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Tracey Anderson

Editing Technical Instructional Material: Do You Need to Be an Expert?

Photo by Randall Bruder on Unsplash

“How can you edit that? You don’t know anything about being an electrician.”

I often heard that question and variations of it — carpenter, instrument technician, welder — in my years editing technical instructional materials for apprenticeship trades in Alberta. This is how I answered the question.

I am the target audience

The goal of training materials is to teach the reader. The subject matter expert’s high level of expertise can cloud his or her ability to identify and stick to the basics that students who are new to the field need. It’s also easy for the expert to make the unconscious assumption that students have sufficient background experience to understand the concepts. Often that’s not true, which can lead to gaps in the information the expert provides. Those gaps may make it hard for students to grasp the concepts fully.

Some experts tend to write with others at the same level in mind, and they forget that students are the audience. This oversight may lead to unnecessarily complex writing and/or unexplained jargon.

As someone who knows nothing about being an electrician, I am the target audience for the training materials. If I can’t understand what the writer is saying, the odds are high that a student won’t either, so I edit the information through that lens. I can help the expert/writer fill in the gaps and simplify the language through how I frame my queries.

  • I ask for definitions of terms.
  • I rephrase unclear text and ask the writer to check if my meaning is accurate, or I ask the writer to rephrase when I understand too little of the text to reword it myself.
  • I point out when a step in a process seems to be missing.
  • I note materials that seem to contradict one another.
  • I pose leading questions to show what information I think is required.

I am a language expert

I am not an expert in welding or carpentry, for example, but I am a language expert. Training materials are text like any other in many ways, so I use my expertise to address language issues that aren’t based in technical knowledge, such as grammar, sentence structure and content flow. I work in partnership with the writer, and we combine our expertise into a cohesive, comprehensive learning document.

These are my answers to “How can you edit that? You don’t know anything about being an electrician.” How do you answer similar questions?

___

For another perspective on whether you need subject expertise to edit, visit Sue Archer’s 2016 blog post, “Should You Only ‘Edit What You Know’?

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21 Comments on “Editing Technical Instructional Material: Do You Need to Be an Expert?”

  • Wilf Popoff

    says:

    I answer such questions this way: It’s not about being an electrician (or whatever) it’s about words, and I am a word expert.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Indeed. Many experts accept that readily; others need a little convincing.

  • Brendan O'Brien

    says:

    My first editing jobs were in metallurgy and civil engineering journals. It was assumed that the authors were experts and that the material would be sound technically; my role was to edit the language in much the same way as Tracey outlines here.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Stacey Aktinson

    says:

    I couldn’t agree more. The two subheadings « I am the target audience » and « I am a language expert » say it all.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Thanks, Stacey. I am glad you enjoyed the post enough to reply.

  • I’ve spent several years as a technical editor. I’ve been fortunate to be a subject matter expert in most of it—but my actual skill at technical editing has had less to do with my technical knowledge and more to do with my knowledge of words, « common sense, » and my ability to read as if a member of the audience

    • (« My kingdom for the ability to edit the above and add a period to the last sentence! »)

      • Tracey Anderson

        says:

        No worries. It happens to us all now and then.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Do you think your technical expertise gives you any advantages as an editor over a non-expert? I have often seen being a non-expert as an advantage, so I am curious what the other side of the equation looks like.

      • Yes, but with a couple of qualifications.

        First of all, we were all employees of the same software company. So, the editorial staff had more latitude than normal to make changes without the permission of the authors. Also, the authors were often engineering staff who had technical knowledge but no writing experience. (They were « voluntold » to write documentation.) Moreover, once they gave their technical input (in some cases, grudgingly) they didn’t care about rephrasing anything themselves. In that sense, it was better to have editors who could also assume some level of authorial responsibility—something that wouldn’t typically be the case. And actually knowing the subject matter myself helped me to spot any errors and simply correct them. I’m quite sure I spotted some things that would have otherwise been erroneously published.

        But, more importantly, understanding what was trying to be said I was still able to know how it should be rephrased—while still preserving authorial integrity. I was lucky to know both the content and the form.

        Perhaps it was just me, but I was able to prevent myself from making unnecessary changes. I knew I might write things differently if I wrote it myself, but I was able to refrain from doing so. If nothing else, I could send a query back and say, « By this I think you mean that, and, if so, shouldn’t you also be mentioned this other thing? » I think that’s something that somebody who didn’t know the subject matter wouldn’t be able to do effectively.

