Technical editing concerns the review of a text written about a topic of a technical nature. Editors apply several levels of technical editing, ranging from basic proofreading to substantive editing. Although the editing levels differ slightly between organizations and institutions, they can generally be grouped into four main levels. In this article, we will take an in-depth look at each of them.
Generally speaking, articles are written by technical writers, software or product developers, product managers, or other technical experts proficient in a specific area. Technical documents include the following types:
- Knowledge base articles
- Technical manuals/instructions
- Data sheets
- Descriptions and specifications
- Manuals / User Guides
- Formal Reports
But what is the advantage of hiring a technical editor to proofread your writing? Although editors are writing experts who strive to improve writing to the highest possible quality, they may not be experts in the field being written about. Therefore, they have an additional advantage in that they also act as user experience participants since they must first comprehend the writing from a level well below that of a proficient user, customer, or employee, for example.
Technical writers construct their articles in a precise manner at the macro level; hence, when it comes to editing such texts, technical editors not only assess the content linguistically, but they also go much deeper by considering the quality and relevance of the technical information. In doing so, a technical editor seeks to ensure the highest quality in terms of accuracy, clarity, consistency, and comprehensibility, not only in language but also in format. Overall, a good technical editor will assess the following criteria[i]:
- Reading critically and objectively
- Reading from the audience’s point of view
- Questioning what you read and reacting to it
- Verifying, checking, and testing
- Evaluating usability
- Judging appropriateness for intended use and audience
Level 1: Spec Editing
Although the general perception of technical editing is that it focuses on language exclusively, it actually entails much more. The first of the four technical editing levels comprises that of a Spec Edit. Here, this fairly detailed edit focuses mainly on format and readability.
In a spec edit, the editor examines the technical document to ensure it contains all the required sections and that they are ordered appropriately. With regards to readability, editors will also ensure that the language is appropriate to the target audience; that is, that they will understand the technical language, specifications, and instructional content, though content editing is generally reserved for higher levels. Instead, at the lowest levels of technical editing, editors will rather ensure, for example:
- Correct order of chapters and sections.
- Consistent pagination
- Table of Contents lines up with page numbers and headings
- Inclusion of supplementary sub-sections (e.g., index, glossary, appendices, copyright information, etc.)
- Appropriately labeled figures and tables, listed chronologically and not repeated
- Working hyperlinks and email addresses
Level 2: Style Editing
At this level, technical editors will ensure a consistent style in terms of either the organizational house style or that of a technical style guide. Hence, editors will pay attention to, for example, the use of acronyms (i.e., terminology stated first in full, followed by abbreviations thereafter); eliminating wordiness and unnecessary jargon; accurate figure/table captions and titles; consistent font, font size, font format, and special characters; and appropriate language (i.e, free of gender bias, academic, formal, or semi-formal voice, etc.). Editors will also assess stylistic elements such as line and margin spacing, paragraph indentation, and the use of running headers/footnotes.
Level 3: Comprehensibility Editing
At Level 3, the editor pays closer attention to the language and structures used. Given that readability and clarity are the focal points at this level, editors will make corrections, adjustments, and cuts on a line-by-line basis, considering the choice of vocabulary, scholarly language, phrases and expressions, and whether paragraphs flow in a logical manner to form appropriate sections. Anthropomorphism should also be removed, where possible (e.g., “In this study, we aim to…” NOT “This study aims to…”).
Level 4: Copy Editing
Further, at Level 4, the editor will zoom in on the content, fine combing the text to identify and eliminate any errors, such as typos, grammar errors, extra spaces, and other oversights. They will also aim to eliminate wordiness by reducing the length and any unnecessary prepositions, adjectives, or phrasal verbs. The aim at this level is to simplify the text for the target audience by avoiding the use of overly complex statements and terminology.
At this level, the editor will mainly focus on the language used, and will thus focus on the following:
- Word Choice
- Article use
- Use of Passive voice
- Use of Pronouns
- Order of lists
- Simplifying overly technical jargon
- Avoiding personal opinion
In summary, technical editing is not exclusively a matter of checking grammar and spelling through proofreading, but it also serves to ensure quality and clarity through each of the editing levels applied. Hiring a technical editor also helps organizations save time and ensures that users and customers understand products, programs and systems without the risk of confusion. Hence, technical editing forms a key part of the product development process.
For any technical document, the primary aim is to ensure technical accuracy, reduce the information only the necessary, and make the information accessible to all users through simple, easy-to-understand language. As Bush and Campbell (1995) assert, “the technical editor is an advocate for the language, the company, the writers, and, most importantly, the users.”2
 Technical Editing, The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers, Judith A. Tarutz