The Elements of Technical Editing

Any well written text, be it technical or non-technical, is the work of an articulate writer and a brilliant editor. While the writer is credited for creating the skeleton, the editor is entrusted with the task of enthusing life into the skeleton.

My association with the writing and editing industry began in 2006 when, fresh out of college, I accidentally landed up in a publishing company as a trainee copy editor. Although the decision was not well thought of, it proved to be the beginning of a new interest in my life. After working on dozens of research papers and manuscripts, I learnt the relevance of an error free copy, thus developing an eye for fallacies as minute as double spaces before punctuations and as grave as misspelled name of the author. However, what I found difficult to resist was the temptation to work on the language. Following a year-long stint, I got a wonderful opportunity to work as a Technical Communicator with a leading software company. It is here that I ended up being on both the sides of the processes – writing and editing. In this article, I have shared my experiences of working as an editor in different setups.

In the publishing industry, copy editor, language editor, and development editor are completely distinct roles. Whereas a copy editor cleanses a manuscript for mechanical and stylistic errors, a language editor primarily works on the conciseness, crispness, and grammatical correctness of the content. Many a times, the former ends up playing both the roles. (Developmental editing is irrelevant in the context of IT industry and need not be discussed here.)

Unlike the publishing industry, the IT industry functions in a different manner. In most of the IT companies barring a few, a technical communicator plays multiple roles as that of a writer, an editor, and a reviewer as the situation demands. If you are aware, as a writer, of the essential elements of good technical writing, you will possibly end up being a brilliant technical editor. Some of the essential skills that a technical editor must possess are:

  • Domain knowledge.
  • Strong command over language.
  • Excellent communication skills – must have the ability to communicate changes to author amicably and persuasively.
  • Interpersonal skills.
  • An eye for detail.

A technical editor acts as a conduit between a writer and a reader through which the message seamlessly flows to the audience. Remember, a technical editor thinks from both the perspectives and ensures that both the organization’s objectives and the audience interests are achieved. To achieve this task, he/she must critique a document for the following elements:

  1. Completeness – The foremost role of a technical editor is to ensure that the document is complete; and to ensure it, the editor must ask two critical questions keeping in mind a reader’s perspective:

Who is the intended audience? And

What is the purpose of the document?

The intended audience can be technical, semi-technical, or non-technical i.e. specialists or non-specialists. Based on your audience analysis, the depth of information presented in the document varies. For non-specialists, avoid using technical jargon and clichés and define abbreviations and acronyms at their first appearance in the document. It is also advisable to use powerful and vivid illustrations as they tend to attract readers’ attention. Similarly, if your audience is international, avoid idiomatic vocabulary and complicated sentences. Following the audience analysis, focus on the purpose of the document. The purpose can be to inform, to describe, to persuade, or merely to record your actions.

Based on the above two analysis, a technical editor must check for the relevance of the information presented.


A Transport Technology Vision document 2030 was to be presented to the government. The purpose of the document was to share the vision envisaged by the experts for Indian transport technologies in 2030 and to convince the funding agencies including the ministry to grant funds to the order of thousands of crores.

The document ran in 100s of pages containing details of the existing technologies in rail, road, and air and their current state vis-a-vis the foreign counterparts. However, it missed out on a few vital elements:

  • Need for the study.
  • Vision for 2030.
  • Feasibility of the vision.
  • Positive impact it will have on the country (environment and people).
  • Resources needed to achieve it.
  • Powerful visuals.

In totality, the most important idea was missing in the document. Therefore, make sure that the main ideas are stated in the beginning followed by supporting information and visuals.

  1. Clarity – Verify the document both for conceptual and technical clarity. Conceptual clarity refers to the overall organization/outline of the document, logical flow of information, and appropriate placement of supporting illustrations and figures.

On the other hand, technical clarity refers to the absence of ambiguity in the language. It also includes relevant titles, sections and sub-sections, and high resolution images.

  1. Accuracy – Verify the document for accuracy of data, facts, figures and illustrations, names of organizations, abbreviations, and technical jargon used. Besides, make sure that hyperlinks, if provided, are functional.


While reading an article on art therapy, I came across the name ‘MagicPuddles’, an organisation working in this area. Out of curiosity, I searched for it on Google and realised that the organization is no more functional and has been split into two. Here, the writer and editor did not check for the accuracy of facts before stating it in the article.

Now comes the turn of the so called trivial errors that are often downplayed by the technical editors. However, I strongly feel that it is imperative to rectify them as there presence in the document is a sign of writer’s and editor’s naiveté.

  1. Grammar and Syntax – Ensure the correct use of tenses, voice (active/passive), and appropriate placement of words. Some of the most commonly confused words in technical documents include:
  • Set up/setup, set-up.
  • It’s/its.
  • Affect/effect.
  • There/their.
  • Quite/quiet.
  • Later/latter.
  • Than/then.
  • Inspite/In spite.
  • Devise/device.
  1. Crispness and Conciseness – Reduce the verbosity, tighten the sentences, and revise the lengthy paragraphs. Stick to the rule ‘Less is more’.

Earlier version:

“To obtain maximum performance from your computer, you should endeavour to follow the maintenance program furnished in the manual accompanying your computer.”

Revised version:

“To enhance your computer’s performance, follow the manual’s maintenance program.”

  1. Mechanical and stylistic errors – Screen the document for spellings (US/UK), capitalization, contractions, punctuations, abbreviations and acronyms, numbering, white spaces, text alignment, and consistency of font types and sizes used.

It is always preferable to have an editorial checklist by your side as it expedites the editing process and reduces the chances of missing out on the essentialities.

Author – Reema Mittal is a freelance writer, editor, and trainer with more than eight years of experience in the writing and editing domain. She has previously worked with Thomson Digital, Tata Consultancy Services, and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. Currently, she is engaged in a few freelancing projects including a book on Entrepreneurship. Besides, she also contributes regularly to http://www.artzolo.com/blog.


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