        So, for me specifically, I think it actually helped things that I was also an expert. But I can also see the other side—where some people might not be able to separate themselves sufficiently and « interfere » too much in the material.

        • Tracey Anderson

          says:

          Thank you for sharing your experience. I am always interested in learning how different people approach a similar task.

          I think writer reluctance is a significant editing issue that can crop up in situations like what you mentioned, where people have been told they must write a particular document. As you note, they may not be particularly interested in what happens to the document after it leaves their hands. If their further input is required, their reluctance can sometimes make the editor/writer relationship more challenging.

  • Virginia

    says:

    Sometimes « not knowing » is the technical editor’s secret weapon. Not knowing about the banking system or coal mining helps me see the obvious question that the expert writer can no longer anticipate.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      I agree, and I like how you framed « not knowing » as our secret weapon.

  • I think « I am the target audience » applies to all editing, but the implications are the reverse for fiction. You have to be the target audience so you have the expertise. I’m the target audience for SF but I don’t read Romance or historical fiction or mystery so I probably shouldn’t be editing those. I can see someone who has never read a mystery saying, « The Butler did it! Gosh, I never saw that coming! That’s brilliant! » I can’t know what’s a cliche, what’s been done a million times, what’s new and fresh, if I am not familiar with the genre. As an SF critic and editor, it is certainly clear to me when an SF novel has been published by an editor unfamiliar with the genre: Giant Ants, the last survivor’s of nuclear war turn out to be named Adam and Eve, or more insidiously, just allowing weak writing through because, « it’s just SF, not like it’s literature ». You know? None of those is happening on my watch.
    As for technical writing, I agree that naive about the content is often a good stance for making sure the work is accessible to the general reader, but I did once have the experience of acquiring a science book for our press, amazed at all the stuff in it I hadn’t known, when I passed it on to our science editor, she handed it back to me. « The reason that was all new to you is because its all completely wrong. » Oh. Oops. Not one of my better weeks!

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience. Your thoughts on editing genre fiction if you aren’t familiar with the genre are interesting. I can see how that would be quite true.

  • Excellent post! I think that when material is intended for a general or student audience, what you’ve said is right on the money. However, as Jason and Robert pointed out, sometimes it’s really useful, or even essential, to have related background. Ideally, material will be reviewed by a language AND a subject-matter expert, if the former doesn’t have at least some subject-matter knowledge.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      I can see how things might be different when the writer and the audience are both at a highly skilled level; that could certainly pose challenges for an editor who hasn’t any expertise in the field. I think those are not insurmountable challenges, though.

  • No, but the editor will need to be extra careful in checking things they aren’t sure of. I just proofread a trade book written for a general audience by a doctor. It had gone through a substantive editor and a copy editor, but I flagged at least 5 points of significant factual error. My science background really came in handy here, as it has many times in other books — even poetry! Conversely, people with arts backgrounds will easily catch things I have to be vigilant to look up.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Yes, it can often be helpful to have more than one editor on a project as everyone’s skills and background differ.

      On a side note, I am a poet, so I am curious how you think your science background helps you edit poetry.

      • I copy edit and proofread poetry. I would never do a first edit. Why? Because I don’t have the background. So just as poetry and fiction need appropriate editing expertise at some stage, I would argue that it is often the same for other specialized material. A poetry book needs a poetry editor, but it also benefits from a nuts-and-bolts editing specialist (and sometimes a totally different background is a bonus — as you’ve noted). To answer your question, when I copy edit and proofread poetry, there are quite often little incidental references I’ve flagged. (For example: a recent poem said that the scientific name for house mouse, _Mus musculus_, translates to « mouse muscle. » Seems reasonable, but no. Now, if it’s a deliberate flight of fancy, then no prob — it’s my job to just make sure. In that case, it wasn’t deliberate.) I find poets are the most grateful authors to work with when a fact is wonky (or anything else is wrong), because one small error won’t usually wreck a novel, but it can totally destroy a poem. But, Tracey, I’m not trying to overstate the importance of a scientific (or any other) background! Anyone else who thought to look up the fact could have flagged that point too. I didn’t mean to start a debate. I only intended to give my opinion: that while an editor’s being ignorant of a subject has advantages, so does having at least some background.

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