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Editing Technical Documents

By Stacey J. Haseleu

As writers, we are inevitably intertwined with the editing process. Writing well is synonymous with an ability to dissect the English language. Like a surgeon, we meticulously cut words, sew together phrases, and sometimes perform complete facelifts to format in order to convey our thoughts.

Editing, to some writers, is a necessary evil – operative word being evil. But to other writers, like myself, editing can be just as enjoyable and rewarding as the actual creation process. Editing makes me feel powerful, closer to my audience, and more intimate with my own thoughts and feelings.

But what happens when we’re asked to edit a document with content foreign to our expertise?

My friend of nearly 20 years is a very dedicated and talented nurse. Since the first day of college our paths were different; I studied English and Psychology, while she was drawn to the medical field. Never, in a million years, did we think that one day her RN/BSN degree would cross with my BA in English and Psychology and Masters in Professional Writing! But that day has come…

As a Legal Nurse Consultant, my friend is able to provide attorneys involved in medical lawsuits with inside knowledge of the medical field. The attorneys retaining her provide medical records, depositions, and the opposing legal team’s medical standpoint. She reviews all of the documents and presents her findings and professional opinions in a report. The legal team uses the report to help substantiate their case.

Because her final report is vitally important to the attorney’s case, my friend is left with the overwhelming task of providing a comprehensive, easy to understand, and insightful review of her opinions. For many in the medical field, this can be a daunting task. Although I’ve insisted she’s actually a great writer, she, understandably, still likes me to edit her report prior to sending the finished product to her client.

Before I continue with my advice on editing documents with content you don’t know well, I have a confession to make; I am not totally ignorant to all medical terms. While I in no way claim vast knowledge in the medical field, I did work with disability claims for over 8 years from both the HR side as well as the physician/insured side. So, I have reviewed a few medical documents in my day, and I am, admittedly, generally familiar with medical terminology; however, I am NOT familiar with all medical terminology and I am clueless on what the “standard of care” for conditions should be and these are typically the insights provided in my friend’s reports.

Just today she sent me a report for editing. Although I don’t understand all of the medical standards of care and terminology, I will be able to provide her with a professional and cohesive edited product and here’s how:

1. Since I am not a specialist in the medical field, and neither is her audience, I’ll be able to provide her a significant connection to her audience’s point of view. My first step in the editing process is to read the document twice through, focusing only on comprehension of her message.

2. After reading for comprehension, I’ll make some general notes as to what information is unclear to me and why. Is it unclear because I don’t understand the medical aspects? Or, is it unclear because of the way it’s written?

3. Next, I close the document and go to sleep. No, I haven’t given up or gotten frustrated, I’m just giving my brain the opportunity to reset from a comprehensive point of view.

4. Waking up, hopefully refreshed, I’ll go back and re-read the document from a English major’s point of view. What words are spelled wrong? Is the grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure correct? I’ll make these changes in Microsoft Word using the change tracking tool.

5. I’ll re-read the document for format. Does the format work? Is there a better way to organize the information, if so, I’ll make these changes now (again using Word).

6. Only after all of the English major edits are complete will I go back to my notes from the night before. If anything wasn’t working the night before because of formatting or structure issues this would have been fixed already. At this point I’ll send the document back to my friend asking her to read the edits thus far and call me.

7. This is the MOST CRUCIAL part of the editing process. When she calls, I’ll focus on the initial notes. What information is unclear to a lay audience? How can this content be changed without losing important information to the report? This part gets sticky because there is no guide as to how you do what. You have to collaborate with the creator; you take the viewpoint of the audience while she takes the viewpoint of the professional. I make the edits and/or notes as we discuss each aspect of the document.

8. Next, I send her a copy of the revisions we made together and ask her to read a copy. I read a copy as well and make any additional changes.

9. Last but not least, I have one more phone conversation asking if any new edits are needed on her side. If not, I let some time pass, then go over the document one last time. This time I read the document as one of the lawyers AND as an English major. If all seems well, I send the finished product to my friend.

The important part is never to close the door on editing. Don’t rush it, but don’t over think it. Make decisions and stick with them, but don’t stick to them if it is to the detriment of the rest of the document. Always, always, always, keep the audience in the back of your mind. How will they use this document? What will make it easier for them to use?

You CAN edit documents even if they are technical in nature, you are, after all, a writer; a master of words, a surgeon of thoughts and ideas. Collaborate with the professional on the technical parts and leave the rest to your editing wizardry skills!

Rhetorically Urs,

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