

  • Plan the documents necessary for a project: content, cost, timing, other resource requirements
  • Coordinate the production of several books on one product (often written by different people)
  • Set and enforce standards for the company’s publications and (in consultation with writers) for a particular project
  • Assist writers in the development of material, particularly its logical order and structure
  • Advise writers on the appropriate use of graphics, wording of headings, figure and table captions, page breaks, index and glossary entries
  • Provide whatever levels of edit (as described above) are necessary
  • Review, edit and rewrite all technical copy as necessary, in cooperation with authors
  • Assist with translations, usually in the idiomatic expression in English of technical concepts
  • Organise reviews of material for technical accuracy
  • Supervise editorial assistants and graphic artists.

The editor might also be called upon to:

  • Help people prepare speeches, select visual aids, and rehearse presentations
  • Maintain a reference library on writing and other communications
  • Collect samples of previous publications to provide material for decision-making
  • Design and present in-house writing courses.


E.F. Boomhower, ‘Producing Good Technical Communications Requires Two Types of Editing’, J. Technical Writing & Communication, Vol. 5(4), 1975, pp. 277-281.

R. John Brockmann, Writing Better Computer User Documentation, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1986, pp. 141-159.

Robert Van Buren and Mary Ann Buehler, ‘The Levels of Edit’, second edition, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasedena, CA, January 1980, JPL Publication 80-1, 26 pp.

Ruth M. Power, ‘Who Needs a Technical Editor?’, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Vol. PC-24, No. 3, September 1981, pp. 139-140.

Last updated 26 September 2002