Contracting and Technical Editing

Contracting and Technical Editing

October 17, 2002
Forum organized by Heidi Garfield
Notes By Gail Saari

Forum members who found their way to the Mechanics Institute—a lovely venue—enjoyed an evening of conversation about technical editing. Speakers were Louise Galindo, who has had 15 years of experience as an independent contractor doing technical editing and writing, and Jeff Gardiner, managing editor at Sun Microsystems.

Among the topics covered:

  • How is the field of technical editing different from other types of editing, and what do you need to know to "cross over"?

  • In today's less-than-stellar job market, how do you keep your technical editing business going?

  • What is the job market for permanent positions in technical editing?

How Is the Field of Technical Editing Different?

First, technical editors refer to themselves not as freelancers but as contractors, and technical editing does not mean editing for computer magazines—which is magazine editing. Instead, technical editors work on hardware and software documentation for the purposes of analyzing, interpreting and instructing.

Fields in which technical editors find themselves working are wide-ranging: science, computer science, agriculture, medicine, and even robotics (an up-and-coming area). As an independent contractor, Galindo often finds herself asked to perform all stages of a job, from development through the final proofreading; frequently she is hired as an editor but finds herself functioning as a project leader, often as a result of the less-stable technology business environment.

Technical expertise is needed, and classes on computer programming languages are helpful, although the technical editor is not necessarily a subject matter expert. Recommended reference books are the Chicago Manual of Style; Sun Microsystems's style guide, entitled Read Me First (but see below for word on the upcoming revised edition); the Apple Style Guide; and the Microsoft Style Guide. For medical editing, there is the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. For people who create or edit online there is Contentious, which offers a newsletter for online writers; One Look, a well-organized dictionary searcher; and RefDesk, which threatens to overwhelm because it is overly busy.

In several ways, technical editing is different from regular editing. The technical editor does not try to preserve the author's voice. Instead, the emphasis is on clarity: "If you do not understand something the first time you read it, the technical editor has not done a proper job," said Galindo. She cited the following quotation as unacceptable: "This creates a very happy ending when the computer decides to accept data." Also, technical editors do not necessarily work with paragraphs but instead with headings, outlines, and instructions. Naturally the editor must understand the procedures discussed in order to organize information and format its presentation.

A technical editor might perform a variety of tasks: editing of textbooks and user manuals, defining readers and purpose, developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, usability testing, and updating content. Often the editor is called on to bring material into conformity with government regulations or styles, to conform to a house style, to insure accuracy, and even to create templates for the writing process. In addition, the editor may need to check hypertext links and may be retained to handle ongoing revisions.

Important software tools include Adobe FrameMaker and Macromedia DreamWeaver (for checking HTML tags and links).

Business Prospects and Strategies

Times are tight for independent contractors, Galindo said, in part because managers see the editor as not entirely necessary. What do you do in a non-existent job market? Galindo suggests some flexibility; for example, she sometimes considers accepting less than her usual hourly rate where there are compensatory opportunities, such as the opportunity to pick up a new skill on the job. Vitally important, too, is to understand that independent contractors are expected to hit the ground running with an extensive repertory of existing skills.

It is frequently the case, said Galindo, that at the eleventh hour she is called in to clean up or complete a project. In some cases, she is given three to five weeks to do so. Galindo feels confident that there will continue to be jobs for people who possess not just editing skills but also the ability to put a book together at the last minute, as she did with Broderbund, where she wrote, edited, and did the layout for a 120-page book, using FrameMaker. The ability to make a table of contents and an index are also useful.

To get started as an independent contractor, one has a better chance set up as a small business. Resources include the Software Contractors Guild, the Society for Technical Communication and the National Writers Union.

Working on Staff

Jeff Gardiner, managing editor with Sun Microsystems, discussed technical editing from the perspective of a permanent staff member, although he was less than optimistic about the current job market. Gardiner informed BAEF members that Sun will lay off 11 percent of its editorial staff. He mentioned that the ratio of writers to editors is now 12:1, up from 7:1. There are few technical writing jobs and still fewer editing jobs.

That news came as a letdown after Gardiner had detailed the many ways in which working on staff is rewarding. Staff editors get a chance to work closely with writers and sometimes to develop long-term relationships with writing teams or engineering groups. To ensure consistency, everyone uses Teamware software. The work flow he described is somewhat different from that outlined by Galindo, in that at Sun there are staff members to handle each stage of a task. Contractors are only occasionally hired to handle overflow.

There is also the opportunity to have a lasting effect on style. The Sun editorial forum, which meets to discuss matters of style, has been in existence for eight years. The culmination of their discussions is the new Sun Editorial Style Guide, which should be available for purchase within the next six months. A lot of work has gone into indexing standards, naming conventions on interface design, machine editing, and translation and localization for non-English users. Another tool, the SunProof editing tool, is used for such things as catching pronouns that lack antecedents or flagging sentences with more than 24 words.

Galindo and Gardiner demonstrated an interesting difference in perspective on the matter of who determines matters of style. Galindo is often called into companies who have little or no formal house style and find themselves in need of someone experienced to develop and impose consistency and accepted usage. She often finds herself, therefore, as an arbitrator of such matters. Gardiner, on the other hand, who has been part of the eight-year editors forum at Sun and has just overseen a major style manual revision, told of an episode in which an independent contractor suggested style changes without realizing that Sun had already developed its own conventions. Both agreed on the need for flexibility and sensitivity to the needs of individual organizations.



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