Editing, Writing, and Translation

Home Services Books Articles Resources Fiction Contact me Français

You are here: Articles --> 2010 --> The editor and the electronic word
Vous êtes ici : Essais --> 2010 --> The editor and the electronic word

Chapter 6: The editor and the electronic word: onscreen editing as a tool for efficiency and communication with authors

by Geoff Hart

This document represents a preliminary version of the book chapter that will be published in the book New Perspectives on Technical Editing edited by Avon J. Murphy, Copyright 2010 by Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., Amityville, New York. Presented here with the publisher's permission. The bibliographic entry for that chapter will be the following:

Hart, G.J.S. 2010. The editor and the electronic word: onscreen editing as a tool for efficiency and communication with authors. p. 107–126 in: Murphy, A.J. (ed.) New perspectives on technical editing. Baywood Publishing, Amityville, N.Y. 198 p.


Editing has existed as long as there have been writers. Whether the editor was a spouse staring over one's shoulder ("did you really mean to say that?"), or the publisher's weary gatekeeper ("it looks interesting, if only we knew what you were trying to say"), some form of reality check has always been necessary. The problem originates in our blindness to the assumptions that shape our own words. As writers, we're intimately familiar with the world within our own head, and it's not always clear how to communicate that world to someone who isn't living in the same head. The medium used to bridge two minds doesn't help: even when the words themselves are clear and follow their dictionary meanings, the manner of their assembly may need work, there may be significant gaps in the content, and understanding the resulting sentences may require knowledge of a great many authorial assumptions not shared by the audience. Plus, most words have multiple meanings that vary among audiences and among cultures. This aspect of human psychology seems unlikely to change. Anyone who's been in a long-term relationship can confirm that even after many years of learning a partner's idiosyncrasies, we fail to communicate dismayingly often. How much harder, then, must it be to communicate with complete strangers?

Although the value of an editor's assistance is clear, the author–editor relationship is often a troubled marriage, and many challenges emerge. These begin with the need for clear communication, since editors (author opinions notwithstanding) are every bit as human as authors, and suffer from the same communication difficulties. The egos of authors and editors add another layer of complexity to the communication. Where the relationship between authors and editors exists within a hierarchical structure, issues of authority and agency further complicate the dialogue (Hart 2007c), but even when authors and editors have nearly equal power, consensus must more often be negotiated than imposed. Last, and never to be neglected, there is the difficulty of balancing the author's need to communicate with the reader's need to understand and the editor's responsibility to meet both needs.

Editors perform a range of types of editing to help authors communicate. For the surprisingly many authors who have difficulty ordering their thoughts, developmental editing helps them to assemble a clear, effective blueprint, and musters the wood and carpenter's tools together in one place. Next, after the writing has begun, substantive editing ensures that the pieces fit together, and helps the author position those parts until they can be fixed in place. Copyediting buffs off any rough edges that remain, and prepares the product for its final coat of varnish. Proofreading provides that final polish.

The rapid technological evolution that characterizes modern times seems unlikely to change these basic aspects of who we are and what writers and editors do. Whether we write in cuneiform on damp clay tablets or dictate our thoughts to speech-recognition software on a fast new computer, the same need for a reality check remains, and editors are the professionals who provide that sober second look.

Complicating this task is the information age's demand for ever-increasing efficiency: as the pace of modern life accelerates, deadlines seem ever tighter and the urgency to finish work now seems greater than ever before. As a result, heroic efforts are often made to reduce cycle times (for example, see Rosenquist 2001, p. 196). Accompanying this context, there's an ever-increasing trend towards assembly-line writing, most familiarly in the move towards single-source publishing (Carter 2003, Rockley 2003, Williams 2003). In such an environment, the kind of bespoke fine-tuning of text that used to be accepted as standard practice may be eliminated because of time constraints. Indeed, high-pressure workplaces—including some newspapers and many computer and software documentation departments—have dispensed entirely with the time-consuming editorial stage and rely solely on peer review to catch and fix any problems.

Because most words are now being created on the computer, and the raison d'etre of computers is efficiency, it seems illogical to move words from computer to paper solely to permit editing. As a result, onscreen editing has become increasingly important. (In this chapter, I define onscreen editing as any form of editing that uses a computer, rather than pen and paper, to review and revise the text. It doesn't matter whether the text will eventually appear on paper or a computer screen.) The good news is that the many efficiencies of onscreen editing make it easier to give existing editors more time to do their work or even allow managers to restore an editorial stage in workflows that lack one. The bad news is that we've got a long way to go before onscreen editing fulfills its full promise.

To understand where technological evolution has led us, it helps to start by understanding whence we came.

