One of my RSS feeds included a link to the Tech Writers Today Magazine, available on the new web site for the old listserv, techwr-l. Peter Winninger wrote a Foundations article, “The Role of the Technical Editor.” This article was a really nice summary of how Rude & Eaton present our role in their textbook, Technical Editing, 5th Edition. It certainly feels more complete than my own attempt at defining technical editing, back when I first started my blog here. I relied as much on Tarutz as Rude in writing my own article. In either case, we are still defining our place and our tasks in the technical communication world.
After reading a grammar textbook, I have been pondering how well technical editors need to know grammar. How much grammar must they know to edit the information, but also how much must they know to help their writers improve their writing ability?
As a technical editor, I view myself differently than other editors. When most people hear that you work as an editor, they immediately think that you are a grammar expert and that you constantly correct grammar errors everywhere you go. From a publishing perspective, this role is the copy editor, the editor who reviews text for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and adherance to a style guide. (This blog post, “Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor,” presents a nice summary of the different types of editors in a publishing industry.) Taking a technical communication perspective, I downplay the importance of this copy editing role, and try to identify a distinct technical editor role. I still do some copy editing as part of my technical editing, but it is only a part of the editing task, not the entire task. Thus, I think this leads me to the belief that technical editors do not need to be grammarians.
By taking a step away from just the language, or just the grammar, technical editors really focus on the content of the communication. To help writers communicate their content effectively, technical editors must know their audience, even more so than copy editors. Knowing the audience certainly helps copy editors do their job, but they can do much of their job regardless of knowing the technical subject matter or the audience.
Grammatical sentences certainly communicate better than ungrammatical ones, but to what degree and to what end? If a split infinitive or missing comma or misused semicolon appears in a document, but the audience still understands the content and can complete their task, is it that important to remove every grammatical error from the document? If a technical editor wants to remove a grammatical error, is it important for the editor to know the rules or terminology of grammar in order to suggest a change (make an edit) about a comma or semicolon?
Perhaps a rudimentary understanding of grammar and syntax can help us read style guides or usage guides, and this basic knowledge can help us “edit by what sounds right.” After all, it worked for Mark Twain, who said this about grammar rules in his own autobiography: “I am almost sure by witness of my ear, but cannot be positive, for I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules–knew them by heart, word for word, though not their meanings”. But do we need to use standard grammar terms to communicate the changes needed? Oxford Dictionaries calls their list of grammar terms “Jargon buster” in their “Better Writing” area of their site; I infer from this that the OED editors consider this to be jargon for the writers who come to their site seeking understanding.
While part of my job is to help my writers produce high quality content, the other part of my job is to coach my writers to be better writers. If I can teach them some of the rules to follow, they won’t make the same mistakes over and over again for me to mark up. I find myself translating the grammar terms into simpler terms or giving examples of the revisions to try to demonstrate that the change makes it better.
As an example of using grammar terms to teach a writer about writing better sentences, consider this scenario. In mentoring a new writer, I was looking at the help topics for our grammar checker with the writer. These help topics used precise grammar terms to explain why something was being flagged as an error; however, the help topic used jargon (the grammar terms) instead of explaining things more directly. The writer could not figure out an appropriate change to make and asked me to help. I read the original sentence, then read the help topic for the flagged error, which included examples of correct and incorrect sentences. From there, I was able to suggest a specific revision to the original sentence and explain why the change was necessary, avoiding the grammar terms that were tripping up the writer.
As technical editors, we need to understand some grammar, but we do not need to be experts in grammar. As Rosalind from Shakespeare’s As You Like it suggests, you really can have too much of a good thing. A basic knowledge of grammar is good for technical editors; but too much grammar will distract technical editors from the real value that they bring as arbiters of quality.
One of the topics that we cover in our Technical Editing Fundamentals certificate course is rhetoric. My co-presenter, Linda Oestreich, humors me and lets me have 5 minutes to cover the basics of why I feel rhetoric is one of the fundamental principles of technical editing.
