Good technical writing is more difficult than most people think. You can’t simply slap a bunch of facts down on a page and say, “job done”. There’s a craft to writing, a skill you hone over years, and you need to keep practicing and taking in feedback to truly master the pen and keyboard. We learn over time to avoid certain constructions, to follow certain guidelines, to create an appropriate tone, and to tailor our content to our audience. One of the best ways to learn, is to work with a good editor or to edit another writer’s work.
Be the editor you’d want to work with
I confess, by nature I’m terrible at giving constructive feedback when editing, especially in long documents. Rather than making helpful suggestions, my gut instinct is to rip into sentences like they were weeds in a garden, shovel phrases around like dirt, and ruthlessly burn terminology I don’t agree with. These are my natural instincts, but they don’t help the writers I work with to expand their skills.
I’ve learned to quash these destructive instincts and to take a teaching approach to my feedback. I’ve also learned that each writer I work with has their own unique turn of phrase that I can learn from to make myself a better author. In my early days as a writer, I remember working with a great editor who took the time to sit me down and talk about things like passive helper verbs and comma splices. This editor is the one I hold up as a great example to others (thanks for making me a better writer Jesse!).
A few years ago, at a group editing session, I looked on in horror as a pair of professional editors destroyed a writer’s work, tearing it apart piece by piece, replacing it all with their own text. A good editor would have given suggestions for improvement, worked in praise and encouragement, and left the writer with ideas they could have taken away. Instead, the writer left with a page of replaced text, no lessons learned, and a dread of future editing sessions.
To be a better writer, be a better reader
Our job as editors isn’t to “weed the document garden”, but rather to nurture our fellow gardener’s skills. Each document we read or edit gives us the opportunity to learn and grow as writers. People can surprise you: one of the best technical writers I’ve come across was a developer working in their third language. I learned quite a bit about simplicity and clarity from reading their “raw” documents.
If you want to be a better writer, take the time to read the work of others and learn from their experience. Don’t forget that there is more than just style to consider; by working with another writer, you can learn more about your own company writing guidelines. More than once I’ve learned about a particular internal rule or standard from reading a document where it was used.
Over to you
What do you think? What kind of editor are you? Do you work with other authors to help develop writing skills? Do you take part in group editing sessions? Let us know in the comments below!