A brief history of text processing

At least as far back as the first Mesopotamian and Egyptian scribes, and more familiarly the stereotypical teams of medieval Christian monks who laboriously copied manuscripts before the invention of the printing press, the creation of documents has been the domain of workers trained specially for this task. By the early 20th century, increasing literacy meant that most educated individuals could write, often many tens of words per minute, but text transcription remained inefficient, and the faster the writing, the less legible the result. The invention of the typewriter improved upon these results, allowing even a moderately skilled typist to produce twice as many legible words per minute as was possible with handwriting, and the beloved image of cowled monks evolved into one of secretarial typing pools—rooms filled with female typists. Because typing paradoxically required considerable skill, while being an activity with little perceived value (now that anyone could do it), creators of information such as managers and engineers and scientists rarely performed this activity. Instead, they scribbled their thoughts on paper and handed them to the typing pool or a personal secretary to clean up. (Many of these early typists eventually became editors due to their hard-won skill at imposing order on authorial chaos.)

In the last half of the 20th century, computers began displacing typewriters, but the social context that had given rise to the typing pool left such pools and their data-entry equivalents a familiar corporate fixture. But early in the computer revolution, the computers used for writing were large and expensive, and were thus centralized resources used only by experts. This, combined with organizational inertia, perpetuated the typing pool model. Even once video terminals connected to mainframe computers became widely available (by the early 1980s), making the possibility of modern word processing available to most corporate employees, a large proportion of documents originated on paper and passed through the hands of a roomful of secretaries who spent the day shackled to their typewriters and word processors. By 1971, an estimated one-third of all working women in the United States were working as secretaries (Dullea 1974). Review and revision were conducted entirely on paper printouts, with the changed text laboriously recopied into the word processor files in a process even the earliest scribes would have instantly recognized. Authors and editors then reviewed the printouts to ensure that their changes had been correctly implemented, marked any errors on the printout, and then returned the corrected typescripts to the typists, repeating the process ad nauseam until the manuscript was perfect.

As computer technology became increasingly powerful and inexpensive, complex early word processors such as the early AES and Wang systems were gradually replaced by more author-friendly software such as WPS for VAX computers. Nonetheless, most professionals who were not primarily authors continued to work on paper, handing their manually annotated printouts to the word processing staff. By the time personal computers had become more than a toy for electronics hobbyists, early word processors such as WordStar and AtariWriter became increasingly available and easy to use. Simultaneously, a sea change in which companies struggled to become more efficient by "trimming the fat" led many to gradually eliminate their typing pools and make authors responsible for their own writing. No longer were professionals deemed sufficiently rare and irreplaceable that they could afford to have someone else do their typing, although word processing specialists remained available to help authors too important (or insufficiently competent) to embrace the new technology—managers, for instance. This workplace evolution continued, with responsibility for typing and revising manuscripts increasingly shifting to even managerial authors, and with word processors such as Microsoft Word and WordPerfect virtually eliminating the older software. This evolution continues today, with open-source word processors such as OpenOffice Writer posing an increasingly credible challenge to the established giants.

With the growing internationalization of business, Web-based programs have emerged to offer online writing and collaboration. These range from expensive proprietary systems such as XMetal Reviewer to free suites such as GoogleDocs. At the same time, the Web and maturing online help technology have created enormous demand to move information online, as has the increasing cost of printing and shipping printed materials. (Indeed, large printed manuals for computer software and hardware seem to be an endangered species.) Moreover, modern documents evolve freely between print and Web versions. Added to this is the challenge of nonlinearity: readers can enter online information through many portals, not only in the linear order an author may have originally intended, and information may be assembled on the fly from chunks of text drawn from databases. Accompanying these changes, the traditional single-building workplace, with authors in the next office to editors, is no longer the only option; in the modern workplace, authors and editors may be distributed around a city, country, or continent, and sometimes even around the world. From a single monolithic corporate culture, we have moved to the full global diversity of cultures, adding cultural differences to the list of challenges editors face (Hart 2007d). All these changes pose both challenges and opportunities (Lanier 2008).

Modern editors have had to learn new skills to handle the increasingly fluid and multicultural identity of modern texts. These include the skill of onscreen editing, as we'll see below. By 1999, when the tools available to support onscreen editing were finally becoming truly efficient, an estimated 38% of editors and writer–editors used onscreen editing "often or very frequently", and an additional 32% used this approach at least occasionally (Dayton 2003). Dayton (2004b) notes that many people still find working on paper easier and more flexible, particularly with respect to the affordances provided by paper and the ability to see the overall structure of a document, but also emphasizes the importance of individual perception in determining the acceptance of onscreen editing. In my own experience teaching onscreen editing skills, I've seen radical improvements in the attitude towards onscreen editing once editors learned how to customize the tools to fit their work style and learned how to use the tools efficiently.

It's worth noting that because Dayton's (2003) study included a relatively small proportion of respondents who worked primarily as editors (only 4% of the sample), the true proportion of editors who were using onscreen editing as a key part of their toolbox would have been much higher than he reported. This is supported by anecdotal evidence from the copyediting-L discussion group. In addition, there is clearly a generational change occurring, in which the younger generation is embracing onscreen reading far more readily than the older generation that forms the majority of people who are currently working as editors. Speaking at the 2008 WritersUA conference in Portland (Oregon), Cheryl Lockett Zubak emphasized the importance of this change for the authors of user assistance ("online help").

