Reading for a living

I’m an editor. I always enjoyed reading, but it never occurred to me that I’d be able to make a living doing it. I chose English as a major because I was inspired by what I read, and after graduate school I taught composition, literature, and music at a community college. It was a hard job that involved researching topics for lectures, making presentations, leading discussions, mentoring students, and spending just about every weekend reading hundreds of English 101 essays. What prepared me to be a good teacher was a good public education, and being a good teacher prepared me to be a good technical writer and editor. Here are a few things I learned over the course of a career:

Pay attention in the sixth grade and you’ll be set for life.

Everything I learned about grammar I learned from my sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Hutchison. Mrs. Hutchison methodically introduced us to the parts of speech. I will never forget her discussion of adjectives and adverbs. She started with the sentence “The man walked down the street.” Then she added modifiers: “The lonely old man walked slowly down the street.” The example showed me how a very few words can completely change the mood and the meaning of a sentence. Mrs. Hutchison also taught us how to diagram sentences, an activity I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m still fascinated with ways to structure sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

A good learner can be a good teacher (most of the time).

I made good use of those grade-school grammar lessons throughout college and graduate school. As a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee I was required to mark papers using Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook. I would see a problem in a sentence or paragraph and mark it in pencil with the chapter number and section; then students would consult that section in the handbook and make the appropriate correction in red ink. (The idea was that we did not want to embarrass students by bleeding on their papers, but I’m not quite clear on why we wanted the students to bleed on their own papers.) This practice taught students how to spot and correct their own problems, and it taught me how to analyze the structure of a sentence. I learned how to look at a sentence, suggest a revision to improve coherence and correctness, and explain to someone else why the suggested change might just be an improvement.

I was often called upon to teach topics I wasn’t familiar with. There was no internet available during my teaching years, so I learned how to read text books, use the library, and interview subject matter experts on topics from American music to technical communication. One failure: Speech. Everyone in the North Carolina state system had to take a speech class, and on occasion I had to teach it. I had never taken a speech class and I couldn’t rely solely on a book to learn the subject. In the end my students and I learned together how to give a speech.

A good teacher can write good instructions.

When I moved to New Mexico I auditioned for and got my first job as a technical writer. The audition involved looking at the printout of a dialog used when an office worker entered payments into a computer system, then documenting it. I viewed this as a teaching assignment, and my document must have accomplished its goal, because I was hired as the software development company’s first technical writer. My job was to document a series of software products, all of which were under development all the time. I joined the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and took a three-day class on how to write a manual, and those two actions saved my life. That was in 1985, and from then until now I have been a professional technical communicator.

Editing is the next best thing to a good education.

My mother has a faded Peanuts cartoon on her refrigerator of Lucy announcing that “the next best thing to a good education is a pushy mother.” In my book, the career of editing is as instructive as formal learning.

I worked for a biotech company for 15 years. During the first few years I documented software as a writer, but I transitioned into an editing position, where I was paid to read complex documents and comment on their clarity. It was a great privilege to work so closely with such knowledgeable writers, many of whom had advanced degrees in biology.

As a technical communicator I have learned many things about many different subjects. I also learned a lot about producing useful, engaging documents. I learned why consistency is not foolish, how to determine the point at which a document is good enough to release even though it’s not perfect, how to incorporate technical background material so that it doesn’t overwhelm the reader, when to number a list and when to use a bullet, and so much more. In this blog I’ll pass on a few lessons that I learned about how to present a product, process, or idea clearly, simply, and completely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *