Ask an Editor: Teaching Engineers, Content Editing, and Typos

Why is my supervisor asking me to teach the other engineers how to write?

It’s a compliment! I’m guessing your supervisor recognizes you’re an effective communicator and that your touch translates to quality. Still curious? There’s no reason you can’t ask your supervisor to explain why your style works. When it comes to teaching, though, it may not be worth your or your engineers’ time; most engineers aren’t hired with the expectation they’ll be great writers.

But before you tell your supervisor what is or isn’t in your job description, consider:

  • First and foremost, is the engineering team ready and willing to learn?
  • Do you feel comfortable and qualified to teach your teammates? (If not, there are plenty of webinars and freelancers who offer basic writing and editing courses, including me!)[i]
  • Would teaching basic business writing principles in one or two lunch-and-learn sessions hamper your productivity? (And if not, would teaching be an opportunity to add value and bolster your own position in the company?)
  • Do you already have a communications specialist on staff? (If so, see if this individual can provide assistance.)
  • Is this a one-off request, or is your supervisor considering shifting your job responsibilities? (If the former, give it some thought; it could be an opportunity to display leadership skills. If the latter, it’s time to have a serious discussion with your supervisor.)

Regardless, if your team is responsible for reporting or documentation, consider hiring a technical writer or copyeditor who specializes in your field. Many technical writers work on a contract-by-contract basis, which means your company can opt for a hired gun rather than a full-time employee. Having an as-needed expert can give your team time to focus on more important issues.

Clear and effective communication is crucial, particularly if you have a brand to protect. (Trust me; everyone remembers when you make a big public mistake.) Delivering messages the wrong way can estrange current and potential clients or negatively impact your bottom line. But in some industries—maybe yours—poor writing and obfuscated language can get people hurt.

How do you develop an eye for editing content, not just mechanical errors?

Everyone’s a critic, right? Most of us know when a story is unsatisfying—the key is pinning down the whys. Encourage and engage your critical instincts whenever you consume media by asking questions (I’ve pulled a few directly from my beta reader questionnaire):

  • Do all characters seem well rounded and fully realized?
  • Does the cast of characters represent a diverse audience?
  • Do any characters fall victim to boring or problematic clichés?
  • Are there locations where the story drags or moves too quickly?
  • Are plot twists predictable?
  • Is backstory distributed in ways that keep the story moving forward?
  • Does dialogue seem conversational or forced?
  • Does the setting ground the narrative effectively?
  • Are there loose ends or plot holes not addressed by the conclusion of the story?
  • Does the story fall prey to genre tropes, or does it offer a fresh perspective?

Hopefully you’ll find the answers to those questions spawn new lines of inquiry. But most importantly, read voraciously. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on, regardless of genre. Move outside your literary comfort zone. The more you’re exposed to story, the more you’ll be able to recognize what does and doesn’t work. 

What’s the funniest typo you’ve ever seen?

Oh, dear. I’ve seen so many inadvertently hilarious typos I’m not sure I can pinpoint the funniest—or most tragic. (And let’s be real: We’ve all read listicles promising the Top Ten Worst Typos Ever!!!) But back when I worked for a dental insurance company, a co-writer and I were dealing with a monster project Sales had held up, leaving us scrambling to meet a client-enforced deadline. A few days later we received an email from the Sales team thanking us for our “patients.” We’d been so stressed out we just exploded into laughter.

Feel free to share your own in the comments section—I’m sure we all could use a laugh!


[i] I’ll be offering writing and editing courses and coaching sessions soon. If you’re interested, let me know!

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