Where we stand today

Modern editors work in a wide range of contexts. These include in-house employment by traditional publishers such as magazine and book publishers, where much of the writing is done by authors from outside the organization and an in-house editor works with the text they submit. In more integrated publishers, such as newspapers and computer hardware and software companies that employ professional authors (technical writers) to produce their information, the authors and editors work for the same employer and often in the same building, and are part of the same workflow. Last but not least, freelance editors may work with a wide range of authors either directly or through a contract agency. These lead to differences in how well editors can communicate with authors to discuss our work. Although you'd expect integrated publishers to provide the greatest opportunities for communication and collaboration, such companies often "protect" authors from editors because they do not want the author's work to be interrupted. Thus, in different examples of each context, editors may work directly with the author, work with the author only through a human intermediary, or may only work with the author through the medium of the edited manuscript. Dayton (2004a) has clearly demonstrated how differing workplace contexts such as these affect both the perception of and opportunities for onscreen editing.

Nonetheless, the nature of the work remains more similar than different, particularly with respect to the flow of work. Writing always begins with an idea and an author, but the process diverges greatly from that point onwards. Authors who publish their own information may review and revise their own writing, then immediately publish it; formal editing only occurs belatedly if readers complain about the quality. Workplace publishing processes tend to be more demanding, and include at least one review and revision phase, though many more phases and types of review may occur (Hart 2006a). In a mature process adopted by an organization that understands the importance of quality control, the publishing process can be truly rigorous. Writing still begins with a carefully crafted outline that serves as the blueprint for the final document (Hart 2006b), but that outline may be intensively critiqued by the author's manager, an editor, and others before writing begins. Some enlightened organizations even involve all stakeholders who have authority to approve or reject the final text (possibly even a senior manager) to avoid any unpleasant surprises late in the publishing cycle. Only once the outline is approved can writing begin.

Between the outline stage and final publication, manuscripts may be reviewed by many stakeholders, each with different responsibilities. Manuscripts often undergo an expert or peer review that focuses on the technical details of the content. Where manuscripts are being written for a client, client reviews may also occur. In hierarchical organizations, there is usually some form of management review in which a senior manager approves the manuscript for publication. Editorial review often starts with a developmental edit, then proceeds through substantive editing and copyediting to a final proofreading, though these phases often overlap. Editorial review may occur only after a manuscript has survived all the other forms of review, may precede these reviews, or may occur both before and after these reviews. In my experience, the latter approach is more effective, because a carefully edited manuscript lets reviewers focus on the content instead of being distracted by typos, unclear wording, flawed logic, and a range of errors of omission and commission that are obvious to anyone but the author. At the same time, a final edit after these reviews offers a chance to catch any errors or infelicities introduced during the review process. Depending on the length and complexity of the overall document, editors may work on small chunks of information as it is completed, or may only begin their work once the entire manuscript is complete.

Whether editors have the luxury of working on a single manuscript at a time, for a single author, or must juggle many different manuscripts and authors simultaneously, task management is clearly important: it's impossible to meet deadlines without forgetting any details in the absence of some way of tracking deadlines and which tasks remain to be completed. This work has traditionally been done manually, and you'll still see wall charts (or whiteboards, their modern equivalents) even in high-tech companies. But software is increasingly used to support this process. For editors with relatively few manuscripts and deadlines, task management may be no more sophisticated than a to-do list typed up in a word processor file, possibly combined with calendar software. More demanding workloads require more sophisticated tools such as the scheduling and task-management features built into Microsoft Outlook. Large publishers often use full-blown project-management tools such as Microsoft Project to handle the complexity of their work.

Routing of manuscripts between stakeholders can be similarly variable. I've worked for employers who handled this manually, using nothing more sophisticated than e-mail software, and for employers who used automated "dispatch" systems that automatically moved manuscripts to the next person within a defined workflow as soon as each person completed their step in the process. More sophisticated publishers such as newspapers and magazines may develop highly integrated systems in which writers, editors, and publication designers all work on a publication simultaneously, with each person "checking out" a given document (so that it is unavailable to the others) while they work on it, and the document automatically becoming available to others when it is "checked back in" into the system. Adobe's InCopy software is a modern example of mass-market software, but high-volume publishers such as Cadmus Communications often develop their own proprietary systems for collaborative writing and editing.

Because multiple reviewers may need to work on a manuscript, and because it is often necessary to retain older versions of a manuscript (for example, to create "paper" or "audit" trails), some form of version control may be necessary. Again, this can range from simple manual archiving of files with a creation date and reviewer name appended to the file name to sophisticated version-control software such as Microsoft's Visual SourceSafe.

The basic tools

The intellectual tools that editors use to edit don't change when moving from on-paper to onscreen editing, although a certain facility with computers is required to support the use of those tools. The biggest challenge onscreen editors face is learning to think clearly about how computers change the rules of the game. A first step in making this adjustment requires us to clearly understand what humans and computers do best. We humans understand the nuances of language and audience, and can identify the assumptions authors make and the gaps in content and deficiencies in approach that these assumptions create; machines wholly lack this understanding, which is hardly surprising given that even experienced editors don't always understand these skills well enough to teach them to our editing students. Computers, on the other hand, are unmatched at doing mindless, repetitive tasks such as finding or replacing a word everywhere in a long document. Clearly, then, effective onscreen editing is a process in which we use the computer's strengths to supplement our weaknesses, and vice versa. In this sense, learning onscreen editing does not involve creating a new paradigm, but rather learning how to make the old paradigm work more efficiently (Weber 1999, Hart 2007a).