Here are the basics of classic rhetoric, from Aristotle:
- It is the study of language, the art of discourse, with a focus on logic and persuasion
- It includes the rhetorical situation, or the cause for communication
- It includes three audience appeals: logos (reasoning), pathos (emotion), and ethos (credibility)
- There are five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery
One of my favorite blogs, I’d Rather Be Writing by Tom Johnson, researched and wrote about how rhetoric fits within technical communication overall, and did a fabulous job explaining how rhetoric is relevant to practicing technical communicators. In our course, I refer to a now aging source (from 1989, gasp!) by Dragga and Gong, titled Editing: The Design of Rhetoric. From pages 11-15 of this book, Dragga connected the dots between the canons of rhetoric and the process of editing:
- Invention = purpose and audience = editing for accuracy
- Arrangement = organization, ordering, cohesion = editing for clarity
- Style = verbal and textual style, visual style = editing for propriety
- Delivery = document design, total presentation, verbal and visual presentation = editing for artistry
In the grammar book that I read a few months ago, in the first chapter of Teaching Grammar for Writing: Principles to Practice, of Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing (Heinemann, 1996) (my notes are summarized in this previous blog post), the author ties grammar to rhetoric, which she argues involves “engaging [an audience] deeply through the use of language and a distinctive style or voice….Grammar, along with word choice, is a cornerstone of rhetoric” (p. 3).
In my mind, rhetoric has got everything to do with technical editing. We just never realized it was underneath, informing the decisions we make to ensure that the information communicates effectively with our users.
It’s that time of year again; it’s time for the STC Technical Communication Summit, which I still lovingly call the annual STC conference.
Last year, I presented several different workshops, panel discussions, and presentations. I also contributed to a proceedings paper. This year, I’m taking it easy and “only” presenting the pre-conference certificate course, Technical Editing Fundamentals, with my mentor (and friend) Linda Oestreich. (We are repeating that certificate course virtually across two Fridays in August.)
I will once again be Tweeting (@michellecorbin) during the conference, using the #stc13 and #techeditors hashtags. This year, I’m going to try to be better about including other people’s Twitter IDs, when I am sharing their golden nuggets from sitting in their sessions. I’m also going to try and not go overboard like I did last year, tweeting over 100 tweets in those few days. I hope to find inspiration for some blog posts of my own again!
This post summarizes my notes and thoughts from reading Part 3, Teaching Grammar to Enhance Writing: Focus on Editing, of Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing (Heinemann, 1996).
If I was disappointed in Part 2 compared to Part 1, I’m even more disillusioned by Part 3. Again, this is a technical editor reading a teacher textbook, so it is a criticism of my own intent or purpose in reading this book. However, Part 3 had only 3 chapters, all written by guest authors, and all of whom spoke of their own experiences in teaching grammar. The Part claimed to have a focus on editing, but I clearly disagree with the titling of this Part. (The editor of this book did not do Weaver any favors with these parts or the titles of the parts.)
Chapter 13 is a very short chapter that focuses on examining one example piece of student writing and the rubric used to score or evaluate writing, as per standard school testing. In the middle of this chapter, Moerman (guest author for Weaver) presents two quotes from an article by Rosen titled “Developing Correctness in Student Writing: Alternatives to the Error Hunt.” I might just go read that article, as it is the only thing that I highlighted from this chapter. I will copy and cite this quote here:
“Research has never been able to show that circling all the errors — the error hunt approach to marking — makes a significant difference in writing quality; instead, it discourages the student whose paper is full of mistakes and focuses students on errors instead of ideas. Students are more likely to grow as writers when the teacher’s primary purpose in reading student papers is to respond to content.” (Rosen, p. 149)
I think this echoes my own soapbox and view that a strict focus on grammar and line editing without a focus on the content is detrimental to technical editors and the technical editing field. It can’t be all about the grammar and absolute correctness per a grammar book or style guide.
