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The role of the editor in the technical writing team

by Jean Hollis Weber

Originally presented to Seminar 90: Bringing Technology Closer, and published in Proceedings of the Technical Communication Seminar, October 1990, pp. 67-69. (NSW Society for Technical Communication). Amended in November 2001 to include information relevant to online help, web sites, and other online materials.

This paper covers:

  • What editors do
  • Types of edit
  • Interactions with writing team

Skills required by an editor

Editing today covers far more than printed materials. In this discussion, I am assuming a technical editor may be required to deal with:

  • Printed materials (for example, books, pamphlets, quick reference cards)
  • Electronic (for example, online documentation, online help, web pages)
  • Video scripts
  • Computer based training materials

I am also assuming that the audience for the material being edited is not comprised of other technical people; or if it is, the editor is not the person responsible for ensuring the technical accuracy of the material.

What people think editors do

  • Check grammar and spelling
  • Enforce company style
  • Collect contributions from
    • writer
    • photographer
    • graphic artist
  • Ensure all is complete and in order
  • Handle associated clerical work
  • Make arbitrary changes
  • Cause delays
  • Interfere with writers’ creativity

Or (especially in academic or scientific circles)

  • Judge the technical or scientific merit of documents
  • Turn over the clerical work (above) to an assistant

What technical editors should do

  • Determine suitability of material for target audience
    • organisation
    • presentation
    • word use
    • illustrations
    • comprehensibility
    • completeness and correctness
    • retrievability (index, table of contents)
  • Be involved from planning stage to completion

In addition, an editor may be called upon to fill the following extraordinary functions:

  • Provide additional or missing material
  • Edit copy written by person unskilled in English
  • Edit transcribed tapes
  • Edit for technical content

Types of edit

Van Buren and Buehler (1980) published an excellent summary of technical editing work, organised under the following "types of edit":

  • Coordination
  • Policy
  • Integrity
  • Screening
  • Copy clarification
  • Format (visual aspects)
  • Mechanical style
  • Language
  • Substantive

These types of edit are 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

Which of these levels of edit is applied to a particular document depends on company policy, available time and human resources, and the quality of the original material.

Coordination edit

(Handle and control manuscripts)

  • Planning and estimating
  • Maintaining records
  • Scheduling and follow-up
  • Marking up manuscripts
  • Monitoring and liaison

Policy edit

(Ensure document reflects company policy)

  • Required elements included, and correct
    • cover and title page
    • table of contents, index
    • copyright notice
    • trademark acknowledgements
    • reader comment form
  • No unsubstantiated claims or derogatory remarks

Integrity edit

(Ensure that parts of a document match)

  • Table of contents agrees with heading in text, and page numbers are correct
  • Index page numbers correct
  • Tables, figures, references, equations, and footnotes numbered and identified correctly
  • References to other documents are accurate
  • Spine labels consistent with cover

Screening edit

(Ensure company’s minimal editorial standards)

  • Spelling and grammar
  • Artwork clean and properly labelled
  • No incomprehensible statements, caused by missing material

Copy clarification edit

(Clarify confusing text or artwork)

  • Clarify unreadable source copy
  • Mark mathematics for composition
  • Crop marks on photographs
  • Inking requirements for multiple colours
  • Artwork overlays or callouts clearly identified

Format edit

(Ensure text and artwork conform to visual requirements)

  • Typography
  • Layout
  • Figures and visual aids

Mechanical style edit

(Ensure text and art conform to company style)

  • Capitalisation
  • Spelling
  • Bibliographic references
  • Use of italics, bold, etc.
  • Numerals
  • Compound words (hyphenation)
  • Spacing before and after dashes and symbols

Language edit

(Ensure clear and effective presentation of text)

  • Spelling
  • Grammar and syntax
  • Punctuation
  • Usage
  • Language parallelism
  • Conciseness
  • Transitions
  • Mathematical expressions
  • Terminology, abbreviations, acronyms, symbols

Substantive edit

(Ensure coherence of individual parts)

  • Overall publication
    • Organisation and subordination
    • Parallel ideas
    • Proportional treatment of ideas
    • Missing material
    • Apparent discrepancies in meaning
    • Irrelevant or inappropriate material
    • Usability
    • Retrievability
  • Visuals – tables and figures

Interactions with team

Technical editor works with:

  • Planner
  • Lead writer
  • Writer
  • Graphic artist
  • Designer
  • Manager

Working with planner

  • Assist in determining requirements
    • number and type of documents
    • target audience for each document
  • Assist in developing schedules
  • Identify missing or misleading information in source documents
  • Identify usability problems in product
  • Edit planning documents

Working with lead writer

  • Share responsibility for coordination of writing
    • Writer: what to write
    • Editor: how it is written
  • Point out possible problems
  • Offer suggestions
  • Group conferences on editorial matters to ensure consistency

Working with writer

  • Develop editing schedule
  • Provide timely edits
  • Provide private, constructive editorial conferences
  • Assist as requested with
    • indexing
    • figures, tables, examples
    • any other questions
  • Provide training to overcome weaknesses

Working with graphic artist

  • Liaise with writer and artist to produce illustrations
    • content
    • presentation
    • consistency
  • Scheduling

Working with designer

  • Consult on design questions
  • Scheduling
  • Consistency

Working with manager

  • Keep informed
  • Make suggestions
  • Establish schedules and editorial policies
    • Who does what, when
    • How much notice is needed
    • Company style: standards and guidelines
    • Types of edit
    • Reviews: formal or informal
    • Editorial conferences
    • Who has the final say

Qualifications and skills needed

Depending on the size of the team, the amount of work, and the skills of the editor and other team members, the editorial work outlined in this paper could be spread over more than one individual. In many cases, it is preferable that more than one editor be involved.

Editorial work usually can be conveniently divided into three broad areas:

  • Work commonly considered ‘copy editing’, and assigned to a junior editor or trainee
  • Work requiring more experience and judgement, and assigned to a more senior editor
  • Work requiring considerable knowledge of the subject matter or the tools used to produce the material being edited

Both junior and senior editors ideally should have the following skills:


  • Good English skills
  • Analytical and problem-solving skills
  • Negotiating skills
  • Tact
  • Ability to work in a team
  • Ability to work with minimal direction
  • Ability to learn new tools and skills quickly
  • Sense of humour
  • Thoroughness, patience
  • Strong sense of responsibility


  • Degree or diploma (not necessarily in a technical area)
  • Knowledge of subject matter from the reader’s point of view
  • Knowledge of computer use, the software tools used to produce the material being edited, and the tools used in editing the materials
  • Knowledge of printing and publishing, or other media to be used


Many senior technical editors are experienced technical writers who have taken on the editorial role. In addition to the skills listed above, a writer-turned-editor generally brings to the job considerable experience and knowledge of tool use, subject matter, procedural testing, and delivery media.


E.F. Bloomhower, ‘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, Pasadena, CA, January 1980, JPL Publication 80-1, 26 pp.

Ruth M. Power, ‘Who needs a technical editor?’, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Vol. PC24, No. 3, September 1981, pp. 139-140.

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Last updated 31 October 2002