Technically Editing

by Amy Haagsma

Editing offers a wide variety of career avenues. And as technology makes it easier to distribute content, the demand for well-written, professionally-edited material continues to rise. Enter technical editing: a growing specialty that brings with it a diverse and rewarding career path.


So what do technical editors actually do?
Simply put, technical editors edit technical communication, which can be defined as any form of communication that focuses on technical or specialized topics, uses technology to communicate or provides instructions about how to do something. On a basic level, the role of a technical editor is the same as any editor: to shape and improve communication for the benefit of readers. That said, common tasks can include:

  • assessing documents’ level of complexity
  • revising copy to improve clarity, persuasiveness and effectiveness
  • identifying spelling and grammatical errors, incorrect usage and inconsistencies in style
  • querying factual content

Technical editors often work in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (commonly known as the STEM subjects) but are also found in banking, law, government and other industries that need to communicate factual information. Their work can include reports, manuals, journal articles, theses, dissertations and proposals. They may work in-house or freelance.


The education and career path to technical editing
There’s no clear cut path into technical editing, although it’s commonly pursued as a second career. Technical editors may have some previous education or experience in a technical field, while others may have a background in communications but end up working in a technical industry due to interest or chance. For others, it’s a combination of both.

My background is primarily in marketing, but five years ago I decided to shift my career toward engineering. I was interested in the field and discovered there was a need for competent writers and editors. I took courses at BCIT and ended up completing a diploma in civil engineering. Although this was not required for my position, it has given me a good understanding of the subject area, which is helpful when editing. I don’t need to query many points or do a lot of research, and the risk of introducing factual errors is significantly reduced. While it’s not essential for technical editors to have in-depth knowledge in a particular subject area, it’s good to have at least a basic understanding of industry terminology and an aptitude for technical information.

If you’re interested in a career in technical editing, you might consider taking a course to learn more about it. Several academic institutions in BC (BCIT, SFU, VCC and Vancouver Island University) offer technical communication programs, and at least one course in technical editing. (These courses can be taken individually, and some online.) The Society for Technical Communication (STC) also offers an online course in technical editing fundamentals.


Professional associations for the technically-inclined
Membership in professional associations can be a great way to start or build your career. I have been involved with the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) for over a year and have recently attended a few STC events. Both organizations offer tremendous value through networking opportunities, professional development and members-only resources, but to me the best part is the support network provided. I am the only technical editor in my department, and it’s refreshing to be able to check in regularly with people in similar positions. Getting to know others in your industry can also give you an idea of what to expect, and where and how to find work. The EAC and STC both have local chapters, and the STC also has a technical editing special interest group.

You might also consider joining professional associations related to a particular specialty or niche, such as the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS) or the Council of Science Editors (CSE). (The BELS offers a certification program, and the CSE produces a style guide called Scientific Style and Format.)


Do you know of any other professional associations for technical editors? Have other tips for getting started? Share your comments.


Amy Haagsma is a marketing communications professional and a student in SFU’s Editing Certificate program.

Image by iStockphoto.


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