In Chapter 14, Wheeler, another guest author, talks to teaching “standard” English in African-American classrooms. Yes, standard is in quotation marks, because she believes it is a “misnomer, implying that only one standard exists.” Her main point is “Language is structured, and its structure varies by circumstance” (p. 240). Teachers must understand sociolinguistics and other grammatical patterns so as to bridge the gap to present other contexts, other circumstances. The key concept here is “code-switching,” which she describes this way: “students learn to choose the language style to fit the context — to fit the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose” (p. 242). In giving examples of this in her classroom, Wheeler says: “Language is not ‘correct or incorrect,’ ‘right or wrong,’ but instead works or doesn’t work in a setting” (p. 250).
Editing is seen as a code-switching exercise, where students work to transform their writing to use grammatical patterns that are in line with “standard” English, the more formal language expected.
In Chapter 15, again written by guest authors, Roche and Gonzales, they talk of transforming the classroom to teach grammar differently. They talk through the various stages of the writing process, including editing. They suggest that “the goal of editing must be to ensure that our intended audience understands the message….editing is not a tedious, superfluous task required by the teacher as punishment, but a vital part of the process that helps the writer convey the intended message” (p. 275). Lastly, they state that it is not important for writers be able to name the grammatical concepts and terms; “it is more important that students are able to do it than to name it” (p. 275).
The book just ended there, with no final chapter by Weaver herself, with no parting words to wrap up her thesis and start of the book. I really had hoped this final part, these final chapters, would do more.
I do love using RSS feeds of blogs to discover and read fun and interesting things. I started playing around with Feedly, since Google Reader announced it was going away, and I’m finding that I am reading more of the blogs because of the magazine-like interface. Anyway, one such blog post was on the OxfordWords blog (from the Oxford Dictionaries folks), titled “Who cares about English? Part 1,” which was promptly followed by “Who cares about English? Part 2,” and documented a panel discussion that they hosted with the British Council. These included the embedded video, but also nicely included transcripts of the panelist responses. I very much enjoyed reading and learning how there are many Englishes, not just one Standard English, and that we definitely “code switch” (I just learned about that in the Grammar textbook I’ve been reading and summarizing in my blog) to use “appropriate” English in whatever context we are writing (or editing!) for. Good stuff.
Happy editing everyone!
This post summarizes my notes and thoughts from reading Part 2, Teaching Grammar to Enhance and Enrich Writing, of Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing (Heinemann, 1996).
Part 2 of Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing by Constance Weaver was not as coheisve and engaging as Part 1 was. At least not to this technical editor, who found herself skimming over some of the specifics of classroom lessons and details of being a middle school English teacher. Part 1 shared much of her theory, which left me to infer how to apply it, whereas Part 2 showed specific, contextual applications of teaching grammar. So, this commentary is a criticism of my own reading of the book to try to glean ideas for how to improve my skills as an editor and what role grammar should play in my day-to-day job.
From skimming through the table of contents, trying to find a title for my blog post summarizing this part of Weaver’s book, it seemed that she mentioned or referred to the “popular” traits of “good” writing. In chapter 5, she lists some of the supposed 6 traits: “ideas (details), sentence fluency, effective word choice, and voice” (p. 72). It is not until Chapter 12 that she lists the full 6 major traits of writing, “ideas/details, which includes grammatical options and word choice, organization/structure, voice/style/tone, sentence sense/variety/fluency, and conventions.”
Chapters 5 and 6 discussed “adjectival modifiers” and used this grammatical construct to show how writing can be improved. They were filled with lots of examples from student writing, and I certainly learned a little grammar along the way from reviewing these examples. Weaver presents or explains this focus on adjectival modifiers with a tip of the hat to rhetoric (which she spends an entire chapter discussing rhetoric and different types of writing, in Chapter 10), and specifically Christensen’s “generative rhetoric” in that teaching grammatical options like adjectival moderates generates clearer thought and better writing (p. 74). These are often best taught through revising one’s own work using sentence imitating, sentence expanding (adding modifiers), sentence combining (sentence variety or fluency), or sentence restructuring (main/subordinate points) (p. 86, p. 89). Revision is a key element of the writing process. Weaver expands on these sentence revision strategies in Chapter 7.