Editors use several broad categories of software for onscreen editing. First, and most obviously, there are word processors, the primary modern tools for the creation of text. Microsoft Word remains the most widely used software, both because of its enormous power, general ease of use, and ubiquity (it is bundled with a large proportion of new computers). Corel's WordPerfect, a long-time Word competitor, remains popular in the home computer market, as well as in government and law offices. Despite the dominance of these programs, many less-known word processors have their own dedicated cadre of users, such as Nisus Writer for the Macintosh and IBM/Lotus Word Pro for Windows. An interesting recent change is the emergence of powerful free tools such as OpenOffice Writer and GoogleDocs that are available for the Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems and that are posing an increasingly credible challenger to older word processors. Special-purpose text editors include the exceptionally powerful and broadly popular emacs, which has remained popular for decades in professions such as computer programming and is sometimes used in Web development.

Publishing tools form the next largest group, with Quark Express remaining popular, Adobe's Pagemaker now replaced by the increasingly popular InDesign, and Corel's Ventura Publisher no longer supported but clinging to its own niche along with more obscure programs such as RagTime. FrameMaker occupies a unique niche in the technical communication field because of its strengths in creating large documents. But here, there has been a sea change. Traditional desktop publishing (DTP) tools are still widely used, as the number and variety of printed publications continues to increase, but a rapidly increasing proportion of text is being created as online information published for use on the Web or on your computer (for example, PDF files and online help). The Internet's growth over the past two decades has led to an explosion of specialized "authoring" tools, such as Adobe's Dreamweaver and Microsoft's FrontPage and specialized online help-authoring tools such as Adobe's RoboHelp and MadCap's Flare. Then there are the myriad programs for creating wikis and Web logs, better known as "blogs"; blogs are particularly interesting because they bring publishing to even the least talented computer user, leading to what may be the single most rapid explosion of new published information in history. Online authoring tools share many of the text-creation tools used by word processors, though the tools are often less mature because their designers often emphasize flash over substance or emphasize management ofcollections of online documents. A new category of tool, the "structured document processor", has been developed to solve two significant information-creation problems: imposing structure on large bodies of information, and efficiently publishing this information in two or more media ("single-sourcing"). Typical programs in this category include FrameMaker+SGML, Arbortext, and WebWorks ePublisher.

In addition, computers permit the creation and manipulation of many other categories of information. Database software such as FileMaker and Microsoft Access, a wide range of tools based on the SQL database query language, plus many others, are designed to store information so that it can be searched efficiently and so that subsets of the information can be rapidly extracted. Spreadsheet software such as Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro Pro, and Microsoft Excel serve a similar function for numbers, but with the addition of powerful calculation and graphing tools. In addition, graphics software such as CorelDraw and Adobe Illustrator now let even amateurs create credible graphics, or at least facsimiles that professionals can refine.

Modern editors may have to cope with any or all of these different programs at some point in their career.

Basic requirements for onscreen editing

Although it's possible to print copies of all computer information and revise it on paper, this is patently inefficient, and most high-volume producers of information recognize the need to edit the information on the computer screen to take advantage of the potential efficiencies (Hart 2000). Irrespective of the technology used by the author and editor, the heart of editing is communication between editor and author. This communication may take place in real-time, whether in person, by telephone, or using instant-messaging ("chat") software, or with a delay, whether by postal mail, e-mail, or transfer of annotated files between computers. Irrespective of the medium chosen for communication, onscreen editors must clearly communicate three essential types of revision to authors:

Although all changes to text that authors have leeway to accept or reject are implicitly suggestions, editing is an inherently adversarial activity that communicates the concept "your writing sucks and as editor, I'm a better writer." Thus, the third category of revision (comments) is particularly important because it gives editors an opportunity to initiate a dialogue about the revisions, converting an author's natural resistance to being edited into an opportunity for collaboration (Hart 2002).

When implemented effectively, onscreen editing can be a remarkable tool for supporting the communication between author and editor and greatly improving the efficiency of editing and revising text. That's particularly true once editors learn to customize their software and use its features. Needless to say, things aren't that simple.

Problems and challenges

In an ideal situation, such as when the editor and author are using the same version of the same word processor on the same operating system (and for the same language family), that software's revision tracking features can be used to clearly identify all three types of revisions. This makes it easy for authors to see and understand what the editor has done. Moreover, better revision tracking tools such as those provided by Microsoft Word efficiently guide authors through the process of finding, reviewing, and responding to (implementing or rejecting) each suggested revision, thereby minimizing the risk that any edits will be missed.

