A Technical Editor’s Rules on Rule Breaking

Various style manuals

In my professional life, I work on technical materials in subjects like renewable energy, toxicology, and finance—areas in which accuracy and precision of language are critical. My clients provide clean air and clean jobs for families, they support patients struggling with addiction, and they prevent financial scams (like the Enron scandal) that deplete retirees’ life savings. The rules found in Chicago and other style guides are incredibly important to helping me create the consistency readers need to get the most out of what can be complex and challenging information.

At the same time, I don’t always find myself following the rules laid out by my style mentors. Sometimes (okay, often) I break a rule because I have to turn something around quickly and I’m forced into a state of editorial triage. Other times the rules are less suited to online business content. Here are the rules I find myself frequently breaking.

1. Two(+) of a Kind or Nothing at All

Particularly with respect to business reports, the idea that all bulleted lists must have at least two items is often impractical (the same idea is true for subheadings). For example, one of my clients writes reports largely composed of bulleted explanations grouped around predetermined headings with boilerplate body paragraphs. To move a single bullet point into another piece of text just because the style guides don’t support having two bullet points ignores how readers use these reports and where they expect to find the information they need.

2. Inconsistently Phrased Lists

This one pains me every time. But when a client requests I edit for truly egregious errors only, I let lists or tables with both incomplete and complete sentences pass through. I cringe every time. However, if the mix is not likely to confuse the reader, I have to let consistent phrasing go.

3. Awkward Language

This one can be in the eye of the beholder. A lot of industry language can sound very awkward to the less initiated. The learning curve in editing technical subjects is real, and it is steep. If I can revise cumbersome language without affecting meaning, I will. But sometimes the language is so specialized that there really is no reasonable equivalent.

4. Passive Voice

The classic battle of “I did” versus “it was done” rages on in the business world. In my work, I’ve found that lawyers and engineers struggle with this more than other professionals. Generally, I revise passive phrases and push my more formal clients to use active language whenever possible. However, when passive voice is the most natural and relevant way to explain a concept, I leave it (or write it in).

5. Formatting Perfection

As my career has moved further away from book publishing, I find I often have to “give” on some formatting because I am far from the last person who will make changes to the content. For instance, I may not fuss about bad table breaks in one subsection because an earlier subsection is being revised, and I have no way of knowing what the final content will be. I could lock in page or section breaks, sure. But that approach can introduce other problems for those who come after me. Not all of my clients have time for formatting niceties, and they don’t want layout complications during their final push.

Overall, my clients are my final rule-breaking guides. Usually I work for entrepreneurs who are unfamiliar with the existence, much less the purpose, of style. Their content is heavy with jargon and the assumption of prior knowledge. Their time for review is limited. They hire me to make sure their content is as engaging and approachable as possible while still being accurate. Anything extra does not serve my clients’ goals, customers, or budgets. So when choosing how to edit their work, I am careful to apply rules that clarify and improve and avoid those that cost more than they are worth.
Molly McBeath

Molly McBeath was originally trained as a research scientist and cut her technical teeth on water quality, electrochemistry, and nuclear waste remediation. Realizing that she was happier at the keyboard than in a lab coat, she transitioned to technical writing and editing. Now she combines her scientific training with persuasive writing techniques to tell meaningful stories with a technical twist.

This article originally appeared in Networking News, the Professional Editors Network’s members-only newsletter. Join PEN today to get every issue of the newsletter in your inbox—plus access to our archive of past issues.