It is a commonly held belief that if a document is written
by an engineer or scientist involved in a project an editor is
not required. The typist can correct any spelling mistakes and
the technical content is bound to be beyond criticism.
Perhaps you have tried to learn from a technical manual and
found it totally unintelligible? You have. Join the club!
What went wrong? The engineer, if he were serious, would be
trying to transfer ideas from his head to yours. He writes his
thoughts down and then reads them over to make sure they say what
he wanted. As soon as he reads the words the right thought jumps
back into mind -- of course it does, it was lurking there all
the time, and only needed prompting to return to the surface.
For some poor soul who does not have his thought, and is only
trying to learn, it might as well be written in Chinese.
An editor's job is to test the communication value of the
words on the page. If he can't make sense of them it is probable
that few other readers will either. More often than not, the document,
instead of being sent to an editor, is given to the technical
director to approve and he can hardly fail to understand it, since
he is familiar with all the concepts.
The editor's most precious posession is his ignorance of the
writer's thoughts. As he reads, the engineer's logical ideas must
spring to his mind and be supported by all the background required
for full understanding. How often in a computer manual are vital
steps left out because everyone who has handled the document takes
them for granted?
Another common mistake is for the engineer to repeat words,
supposedly for emphasis, but often just because they sound good
together. So he might write of the "pace and tempo"
leaving the poor reader to puzzle over the meaning hidden in the
two words, when in fact each word contains all the meaning there
The technical editor must not only make sure that the right
words are used, but that their meaning is made clear in the context
in which they are placed. To this end he may well require the
engineer to enhance the document with explanations of 'generally
understood' concepts where publication is to a readership that
extends beyond the research environment.
Peter spent eight years as a sub-editor first on the Western
Morning News and then on the Johannesburg Star, before taking
a post with the National Building Research Institute in Pretoria.
He was responsible for writing all technical material for publication
in mass circulation media, and produced a series of "Introductory
Guides" on technical topics for the public. More recently
he has edited technical books for Faber and Faber.
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