Unfortunately, the reality is seldom ideal. "Computer standard" is a pernicious modern oxymoron, and the truth of this statement is abundantly clear to anyone who has ever tried to move text between nominally compatible programs. Incompatibilities abound even between versions of the same word processor, forcing editors to keep an alert eye open for problems. Although it would be sensible to edit in the creator application to avoid these problems, few editors can afford to purchase copies of every application version used to create information and even fewer have time to master this many tools. The problem is worse and the solutions more demanding when, as is the case with almost all non–word processing software, the software lacks mature revision tracking tools (or any such tools), forcing editors to develop a range of variously elegant or kludgy solutions to solve the communication problem.

Moreover, despite nearly 25 years of progress since the first mass-market personal computers became available, computers remain extremely difficult and frustrating to use. Editors must learn how to customize their word processor so that it works comfortably (a process similar to breaking in a new pair of hiking boots), and how to use the tools efficiently—information that is generally lacking in the documentation produced by the software's developers because editors are not seen as an important target audience for these developers. Indeed, my own book (Hart 2007a) appears to be the only book currently in print that focuses exclusively on teaching these skills.

The diversity and recalcitrance of modern software is bad enough, but the single biggest challenge we face is the accessibility of software to an increasingly large pool of users. Whether there are more amateur creators of information than there used to be is debatable, but it's unquestionable that computer tools empower even amateurs to produce more information faster than was ever previously possible. Whereas traditional information creators typically follow a traditional write–edit–design production cycle—what I have frequently called the "design thrice, publish once" approach—many newer publishers and authors are unaware of this paradigm. The need for a rigorous design and revision cycle is thus not part of the mental model of most nonprofessional and many professional publishers of information. As a result, information is often published with an emphasis on speed and little or no effort at quality control. It can be challenging, and sometimes impossible, to communicate the importance of editing to many of these authors, and teaching them how to work effectively with an editor becomes an onerous task for many modern editors.

The increasingly international modern workplace adds another layer of complexity to the task of communication. Even within a language family such as English, the wide range of dialects that exist lead to widespread variations in word connotations, posing many traps for the unwary. The problem grows worse when author and editor speak closely related languages, such as English and French, and choose to communicate in only one language (typically English). Many words look the same, but their use and meaning has changed dramatically (these false cognates are known as faux amis in French). The problem can become insurmountable when the author and editor speak languages from entirely different linguistic families, such as English and Chinese, and when formidable cultural differences are added on top of the linguistic differences. Editors who work with multilingual, multicultural audiences must quickly learn to rigorously examine their own words, and to explain themselves simply and carefully (Hart 2007d).

Additional tools

The most obvious tools that onscreen editors use are their word processors. But many other computer tools can improve the effectiveness of editing.

Research tools

One of the larger editorial responsibilities involves "fact checking", whether the facts are as mundane as the date and page range of a publication or as abstruse as the meaning of genre-specific jargon. Traditionally, such checks required a well-stocked shelf of reference books, an address book full of the phone numbers of experts willing to be consulted to resolve thorny issues of fact, and a well-stocked research library populated by friendly and skilled librarians. Such tools remain valuable assets to any editor, but the last two decades have seen the development of a new resource: the Internet, and particularly the Web. The unprecedented interconnectedness between computers, combined with the improved ability to create large quantities of information quickly and publish it at little or no cost, has provided a stunning array of research tools editors can use to enhance our research.

Most obvious are information search tools. These fall into three broad categories. The first comprises general-purpose search tools that give editors a previously unimaginable ability to sift through a cornucopia of information. Google is probably the best-known of these tools. In addition to its primary text search tool, Google offers many specialized variants such as its image search, geographical search, scholarly article search, and book search. These tools let editors quickly find and verify both general information and information in a specific category such as images.

The second category comprises research portals, in which the tool's creators compile human-organized directories of information published by others. Yahoo is one of the best-known in this category, as their staff have devoted considerable effort to categorizing and linking to a wide array of resources such as discussion groups, financial information, and technology information. Many merchants also belong to this category. Booksellers such as Amazon are the best known example in this group, but similar Web-based merchants exist for almost any category you care to name. Using these tools is analogous to onscreen editing because it combines what humans do best (creating and organizing information) with what computers do best (storing and providing access to information).

The third category provides access to information published by its creators. Familiar examples include the U.S. Library of Congress and Worldcat library catalogs. Other examples include journal publishers (Springer, Elsevier, Blackwell), governments (for example, the United States government, the Canadian government, and the European Union), government agencies such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, organizations such as the World Trade Organization, and professional societies such as the Society for Technical Communication and the IEEE Professional Communication Society.

Editors quickly learn to use these tools in a variety of innovative ways. For example, it's often possible to use a general-purpose search tool such as Google to find a directory category offered by Yahoo that leads you to a specialized purveyor of information such as an antiquarian bookseller.

