Back to basics

Back to basics:
Fundamental communication skills for writers and editors

A recent LinkedIn forum asked this question: “Apart from writing skills and styles, what are the other important skills today’s technical writer needs?” Answers included the need to continuously update knowledge of new tools for document authoring, design and layout, and content reuse. The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the US Department of Labor adds that technical communicators should be good at imagining how a nontechnical consumer would think about technical procedures or products.

Certainly, technical communicators must be familiar with various new technologies that help us improve efficiency and effectiveness. And we need fundamental sense of curiosity about how things work. But as technical communicators master new tools and technologies, one thing remains the same: Sound writing and editing skills are essential to good technical communication.

Essential elements of style

Science editor Flo Witte says in her introduction to Basic Grammar and Usage for Biomedical Communicators: “We need to know the anatomy (the structure) of our language; we need to be able to select the appropriate tools (words and syntax) to create the desired effect on our readers; and we need the technical ability to perform our procedures: to put words together into coherent sentences, logical paragraphs, and cohesive documents.” For Witte, language itself is the essential tool of our trade.

There are many guides to good writing, from The Chicago Manual of Style to the Scientific Style and Format (the Council of Science Editors style manual), but arguably everything you need to know is provided in the succinct and timeless guide The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Most people recognize White as the author of the children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. But professional writers study the little stylebook that White first encountered as Strunk’s student in 1919 and later updated for publication in 1959.

According to White, The Elements of Style “concentrates on fundamentals: the rules of usage and principles of composition that are most commonly violated.” Though the content is prescriptive, the authors maintain a sense of humor and a knowledge that some rules can–and should–be broken. A discussion of the elementary rules of usage focuses on punctuation and sentence structure. Other must-read sections are a discussion of using commas with parenthetical expressions, including nonrestrictive clauses; a brief lesson in subject-verb agreement; and a discussion of misplaced participial phrases. The authors also discuss the elementary principles of composition, from document design to the use of concrete language.

Essential editing skills

The Elements of Style emphasizes the need to review and rewrite: “Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery” by a pesky editor. Like writers, editors must possess a superior knowledge of grammar and mechanics, and they must be able to employ delicate surgical tactics to ensure clarity and coherence.

An STC survey of managers’ expectations of editors reveals some additional skills that editors must develop. Employers value, for example, experience with standard style guides and an ability to develop and apply in-house style guides. Good interpersonal and team-building skills are also essential. One manager commented, “Gone are the days when the editor sits alone in a corner, rarely to be approached except in times of grammar crises.” Knowledge of translation issues and an interest in technology round out the list of sought-after editing skills. In a timeless article “Skills Are Still Not Enough,” Lola Zook outlines some of the basic attitudes and work patterns required of a good editor. The editor must:

  • Submerge himself in material written by someone else, improving the text “without leaving a recognizable personal imprint on the material.”
  • Limit editing techniques to those that fit the purpose of the document at hand.
  • Manage time wisely, guarding against “the easy goal of perfection” and performing the level of edit that fits time constraints.
  • Recognize that things are not as simple as they seem. For example, redundancy and repetition can provide emphasis and clarity; passive voice may be needed to emphasize what was done and not who did it; and short and concise are not always best.

Note: In this same essay Zook also points out lessons she never did learn, including how to solve “he or she” usages to her satisfaction.

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