Changing Careers: From Book Editing to Technical Editing

Written by Leslie Brown

I wanted to be a writer for most of my life, but with a college degree in creative writing, it wasn’t easy to find a job or a career. I knew it was wishful thinking to think I might someday become a successful novelist or poet. So what then?

My career as a book editor

I searched around for any job that had something to do with writing or editing. Luckily I got a break, and I was hired as an assistant editor for a book publishing company in Los Angeles. Aside from answering phones and typing author and agent correspondence, I reviewed unsolicited manuscripts and made publishing recommendations based on character and plot development. I had stumbled into the beginning of my editing career.

After a year I made the move to New York. All the major publishing houses were there and it wasn’t hard to find another position as a book editor. The only problem was that on an assistant editor’s salary, the city was a struggle. So I moved back to Los Angeles and found a job at one of the only book publishing companies in the area. Once hired, I worked with famed authors and budding novelists. But soon the company cut back its business and most of us lost our jobs. So what then?

Introduction to computers

While pouring over lists of jobs, I kept seeing ads for word processors. It was 1983, and I didn’t know what they were. But if it had something to do with words, I thought I’d better find out. One day soon after, I saw a free introductory class to word processing. When I got to the class, the instructor asked if someone would help demonstrate what a word processor could do. I volunteered, and as I moved words around on the screen and formatted them with simple commands, I became completely hooked.

The personal computer industry was growing fast, and I thought there must be something a writer could do. As it turned out, there was a great need for computer manuals. I felt a door open.

My career as a technical editor

Again I got lucky, and without too much effort I landed a job as a technical editor at a major computer company. I completely embraced the technology, and my new career took off. Working closely with programmers, subject matter experts, and graphic designers, I wrote and edited user guides, installation manuals, online Help, computer-based training, release notes, and later, web content. There didn’t seem to be an end to the technical communication opportunities.

Today I am still fascinated by technology, and am still writing about aspects of it.

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The Punctuation Revolution

punctuation

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What happened to punctuation as we knew it? If you’ve been striving to use it properly in print, digital technology has changed the way we use it today. For example, we are more focused on word count than sentence structure. Even for the non-grammatically obsessed, deviations from the established rules of punctuation and grammar indicate a break from tradition.

With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, texts, and social networking, we’re communicating our thoughts so much and so fast that punctuation has become less important, almost superfluous. Internet culture generally favors a lighter, more informal style of punctuation.

Technology has led us to use written language more like speech, in a real-time, back-and-forth between two or more people. For example, a line break allows people to more accurately emulate in writing the rhythm of speech.

When texting first became popular, all grammar bets were off. It’s now the emotion or intent behind the communication that matters. For example, periods and commas have become unnecessary. As long as you get your point across, sentence structure has become a thing of the past. Following are some examples:

The period: Why use it at the end of a sentence when the meaning doesn’t change whether it’s there or not. It can be completely absent and becomes implied. Other times a comma takes its place.

The comma: Once it was used to separate phrases in a sentence, now (rather than a semicolon) it’s used to string together two sentences for one train of thought.

The semicolon: It’s not quite a comma or period. The semicolon was useful as a separator and connector, but today no one uses semicolons in day-to-day casual writing.

The exclamation point: Aside from eliminating punctuation, we also use it excessively. For example, adding five exclamation points instead of one shows that we are passionate. In the past, using exclamation points too frequently was thought to make them less meaningful.

As the long-established rules for grammar have faded, and we spend hours communicating by digital media, it seems punctuation has just been a fad, and it comes and goes with the times.

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Five Tips for Writing a User Manual

Technical-Manuals

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A successful user manual provides quick answers to questions that users might have about how to complete tasks. Technical writing focuses on the tasks along with the concepts that support them.

Here are five practical tips on writing user manuals.

Think like a user

You should have a good understanding of your users so you can understand the information they need to know, how they approach each task, and when they might use approaches to tasks that are unexpected.

Use active voice

Sentences that use active voice emphasize the user and are easy to read and understand. In active voice, the subject and verb in the sentence are clear. In passive voice, the subject is unknown and is acted upon by something that is not known or not stated. Passive voice uses verbs that include a form of “to be”.

Focus on the reader

When writing information that involves the reader, such as instructions, pull readers into the document by using “you” to make the content relevant to them.

Compare the two sentences below.

Reader focus: You can choose from one of three options for viewing content in the editor. 

Lack of reader focus: There are three options for viewing content in the editor.

The sentence that uses “you” makes it clear that the reader is the person doing the action.

Write clear instructions

The primary objective of user manuals is to help users complete tasks. Here are some guidelines.

  • Use numbered lists for instructions, unless the instruction includes a single step.
  • Use parallel construction for each step. Typically, you should start each step with an imperative word that provides clear cues.
  • Avoid using a system response as a step. For example, don’t say, “The Info dialog window opens” as a step. Mention the system response at the beginning of the following step (for example, “In the Info dialog window…”.
  • Provide just enough information so that the user can complete a task or understand a concept. Concise content makes it easier to understand concepts and tasks. 

Establish standards

When creating documentation, there will be areas where there may be more than one way to spell a word, refer to an object, caption graphics, punctuate sentences, lay out a page, and organize information. Establish standards by making decisions for users beforehand.

In addition, use an established style guide, such as The Chicago Manual of Style and Microsoft Manual of Style to establish some specific guidelines for your writing project.

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