Communication tools

Whereas the abovementioned search tools provide access to "static" information, which is published and forgotten until someone updates it, the many discussion groups that have arisen on the Internet provide a significantly different and uniquely powerful tool: they provide "dynamic" information that is generated continuously by a host of minds, with communication occurring and bodies of information being updated and growing around the clock. The ability to solve problems by taking advantage of the assembled expertise of thousands of professional colleagues is just one example of how this technology greatly empowers editors. For example, copyediting-L, founded in 1992 by Carol Roberts, brings together nearly 1600 professional editors and techwr-l, founded in 1993 by Eric and Deb Ray, brings together more than 3000 technical communicators. Both include subscribers from at least 25 countries on most continents, so someone is generally available to answer thorny questions at pretty much any time of day. (The actual number of countries is undoubtedly far larger, since the nationality of subscribers with Hotmail, Google, and Yahoo e-mail addresses, among others, is not obvious.)

Groups of non-editors are also an enormous resource. Special-interest groups composed of both amateurs and experts have sprung up to discuss pretty much any topic you can imagine, and these groups provide something never previously available to editors: a guaranteed ability to observe and interact with our audience. Although some forward-thinking publishers have always allowed their technical writers and editors direct access to users of the publisher's information, a surprising number militantly resist this contact, possibly from fear of annoying their audience or learning some unpleasant truths. But the Internet provides easy access to most such audiences by allowing us to participate in their online communities. This allows us to better understand and advocate for our audiences, both of which are important if we are go beyond our responsibility to the author and effectively meet our responsibility to their audience.

The Internet also facilitates communication with our authors in real-time, even when they live on a different continent and are people we'll never meet in person. The ability to talk to our authors using "chat" (instant messaging), perhaps combined with real-time editing and updating of Web pages, allows real-time collaboration on a manuscript and other forms of information. Wikis and blogs offer a particularly good example of this approach because they are explicitly designed to facilitate the creation and publishing of information. When authors and editors cannot meet in person to cross pens over a printed manuscript, this approaches the holy grail of the author–editor relationship: dialog, negotiation, and consensus in real-time.

File-transfer tools

Of course, the Internet also facilitates some of the mundane tasks editors face. Most importantly for authors and editors who don't work in the same physical location, we can exchange files quickly and for essentially no cost. Most familiarly, we can exchange files via e-mail. When our service providers limit file sizes to 5 or 10 megabytes, as is common, various service (for example, YouSendit) let us to exchange much larger files by uploading the files to a server, where the author can then access and download them directly. Where security is important, many corporations and some individuals offer their own secured file-transfer (FTP) sites for clients and colleagues. Of course, in a pinch, we can and still do exchange files with our authors on CDs shipped by courier or postal mail.

Special challenges

In addition to the traditional challenges I've already discussed, the modern editor faces some new and not-yet-solved problems.

One of the more interesting challenges involves the emerging philosophy of communal creation of knowledge. In a wiki, for example, all members of the community can add and modify content, leading to a continuously evolving body of information. This leads to the development of what has been referred to as a "community of knowledge", in which information is developed and maintained collectively, potentially undergoing review and critique by all members of the community. One advantage of this approach is that many individuals will be consulted while creating the knowledge base, thereby reducing the risks that important information will be omitted or that errors will remain undetected. This can also create a more egalitarian system in which many voices are heard, not just that of the publisher (Hart 2007c).

The WikiPedia provides one of the best examples of this, as well as an illustration of its biggest drawback. In a recent study by the journal Nature, investigators found that the WikiPedia's content was, on the whole, as accurate as that in the famed Encyclopedia Britannica (Giles 2005). But one significant problem is that without taking special precautions, the information is vulnerable to vandalism, such as changes intended to be humorous or made to promote political agendas. There are two simple solutions: first, protect the content so that only trusted members of the community can modify it; second, use a two-phase approach in which modifications can be proposed by anyone, but must be reviewed and approved by qualified experts. Another problem is that without an editorial review process, the content quality may be low; Giles notes that many Wikipedia entries "need a good editor" and are "poorly structured and confused."

Another challenge relates to the perception of editors as word specialists. Unfortunately, much of the information currently being published is "non-words". These include a wide range of graphics (including static images, animations, and video), sound (including podcasts), databases of numerical information, and spreadsheets. Two challenges arise: first, the word specialist's potential lack of familiarity with these alternative media, and second, the fact that most of the tools used to create these media lack any form of revision tracking tools. There are workarounds, but these are stopgap measures. The real solution lies in teaching creators of this information to adopt a quality-control process such as the one I described previously ("Where we stand today"), and persuading the developers of the authoring tools to incorporate revision-tracking tools. It's also important to note that editors love words, and this leads us to assume that others share this love; in fact, for most of the information we will edit, excluding fiction, readers want to get the information they're seeking with as little effort as possible. This will force us to learn how to "let go of the words" (Redish 2007) and focus instead on efficient, concise communication, using a combination of as few words as possible, complemented by appropriate use of other media.

