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Technical Editing

by J. M. Haile

In this article we briefly review the role of editors in preparing technical documents. Editing is commonly associated with publishing journals and magazines, but it can also occur when a supervisor or coworker helps an engineer proof a document and when faculty critique student reports and theses.


The editor's principal job is to help the writer reach the reader. Thus, the editor must engage the writing and provide the writer with constructive criticism. The editor must understand the needs, limitations, and viewpoint of the reader; this understanding guides an editor in identifying what works in the writing, what can be improved, what must be improved, what can be omitted, and what must be added. To reach such understandings, the editor and writer must agree as to (a) Who the reader is, (b) What the reader already knows about the topic, and (c) What message the writer intends for the reader to receive.


Technical editing is an exacting task, demanding a high level of accomplishment in several areas. Effective editors are master writers: they are grounded in good usage of the language and they are sensitive to those qualities that contribute to an effective technical style. Poor writers cannot become good editors, and even good writers do not necessarily develop into good editors. Much of editing is a search for balance, in which the talents and capabilities of the author are pitted against the needs of the reader. In most cases, balance can be reached in several ways, and a good editor helps the writer find that balance which can be most easily achieved.

Good editors do more than simply identify problems in the presentation. They not only say, for example, "This is a weak paragraph." But they also tell the writer why the paragraph is weak and suggest ways by which it can be improved. Note that an editor only guides the writer; it is not the responsibility of editors to write or rewrite. In fact, editorial rewriting signals a failure to edit properly.

Effective editors function at different scales. On the one hand, they are sensitive to the use of individual words and phrases. On the other, they grasp the organizational structure of the entire document, and they can judge whether that structure is complete and effective.

The editor need not be an expert in the topic of the writing; however, an editor should have expertise in some technical discipline. Editors must appreciate the difficulties and subtleties involved in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data; they must be fluent in the fundamental rules of logic; they must be adept at mathematical reasoning. They must have a repertoire of ways for presenting technical information and be able to select the one(s) that are likely to be most effective and economical in the current context.

Aside from the requirements listed above, editors must resist the all too human compulsion to change a presentation merely to make a change or to make a contribution. Editors must let the presentation retain the personality of the writer and not try to superimpose an additional personality. It is, after all, the writer's work. In short, the editor must exercise restraint.

Intellectual Integrity

A second role of the technical editor is to help the writer maintain intellectual integrity. Most writers have sound ethical intentions, but in the rush and pressure of preparing a document, some writers may overlook these important issues. Here are some of the issues that should be confronted.

  1. Intellectual property rights. No one can duplicate and distribute the work (text, figures, drawings, etc.) of others without explicit, written permission from the copyright holder. Under current U. S. Copyright Law, all original material made available for distribution is protected by copyright, regardless of whether or not the material contains an explicit copyright statement.
  2. Citations of previous work. Data, ideas, arguments taken from the work of others must be cited. The citation must be sufficiently complete that readers can locate the original work.
  3. Complete presentation of data. In experimental reports, all collected data must be reported. The writer may legitimately judge that some of the data should not be used in the analysis, but all data must be reported.
  4. Competing arguments. Writers must present not only their own interpretations of data, but also competing interpretations. They should explain why they prefer one interpretation over others.
  5. Opinions. Technical writers must clearly distinguish among
    • Logical deductions from the data, which must be correct if the data are correct,
    • Inferences or extrapolations from the data, which are implied by the data and are probably correct, but which require additional data to confirm,
    • Opinions based on the data, which may seem reasonable but which can neither be supported nor refuted by the available data.

Thus editors serve simultaneously as coach and referee: they help individual writers mature in their craft and they seek to preserve the intellectual integrity of the technical community.