iWorks’ Tips for Technical Writers and Editors
By: Tommy Brennan, Becky Chawner, Jenna Harrity, Ciara Kalf, Sydney MaHan, Megan Rosser, Samantha Strasser
The technical writers and editors at iWorks work across projects, agencies, and departments, from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to internal proposals. We collated our top tips and resources from our varied experiences to benefit our peers currently in the field, as well as those who want to enter the field.
Tips for Technical Writers
- Start by looking for a template or existing relevant content to reuse. If the work has already been done before, start there and repurpose it for the new document.
- Many technical writers work with subject matter experts (SMEs) for technical documents as either authors or contributors. Ask the SMEs questions and read existing materials to gain a basic understanding of the topic. Request that the SME review the document and leave comments identifying potential problem areas. You can also draft the document in real time with the SME to receive immediate feedback.
Organizing your content makes it visually pleasing as well as easy to read.
- Use your word processor’s automation features as much as possible. For example, in Microsoft Word, use styles to automatically generate a table of contents, or field codes to automatically generate a header, or custom templates to automate a general style.
- Use bullets and subtitles to collect related content into easily readable sections.
- Use tables to organize information and present it neatly to the reader.
- Use consistent and informative file names to keep track of your documents effectively and professionally.
- Enforce the four Cs of effective writing: writing should be CLEAR, COMPLETE, CONCISE, and CORRECT.
- Ensure your document has “one voice” even if there are multiple authors and reviewers. Read through the other sections to ensure everyone is using the same terms, tone, and style.
- Read your writing out loud to find mistakes. Microsoft Word has a Read Aloud feature to listen to your writing.
Tips for Technical Editors
Style Guides – Create Your Own and Reference Existing Ones!
Style guides are an editor’s best friend. A few tips:
- Know your audience, client/customer, and industry to determine the appropriate industry style guide to use. In government writing, we tend to prefer the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) and the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago).
- Find out if your customer has their own style guide. Often in government writing, offices, agencies, and departments all have their own style guides. One of the first questions you should ask your customer when you’re hired is if they have their own style guide and if you can get a copy. If they don’t know, go digging around and check with multiple people to see if one exists. Oftentimes, even employees are not aware their organization has a style guide.
- Create your own style guide internally as you work on projects. Inevitably, you will encounter questions and writing preferences not covered in a style guide. You will need to ask your customer their preference to establish a convention and write consistently.
- One of the most important lessons we can offer you is to document their decisions. Use those decisions to make your own style guide. Even things that seem silly at the time, like capitalization of a certain word, are worth documenting to prevent digging through old documents later.
- Establish an order of preference. At the end of the day, all of this comes down to figuring out what style you go with for grammar, writing, capitalization, number conventions, etc. How do you pick with so many options? You establish an order of preferred style guides. This means you start with the most preferred, and if it doesn’t have a rule, you move to the next most preferred.
- For example, in government writing, our order of preference is office style guide (e.g., Office of Single Family Housing Style Guide), agency style guide (e.g., Federal Housing Administration style guide), departmental style guide (e.g., Department of Housing and Urban Development style guide), GPO, and then Chicago. If none of those guides answer our question, we go to our customer and ask before documenting it in our internal style guide. You might also find your customer takes exception to some of the rules outlined in your order of preference. Just roll with it, and make sure you document!
- Always be on the lookout for updates. Make sure you’re always checking your most commonly used style guides for updates. Language is dynamic, fluid, and constantly changing. Stay up to date and periodically check your assumptions, even if you think you know the convention.
- Fun fact: In the 2008 version of the GPO, “Internet” was always capitalized. By the time the 2016 version was published, the preference had changed to “internet.” Always, always double-check.
Collaborate, Collaborate, and Did We Mention Collaborate?
- Understand how your team and customer communicate. Editing is a constant cycle because information and preferences often change. Work with your team to understand how they communicate (e.g., IM’ing, wiki articles, SharePoint, etc.), and then stay up-to-date on their activities. You might learn something new!
- Leverage Collaborative Editing Features. Collaborative editing is the ability to edit, often in real-time, the same document at the same time as other editors. By leveraging the collaborative editing features in word processing technologies (e.g., Microsoft 365/OneDrive, SharePoint, Google Drive), you save your team time.
- Use track changes. Your authors need to be able to see your edits. You don’t want to change intent of language on accident. This is especially important if you’re working with highly technical subject-matter with which you may not be entirely familiar.
- Get a second opinion. If possible, your documents should always go through multiple rounds of edits. Even if you are the best editor in the word (and we’re sure you are), you will miss something the first time through. And possibly the second time. That’s where another set of eyes comes in.
Tips on How To Get a Technical Editing/Writing Job
Education and Experience
- While a degree in English, Journalism, or related field is helpful, writing and editing skills are built into a variety of degrees and fields. These writing, editing, and detail-oriented skills can transfer to a variety of fields; likewise, if you learn these skills in other fields, they can transfer to a potential job in technical writing and editing.
- When building your resume, highlight courses, skillsets, internships, and experience that include transferable skills (e.g., your Bio lab Work Study enhanced your ability to document technical subject matter and translate it into easy-to-understand content for others’ consumption).
Job Applications & Prep Work
- Keep a portfolio with your previous work and writing samples.
- Be sure to update your resume, LinkedIn, and any other networking platforms at least once a year to reflect your most recent work.
- When applying for a job, always customize your resume and cover letter by using keywords from the job. Proofread these documents every time you submit them. It’s a technical editing/writing job, so an error-free resume is even more important.
- While it may be difficult when you’re first starting your career, networking is key. Stay in contact with fellow students and connect with university Alumni and professors. Before leaving any course, internship, job, etc., ask your supervisor or mentor if they would be willing to serve as a professional reference for you in the future. Almost all jobs ask for references, so start building them now!
- In terms of where to begin your job search, school job databases like Handshake are great platforms, as employers who utilize them are looking specifically for college graduate and entry level positions.
- U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual: https://www.govinfo.gov/collection/gpo-style-manual?path=/GPO/U.S.%20Government%20Publishing%20Office%20Style%20Manual
- The Chicago Manual of Style: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html
- American Psychological Association Style Manual: https://apastyle.apa.org/
- Modern Language Association Handbook: https://style.mla.org/
- Online Writing Lab at Purdue University: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/purdue_owl.html
- Source for quick information on style guides including Chicago, MLA, and APA.
- Guidance on using government style and plain language guidelines: plainlanguage.gov.
- Quick and Dirty Tips by Grammar Girl: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl
- Good resource for questions like when to use an apostrophe, less vs fewer, etc.
- Do an internet search! There are a ton of online forums with solutions for all of your style and formatting questions.