Online information poses another special challenge. In a printed book, the physical structure tends to impose a fixed, linear sequence on the information. Even when we use the book only as reference material, and enter its pages at some arbitrary point (for example, by following an index entry), we still see at a glance where information fits within the overall structure of the book, and we know from experience that if we don't understand what we've found, the explanation is likely to lie earlier in the sequence of pages. Hypertexts such as the Web and online help files pose a very different challenge. Because much of the structure of a body of information is invisible, we cannot rely on these familiar tools. Instead, we must strive to ensure that each chunk of information is self-contained and that it can either be understood without leaving that chunk in search of new information, or that the chunk provides clear links (cross-references) to important related information that may be required to understand the current information. This means that for online information, developmental editing cannot be skipped if we are to ensure that all the necessary information is either immediately present or easy to find. And just as we proofread printed text to ensure that cross-references point to the correct pages, we must "proofread" online information to confirm that all links take us to the correct chunk of information.

The latter challenge also arises in single-sourcing. The holy grail of single sourcing is to create information only once, and then reuse it (without any manual modifications) everywhere else it is needed. But this raises the question of whether it is truly possible to produce context-free information that can be reused, unmodified, in multiple other contexts. On the face of it, the answer is a clear no: all information is highly contextual, and without understanding that context, it's impossible to communicate effectively. But that's clearly a reductio ad absurdum analysis. In reality, careful consideration of the known contexts in which information will be reused, combined with a careful analysis of each chunk of information to identify any dependencies (information you must see first before you can understand the current chunk) and related information (cross-references), should make single-sourcing possible.

Whether this happens in practice is less clear. Developmental editing is one way to bring the practice closer to the theory, but publishers will also require subsequent substantive editing (to ensure that the information is comprehensible in each context) and "proofreading" (to ensure that links to related information are correct) to ensure that the resulting information works as well in practice as it is expected to in theory.

Special hints and tricks of the trade

The skills that all editors should learn (Hart 2005) fall into three general categories:

Software skills

All professionals must master certain tools, and in our case, those tools are the computer software that lets us perform onscreen editing. To attain this mastery, we must monitor how we work to identify inefficiencies that could benefit from the automation permitted by software. We must spend time exploring the capabilities of our software and learning new features and tricks for how to use those features efficiently. We must learn how to reuse information, whether through the creation of templates and online style sheets or through single-sourcing tools. We must also spend time identifying why a tool feels uncomfortable. Some discomfort vanishes with time and practice, but other problems require a search for how to customize the tool so it better fits how we prefer to work.

Soft skills

Communication with authors is essential, and learning to communicate clearly and in a way that helps us be seen as allies, not obstacles to publishing, is crucial for our success. Communication begins with the dialogue that introduces us to the authors, and helps us learn their needs, their problems, and their fears. Armed with that knowledge, we can spend time finding ways to make the author's job easier by accounting for their needs, solving their problems, and allaying their fears. All of this becomes easier when we learn to empathize with authors and communicate with them tactfully.

Survival skills

One of the hardest lessons for any editor to learn relates to where we fit within the publishing process. We must learn both our role, and how the larger organizational context within which publishing occurs will affect our work. Most organizations have annual and other cycles (such as the product development cycle) that affect our workload, the availability of time to learn and practice new skills, and access to authors when we have questions. But we have our own rhythms and cycles too. Some of us are morning people, and some emphatically are not, and scheduling the most difficult work for times when our mental resources are at their peak lets us do that work efficiently and well; for those other times when our mental resources are at their lowest ebb, we can do the more mechanical, rote work.

The future: special concerns

The need for editing has not changed and seems unlikely to ever change in the absence of some fundamental and unanticipated improvement in how humans communicate. The difficulty of bridging the gap between minds using such primitive tools as words and images makes it essential to subject all information that will be published to a reality check by professionals skilled in understanding the problems that bedevil communication. These difficulties are exacerbated by the challenges of multilingual and cross-cultural teamwork with an increasingly global team of cooperators (Hart 2007d).

The tools available to support our editing are powerful and support tremendous efficiencies, but they remain in silico implementations of how we formerly worked on paper. There have been few breakthroughs in which software designers carefully monitored how editors work and developed solutions that specifically support that work. Tools such as revision tracking are impressive alternatives to their paper equivalents, but have not yet shaken off their origins in paper to fully embrace the new paradigm of working on a computer. Real-time collaboration by combining chat software with rapid updating of a Web page to show the results of that collaboration, as is possible through such means as Google Docs, is in its early stages.

Unfortunately, market pressures lead software developers to release unstable software before it is ready for use in a production environment, with features designed based on marketing specifications rather than real needs. Untrained and unskilled authors make things worse by using the tools badly, and don't yet understand the need for editing and the possibilities for improvement made possible by working with a professional. A particularly intractable problem is the perception that speed is more important than quality, an attitude that makes editing an "annoying last step" that delays publication rather than an integral part of quality control. This creates problems such as choosing editors based on the lowest cost and fastest turnaround time rather than based on quality.

Outsourcing of work to countries with lower costs of living frightens many editors in developed nations; though many of these competitors have inadequate English skills, others are every bit as good as we are. Though this isn't a trivial concern, there seems to be far more editing work that needs doing than there are competent editors available to do the work. In addition, some authors (for example, Lanier 2008) see outsourcing and offshoring as a potential source of new opportunities, with offshore technical writers becoming a new clientele for onshore editors, particularly since we have knowledge of the local audience that few offshore writers ever attain. The challenge is how to demonstrate the value of what we do. For every combination of cost and quality, there's a client willing to pay that price.

