Specialist or generalist?

Rosemary Shipton posted an interesting discussion question, What Should an Editor Be? (a generalist or a specialist), to The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada. This question might very well have different answers for freelance editors than for in-house editors. As an “in-house” editor at IBM, I started to ponder this idea of specializing in a certain type of editing.

In this blog post, Shipton talked about only 3 types of editing: “structural, stylistic and copy editing.” I say “only” because many different types of editing have been defined over the years, beginning with the classic levels of edit from Van Buren and Buehler, who defined 9 different types of editing that combine to form 5 different levels. (You can read more about these levels of edit and the evolution of the different types of editing out on Wikipedia, of all places, where I am actually cited a couple of times – pardon the shameless plug!) This classic levels of edit system pretty much mandated that a technical editor be a generalist, able to do all 9 types of editing.

Certain industries or publishing environments might allow for specialists, however, and they are likely the only ones that might be able to appreciate the finer distinctions among structural, stylistic, and copy editing. My all-time favorite editing job was actually my first editing job as a development editor for a retail computer book publisher. While I did not completely turn off the copy editing or stylistic editing in that role, I primarily focused on structural editing, helping authors develop their books from the proposal and outline stage. By specializing and focusing on just those editing tasks, the chapters that the copy editor then received were well-organized, well-written chapters; the copy editors focused solely on the words and sentences, ensuring that grammar and company style rules were followed. This specialization doesn’t seem applicable across industries.

Shipton also commented that many clients lump all types of editing together as copy editing instead of viewing copy editing as one specific type of editing. This view is also suggested by Weber in her chapter “Copyediting and Beyond” in the book New Perspectives in Technical Editing (2010, pp. 85-105); she shows a Venn diagram of the overlapping nature and relationships of the different types of editing, with copy editing one of the larger circles. (You can also get a sense of her views about classifying editorial tasks, including tasks like technical editing and copy editing, on her site Technical Editors’ Eyrie.) I have a much narrower definition of copy editing, however, where copy editing focuses more on word and sentence-level issues; I think completing many types of editing together is more akin to technical editing overall.

Because I see technical editing as a combination of many types of editing (substantive, usability, copy, and policy), I don’t think technical editors can afford to specialize in one type of editing. We might be stronger in one type of editing than another, but we must be strong enough in all of the types of editing to be able to deliver readable and usable information to our users. Whether you have 9 types of editing or just 3 types of editing, I think a technical editor must have some amount of proficiency in all of the types, which means that we must be generalists to be the arbiters of quality for our users.

Happy editing everyone!

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4 Responses to Specialist or generalist?

  1. Anna Biunno says:

    I agree that technical editors must be generalists.

    As you mentioned, certain publishing environments allow for these types of editors: acquisitions, developmental, proofreader, or copy editor. But even if you’re a technical editor for a large company, there’s no notion of a similar breakdown.

    For example, I am asked to “review” white papers, user documentation, or knowledgebase articles, each with its own inherent issues. When I am approached for an editorial review, I have to ask the requestor: “What do you expect to get out of the editing?” Generally, the answer provides insight into the level of editing they’re seeking but weren’t able to articulate.

    I discover that they’re seeking a technical edit, a substantive edit, a usability edit, or a copy edit. If the request originates from a department outside of product documentation, it’s up to me to explain what each of these types of edits mean. So if they tell me they need a “copy edit”, what they really want is a “substantive edit”.

    Sometimes the demands made on technical editors force us to dip our proverbial toe in the information architecture pool. In that case,we’re not only looking at content, but we’re also analyzing access methods or navigation, user experiences, and so on.

    Is it our responsibility and obligation to define the boundaries so that we don’t allow the balance to shift from technical editor to information architects or UI designers? Do we prefer it that way: wearing multiple hats?


    • It’s interesting that you mention information architecture, as I’m currently drafting a post about being an editor/information architect, and how I feel like it can be an extension of editing!


  2. I like your discussion here. I think “information architect” is very similar to structural editing, as defined by the EAC. I have my own take on Shipton’s question, and extend it to subject matter and desktop publishing/ agenting/ and PR work. Some clients want you to be a one-stop shop. I wrote this up in a blog post, and expanded on it in a podcast. I’d love to get your feedback on those. http://www.copyediting.com/should-editor-be-one-stop-shop


    • Michelle Corbin says:

      It seems that I’m not the only one to respond to Shipton’s article. I like that we’re discussing these things!


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