In brief: the top tips of a technical copywriter
- Check your style.
- Be consistent.
- Learn to triage.
- Know your authors’ needs.
- Align the voices.
- Read it again.
- Practice diplomacy.
- Employ rephrasing.
- Check the references.
- Don’t forget formatting.
What makes a great technical copywriter?
A technical copywriter or copyeditor focuses on preparing complex scientific and technical information for publication. Oftentimes this includes reports, policy briefs, and academic manuscripts destined for global publication, landing on desks in the world’s most influential organizations and informing governmental and scientific thinking.
While some requirements of general writing and editing also apply to technical work, the stakes are usually much higher for technical copywriters and copyeditors, and the information is more challenging to convey in a way that captures the audience’s attention.
That means that in addition to great persuasive skills and immaculate writing technique, a technical copywriter must also have the ability to quickly grasp complex theory, data, and jargon. Here at Written Progress, we are all Mastresses of Technical Copywriting!
With that in mind, read on as technical copywriter Lindsay Hartley-Backhouse shares her top ten tips for improving your technical editing.
Check your style.
Clients prefer different writing and citation styles, whether you’re copyediting for an organization or a journal. Points like whether to hyphenate certain words, use British or American spelling and punctuation conventions, write out numbers in full, or use numerical or author/date citations should all be determined before starting, to optimize the editing time. Some organizations, such as the World Bank, will even have their own style guide to ensure the finished document aligns with their organizational needs. If the client is unsure or doesn’t have preferences, offer them some suggestions based on their target audience. Language standards (e.g., British or American) are the most difficult to correct later.
Professionally written and edited documents should be consistent throughout in terms of capitalization, punctuation, currencies, use of measurements, etc. For example, while some authors write ‘%’ and others’ percent’ or even ‘per cent’, your document should never use these interchangeably. Pick the most appropriate—that may often be the one most commonly used or the one specified in the style guide—and use it throughout the document. Use the ‘replace’ function in Word to edit unwanted variants quickly.
Learn to triage.
Technical copywriters and copyeditors are perfectionist by nature. That said, when a client’s budget, timeframe, or document length dictates the level of editing possible, a skilled copyeditor can quickly assess and ‘triage’ the document, picking out the most important opportunities to gain big wins. For example, when time is short, combing the document for a misplaced semi-colon will have far less impact than chopping down repetitive paragraphs and improving the overall content.
Know your authors’ needs.
Each organization or publication has its own requirements and preferred way of working. While some welcome queries and have the time to consider feedback, others require a product as close to finalized as possible, with few comments to address. It’s essential to determine the clients’ expectations, be flexible to their needs, and give them what they want.
Align the voices.
Documents are often a compilation of various authors’ work, potentially across organizations and institutions. As such, different sections may have distinct voices and writing styles. It’s important to align the voices throughout to ensure no one section stands out, particularly for being overly complex or simple compared to the rest of the document. Aligning voices makes the writing flow better and also avoids potentially embarrassing authors who may not have known the level of complexity required in their text.
Read it again.
Regardless of the document’s length, it should be read at least twice. The first pass through the document should be a fast, superficial edit that fixes the most problematic grammar, punctuation, spelling, and other glaring issues that make the text sloppy. The subsequent passes should be more meticulous, focusing on removing repetitive ideas and improving clarity and flow.
Consider the authors’ feelings when leaving comments, queries, or suggestions. It’s easy for authors to feel criticized when they receive a document back with many comments, particularly if that feedback is bluntly worded. Always be polite and diplomatic, and offer a suggestion based on your best guess, particularly if time is short. For example, The meaning of this sentence is a little unclear; do you mean XXX? If so, I suggest revising the text to XXXX.
Copyediting doesn’t stop at fixing grammar, spelling, and punctuation; the overall goal is to optimize the document based on the client’s requirements. It might be that a sentence needs fully rephrasing to convey the intended meaning. Don’t be afraid to rephrase sentences fully; after all, the client hires the copyeditor to deliver the best product possible, including making the text clear and concise. If you’re unsure whether the rephrasing could affect technical jargon or terminology, comment within the file to request that the author validate your changes. If two or three interpretations are possible, the comment box is a great place to offer alternatives that they can easily paste into the file.
Check the references.
A great technical copywriter or editor will always check that the in-text mentions and final references match. Having a source cited in the document’s text but missing from the bibliography/references, or vice versa is more common than you’d think in technical writing. This error often occurs when a dynamic citation manager, such as Zotero or Mendeley, isn’t being used or if the sources have become unlinked from the software.
Don’t forget formatting.
The visual formatting of a document is often crucial to its success. While a good-looking report can’t disguise lousy content, a visually jarring report—for example, one mixing various fonts, text sizes, and heading styles—can impact how readers receive it. Similarly, cluttered figures and tables can detract from good content. While the level of formatting required may vary, basic alignment of text styles should always be incorporated during editing, with improvements to figures and tables made where possible.
We know you’ll be needing it, so here’s a downloadable PDF of this information to keep handy.
And if you’re hungry for more, head over to Written Progress on LinkedIn to see our ongoing series on copyediting, grant writing, writeshopping, data visualization, and more, each authored by a professional technical copywriter.
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