Some editors fear we might someday be replaced by technology. Not any time soon. Apart from the ongoing failure of software developers to produce reliable software, semantic analysis that goes beyond the most basic copyediting (for example, subject–verb accord) is an intractable problem. Substantive editing requires an enormous knowledge of facts and of the unwritten human rules that tie these facts together. We gain this information over decades of life experience, and training software in these rules would require a similarly capacious education. Editing goes far beyond a mechanistic–stochastic assessment of the probabilities that a word represents different parts of speech.

Despite many breakthroughs, science still doesn't really understand language processing by the brain well enough to encapsulate that knowledge in software. But tools such as spellcheckers and grammar checkers will undoubtedly improve from their current primitive state—forcing us to stay on our toes. The fates of the legendary Paul Bunyan and John Henry, replaced by tireless and more efficient machines, won't be shared by editors any time soon, but as it becomes possible to incorporate ever more of our editorial tasks in software, this will highlight the need for the insights that only humans can provide and will free us to concentrate on that aspect of our work.

Despite these concerns, there are many pleasures and opportunities. The work itself remains fascinating. The pleasure of working with the insights of others and solving the challenge of how to communicate those insights makes editing a satisfying and intellectually challenging career, and one with a long future. In a very real sense, editors are usability experts for communication. Our skill lies in translating between the creator's mind and the reader's mind, recognizing when it's necessary to create new kinds of information (for example, moving from linear, author-directed learning to nonlinear, reader-directed learning; replacing text with graphics and interactions), and that skill is highly portable across types of information—with a little training.

I once defined editing as "professional idiocy": working as a professional whose primary skill combines the ability to misunderstand anything (i.e., to be an idiot) with the ability to determine why that misunderstanding occurred and prevent it from afflicting anyone else. This ability to empathize with an audience's lack of knowledge should be applicable in any other form of communication, including nonverbal media such as graphics and sound, and even media we can scarcely imagine right now, such as haptics.

Though computers, their software, and extensions of both such as the Web are clearly inhuman, they are nonetheless devices for enabling communication, and that's something skilled editors do well. This suggests that in an increasingly electronic world, there is considerable potential for empowering editors and elevating our status by facilitating and increasing our dialogue with authors. When we are seen as equals or near-equals in the process of creating information, we can no longer be dismissed as glorified spellcheckers and grammar mavens.


Carter, L. 2003. The implications of single sourcing for writers and writing. Technical Communication 50(3):317-320.

Dayton, D. 2003. Electronic editing in technical communication: a survey of practices and attitudes. Technical Communication 50(2):192-205.

Dayton, D. 2004a. Electronic editing in technical communication: the compelling logics of local contexts. Technical Communication 51(1):86-101.

Dayton, D. 2004b. Electronic editing in technical communication: a model of user-centered technology adoption. Technical Communication 51(1):207-223.

Dullea, G. 1974. Is it a boon for secretaries—or just an automated ghetto? New York Times 5 Feb. 1974:32.

Giles, J. 2005. Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature 438:900–901.

Hart, G.J.S. 2000. Why edit on screen? Intercom September/October:34–35.

Hart, G.J.S. 2002. Substantive editing: break it to them gently. Intercom June:34–35.

Hart, G.J.S. 2005. Improving your editing efficiency: software skills, soft skills, and survival skills. p. 364–369 in: Proceedings, STC 52nd Annual Conference, 8–11 May 2005, Seattle, Wash. Soc. Tech. Comm., Arlington, VA.

Hart, G.J.S. 2006a. Designing an effective review process. Intercom July/August 2006:18–21.

Hart, G.J.S. 2006b. Effective outlining: designing workable blueprints for writing. Intercom September/October 2006:18–19.

Hart, G. 2007a. Effective Onscreen Editing. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec.

Hart, G. 2007b. Is "intercultural" communication a moot point? Intercom May 2007:26–27.

Hart, G. 2007c. Bridging the gap between cultural studies theory and the world of the working practitioner. KnowGenesis 2(3):14–31.

Hart, G. 2007d. Successful cross-cultural communication requires us to test our assumptions. The Write Stuff, magazine of the European Medical Writers' Association 16(3):111–113.

Lanier, C.R. 2008. The implications of outsourcing for technical editing. p. 147-161 In: Barry Thatcher and Carlos Evia (eds.), Outsourcing Technical Communication: Issues, Policies and Practices. Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., Amityville, NY.

Redish, J. 2007. Letting go of the words. Morgan Kaufmann, New York, NY. 365 p.

Rockley, A. 2003. Single sourcing: it's about people, not just technology. Technical Communication 50(3):350–354.

Rosenquist, D. 2001. Information development organizations evolving to keep pace with change: a collaborative conversation of information development managers. Technical Communication 48(2):194–199.

Weber, J. 1999. Electronic editing: editing in the computer age. WeberWoman’s Wrevenge, 248 p.

Williams, J.D. 2003. The implications of single sourcing for technical communicators. Technical Communication 50(3): 321–327.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved