Technical writing series - Technical writing and copyediting

Min Li Khor
September 17, 2020

The Parallels Between the Two

If you had asked me two and a half months ago what a technical writer does, I could not have given you a satisfactory answer. Save for the essays that I write for my university coursework, I am not much of a writer. My interests and experiences lie more in proofreading and copyediting. As I curiously read the job description posting for a Design and Technical Writer Intern at Holmusk, my eyes snagged on the requirements ‘proofreading’ and ‘able to identify gaps in a narrative’ which convinced me to apply.

When I was first exposed to what a technical writer does, I felt out of my element. I welcomed the challenge, but felt that I did not have prior experience that prepared me to produce technical documentation from scratch. However, as time progressed, I realised that I did possess some knowledge that proved useful for technical writing: copyediting. In this blog post, I share what copyediting and technical writing are to me (as I am still learning about both), why they are important, why I enjoy them, and how they are more similar than they seem.

What is copyediting?

For the past two years, I have copyedited for my university publication. In my first year, when queried by others about what a copyeditor is, I would explain that I correct spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in articles before they are published. I quickly learned that I was wrong in my definition. Yes, those two things fall in the domain of copyediting, but exclusively, they are more of a proofreader’s job.

So, what does copyediting bring to the table? Copyediting goes the additional step from proofreading by checking for accuracy, consistency, and flow. A copyeditor works with an author’s piece of writing as a base and ensures that the narration is smooth, the facts line up, and the writing follows the convention of the chosen style guide.

Why is copyediting important?

The copyedit occurs after the structural editing phase, and the copyeditor generally does not change the content. It is a polish to an already edited piece of writing—a fleshing out of the author’s style, a bridging of possible gaps in logic, an avoidance of ambiguity. In this way, copyediting is important for improving the readability of a piece.

What is technical writing?

One of the jobs of a technical writer, as I have now learnt, is to document a product and its features and use cases. How might a user interact with the product? What would a user want from a product like this? What might go wrong during a user interaction? Seemingly basic features such as the login page for a mobile application can have surprisingly complex user interactions. It is a technical writer’s job to answer these questions and capture the interaction complexity in writing.

Why is technical writing important?

Technical writing is important for compliance and continuity purposes. For compliance, certain international standards require an organisation to keep and update documentation of its products. For continuity, when someone new joins the organisation, having comprehensive documentation helps newcomers understand the product and its developments, allowing them to pick up from exactly where the last person left off.

My experience with technical writing

To begin my technical writing journey, I was given access to a mobile application that I would be documenting for the duration of my internship. Tentatively, I prodded the product and it bounced back, performing as expected. I noted this down. Then, I pushed the product towards failure and was satisfied by its resilience. I noted this down, too.

While writing my documentation, I began to realise how technical writing and copyediting are more similar than they seemed on the surface. As mentioned earlier, I was apprehensive when asked to produce a piece of documentation from scratch—but I realise now that writing product documentation is not as ‘from scratch’ as it seems. There might not be a base piece of writing like in copyediting, but the product is your base. You are trying to convey the product and its features to your audience—be it software engineers, testers, or quality assurance experts—as clearly as possible.

With technical writing, as I play around with a product, I keep its purpose in my mind and note how each feature of the product works to achieve this purpose. I turn a product inside out and delve further into features than I normally would as an average user. For example, the first feature that I documented, a registration page, had many more components than I had anticipated. What are the interactions between all of these components? If you leave a field blank or input incorrect data into it, what happens? Is the user told exactly what went wrong? These questions are easily answered once you think about them, but in our busy lives, it is so easy to use a product at surface level and never look back. A lot of work goes on underneath the surface to ensure that each user has a smooth experience when using the product. While trying to capture all of this in writing, I cultivated a deeper appreciation for the unseen effort that goes into product development.

My experience with copyediting

When I copyedit, I take note of the author’s writing style while reading and do my best to preserve it. I make sure that I understand what they are trying to say and attempt to assist them in making their writing the best version of itself. I suggest word changes and sentence restructuring that I think help with clarity. Some changes are objective when following grammatical rules or style guides, but some end up being subjective, a personal preference on a word or phrasing choice that could be agreed or disagreed with. In the end, the author has the final say on whether the more subjective changes make it to the end version.

There is a satisfaction I derive from copyediting, in knowing that I had a small part to play in improving the readability of a piece of writing. I pick a piece apart and pay more attention to detail when I copyedit which helps me cultivate an appreciation for the work that went into writing it. I believe that having ideas to write about is crucial; however, if those ideas are not conveyed clearly, they may lose deserved attention. As an avid reader myself, I am always thrilled when an idea or plot has been well-executed. A reader should be able to become immersed in the author’s content or arguments without being bogged down by uncertainties.

How are copyediting and technical writing similar?

There are three main similarities that I have picked up on between copyediting and technical writing: audience, content, and style.

For copyediting and technical writing, knowing your audience is vital. Make sure you equip your audience with the information that they need to read this piece optimally. Should they refer somewhere else for more details? Is there something they should read before reading this piece? Is the piece a response to someone else’s writing? Are there any terms that a certain group of people may not be familiar with, but you can omit definitions for another group? My main takeaway from this is to always keep your audience in mind when you write—if appropriate, specify it at the beginning of your writing—but above all, remember that you are a human writing for other humans. Be technical when you need to, but don’t unnecessarily send your readers repeatedly to the dictionary.

Both copyediting and technical writing have limited flexibility in terms of content. For technical writing, what you see in the product is exactly what you write. However, there is some creativity involved in noting down pain points (parts of a feature that do not work optimally) and suggested improvements for future development. Likewise, a copyeditor generally should not change what the author is saying, but they can suggest additions to the piece that would make it more comprehensive.

Similarly to content, style is something that is paradoxically rigid but flexible. Copyeditors ensure that each piece of writing adheres to the publication’s chosen style guide. However, each author has their own style that shines through in every piece of writing. Copyediting involves preserving this unique style while adhering to convention. It is like how people who speak the same language generally follow the same linguistic rules, but have their individual quirks. Some people may be more expressive in their speech whereas some might be more clipped. Similarly, some may write in a more humourous fashion, while others might be more lyrical.

Companies also tend to follow a style guide for technical writing, but since Holmusk does not (yet) follow a style guide, I was able to take more liberties with my writing while making sure it was consistent throughout. Jokingly, I would say that Holmusk’s style guide is the informative and entertaining Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer, the Copy Chief of Random House. (I thank Subra for the recommendation, and highly recommend this book to anyone interested in writing and editing!) I read it during the first few weeks of my internship and it has since shaped my writing, both technical and not. For instance, the chapter entitled The Trimmables explores common wording redundancies, which I was subsequently able to avoid in my documentation.

When there are several copyeditors or technical writers in a publication or organisation, who may come from different writing backgrounds—for example, some may use British spelling and some may use American spelling—style guides are valuable in providing a convention for all documents. While rigid, style guides ensure consistency across writing which improves reader experience.

Internship reflections

After two and a half months, I can tell you that it has been an absolute privilege to be a technical writer intern at Holmusk this summer. I have not only learnt how to produce pieces of technical documentation, but have also been exposed to compliance, product development, and software engineering matters. For this, I am grateful to the Product Team and to the rest of Holmusk for creating an enjoyable internship environment, even fully from home.

Recognising the similarities between copyediting and technical writing has allowed me to reinforce and strengthen my knowledge of both, which has served me well during my internship. I have only just begun to scratch the surfaces of copyediting and technical writing and have much to learn in both fields—especially in learning how to read code for technical writing!—and I look forward to the journey.