Chapter 6 starts out describing “sentence chunking” as opposed to “sentence diagramming,” and I have to say, I kinda like it. With sentence chunking, you identify “major chunks of grammar and meaning in a sentence and [express] how they relate to one another.” She also describes this process as an art project of having students illustrate the sentence and putting the chunks of grammar and meaning within the drawing. Not sure that I can get away with that in my own technical editing, but it does allow me to think of “chunks of meaning” as opposed to specific grammatical labels for every word in a sentence. (p. 93-94). The rest of chapter 6 went into great detail about the different types of adjectival modifiers.
I was excited to get to Chapter 8, entitled “Editing Begins with Observation,” which was written by Jeff Anderson, and it talked about teaching editing to students, as part of the writing process. Anderson echoed Weaver’s belief that editing should not be focused solely on error. He amused me with his statement that “Students have come, over time, to see editing as electric shock therapy” (p. 131). He posits that “effective editing instruction is more about teaching students the patterns and concepts of the English language that readers expect courteous writers to use and follow than it is about rules, mechanics, or grammar” (p. 133). Anderson definitely has a witty way of writing about his thoughts, quoting his own article “Writing must be seen as ‘a creational facility rather than a correctional facility’ (p. 134). He uses a wacky acronym for the common subordinating conjunctions (AAAWWUBBIS) as the common example throughout his chapter, but makes several great points about editing: “Real editing is all about meaning and patterns, not errors” (p. 136) and “visuals and examples are more powerful teachers than rules” (p. 137) and concluding his chapter with “editing is designed to help create powerful writing, not avoid error.” Now, all of this is given in the context of writers editing their own work, blurring the line between writing and editing.
Chapter 9 was written by Weaver and was supposed to be all about editing. Unfortunately, it seemed to be more about learning the English language and even the effects of different dialects of English affecting the teaching of editing. Weaver did not say much about editing or the teaching of editing in this chapter, which saddened me greatly, but instead presented a great deal of research and thoughts around ESL (English as a second language) or ELL (English language learners, which broadens to allow for multiple languages, not just two). Ultimately, it supports the notion of not focusing on errors in the editing process.
So, in Chapter 11, Weaver presents her outline of grammar, calling it “rocks and mortar” and putting different grammatical forms as either rocks or as mortar. She considers adjectivals and adverbials to be the rocks or pebbles. The mortar is is transitions, prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns that introduce adjective and noun clauses. Weaver says, “When people write, they choose grammatical connectors based on what they want to say and their assessment of the rhetorical situation: They make choices” (p. 198). She started off her book by saying that writers enrich and enhance their writing by making grammatical choices, choices of rocks and mortar.
At the start of chapter 12, Weaver once again presents the six traits of writing. Here, she labels them a bit differently: generate details, rich content, with grammatical constructions that elaborate ideas, but also transitions and other connectors that relate ideas, where the organization is clear and coherent, and also use of voice and style is appropriate to purpose, content, and audience, and lastly word choice. Later in ths chapter, she presents a numbered list of 5, with the first item as a 2-item list underneath. As a technical editor, Weaver’s many different ways of presenting the six traits of writing, often as lists of three, four, or five things, is quite frustrating to see inconsistent and loose writing about a key theme in this part of the book.
In Chapter 12, Weaver presents these traits within a figure that tries to help teachers know what to teach next based on how well the writer applies or uses some of the traits. She talks about applying the rubric to assess “high” or “good” use of grammatical options, and she emphasizes that perfection is not the goal and that high is good enough (p. 219). I could definitely see this figure converted into an editing checklist that could be used to evaluate the quality of technical writing, inserting technical communication principles to make it more specific to technical or instructional writing.
One of the things that I liked best about Chapter 12 was Weaver’s discussion about “just right” words (p. 212-213). While she ties it to her context and student writers, I think that word choice in technical writing is a key trait that technical editors need to help writers address. The notion of using the same word, or the “just right” word, to communicate precisely and concisely was very apropos.
As you can see from my own write-up of the information in these chapters, I found Part 2 to be a bit disorganized, a bit disjointed, and a bit inconsistent in how she presented some of her thoughts. Her editor let her down!