How I Became an Editor in the STEM Field: Two Members’ Experiences

At our meeting on Tuesday, January 18, Sarah Anderson and Jennifer Ingham gave an interesting and perceptive presentation on their careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). It was clear that they enjoy their work and bring to it a wealth of expertise and authority.

Before the program started, Jodie Lees reminded us that the Editors Canada Facebook group (private group, for members only) often has posts about job opportunities.

Also, Editors Kingston is looking for coordinators for next year. If you’re interested in learning what a coordinator does or doing some volunteering now, please contact Jodie or Stephanie. Coordinators have to be elected at the AGM in May, but this is usually a formality.

Sarah Anderson

Sarah graduated in the mid-1980s, between two recessions, and when someone said that technical writing paid well, she decided to pursue it. She wrote Help topics for hardware but mainly software – first for the Canadian Depository for Securities (which handles physical securities) – then for SAP, IBM, and Qlik. She has also done academic and scientific editing, taught technical writing and editing, and taught academic writers as they produced theses and papers.

Now Sarah is a technical editor with the Transportation Safety Board (TSB); it’s an independent agency of the federal government and the accident investigation group for the federally regulated parts of the transportation network. She works in the Marine Group, which oversees commercial shipping and fishing. The TSB also looks at rail, pipelines, and both pleasure and commercial air. The goal of an accident investigation isn’t to assign liability; it’s to investigate accidents in order to look for systemic issues in the transportation system, and this approach affects how its reports are written.

Sarah did a BA in math and German literature, a diploma in technical writing, then an MA at the University of Montreal in linguistics (which took a European linguistics approach – e.g., machine translation); she wrote her thesis on how well texts retain their coherence when translated among English, French, and German. Later she did a BSc in environmental science, which has led to work in that field. She’s curious, which is important for a technical editor because you’re always encountering new things.

Technical Writing vs. Technical Editing

Technical writing is much broader in scope than technical editing. There are many types of technical writing in the STEM field and many audiences. The purpose of academic writing is often for the writer’s peers; documents contribute to the body of knowledge for that peer group. In some of the applied sciences and engineering, there is also the secondary audience of the practitioners.

Technical editing doesn’t cover all STEM content. It covers editing of academic material, textbooks, etc., but also technical material that is being used to document expert investigations. The author of an academic textbook of a technical nature has a certain amount of credibility. But most expert material is written to be questioned, so the editing and writing challenge isn’t actually technical. An editor has to understand the technical material to some extent to get through the first layer of content, and has to be able to talk to specialists, but the real challenge lies in the fact that audiences are really broad.

Much of the questioning and querying involved in the editing doesn’t focus on the technical material per se; it asks, “Is this explanation solid enough for the policy makers, the general audiences, someone who will query it?” This type of querying makes Sarah valuable as an editor.

All TSB reports are published because it’s a government agency, so the general public is one audience. Even when materials aren’t published, they can be made public through Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests, so anything that is written is potentially going to be read by taxpayers. Most other technical documents that Sarah has edited weren’t made public – environmental assessment reports, for example. However, when she was writing software Help, the general public was definitely an audience.

The other characteristic of technical editing versus other types of editing, including academic editing, is that the writers, the experts, don’t want to write and usually don’t have any training as writers. In academic writing, there is usually a mentorship, an apprenticeship, structure, in which writers are taught how to write. Engineers, master mariners, and naval architects may have had one writing course early in their Coast Guard career, and that might be it. So the relationship between the writer and the editors makes the editing an interesting editing challenge.

Sarah made an interesting point here: position title matters. A “technical writer” is paid a lot less than “information developer” or “information architect”!

Jennifer Ingham

Jennifer came to technical editing through the English language. As a child, she loved English as well as science. She’s an environmental engineer with a BA in modern literature. She learned her editing skills on the job during 30 years of writing in the STEM field and helping other people along the way. That’s a common theme for us editors: we’re the person other people go to, to review or edit their writing.

She had a very good education in English literature and grammar in elementary school in Montreal, ironically, where she was enrolled in French immersion up to Grade 9. In the first three years of high school, there were two English courses – one in literature and one in grammar, vocabulary, and composition. Having a solid foundation in how the language works really helps when you work as an editor. Grammar is all about rules and patterns, as is a lot of math and science, so they probably light up the same parts of the brain; they have the same analytical thinking pattern.

While Jennifer was tempted to study English at university, she wanted a degree with a more obvious career path. She started out in chemistry at Queen’s, but in second year switched to engineering chemistry, which seemed to have an even more well-defined career path. She thought that to have a career in science, she needed an advanced degree. (She realizes now that’s not the case.) She wasn’t able to complete her engineering degree in four years; she needed five. This opened up her a schedule a bit, and she took courses in Russian and German literature in translation. After she graduated, she slowly did a BA in modern literature after all.

First Job: Looking for Contaminants in the Arctic

After graduating in environmental engineering, she began working in a lab at Queen’s, and her professor was doing a lot of work with the Royal Military College (RMC) on testing for contaminants left behind at the abandoned radar stations along the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line. The DEW line was a series of radar stations built by the US Air Force in the late 1950s and 1960s all along the northern coastlines of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, just inside the Arctic Circle. They were built roughly 60 kilometres apart and monitored what the Russians were doing during those decades of the Cold War.

Jennifer illustrated her talk with slides, which included a map of the locations of the radar stations and photos showing what they looked like. They were built as small, self-contained cities – with radars, communication dishes, accommodation, vehicles, maintenance garages, a road network, etc. They were built on a high point of land and had an area down at sea level to receive supplies brought in by barge. Unfortunately, they contaminated the landscape in all sorts of ways – human waste was just dumped, there were fuel spills from the barrels of diesel used to generate electricity, and hundreds of fuel drums were left scattered across the landscape.

In those days, there was no environmental awareness; that didn’t start into well into the 1960s. Also, people had the idea that this was the middle of nowhere, whereas in reality, it was Inuit land, and for the Inuit, there is no such thing as the middle of nowhere; they know every inch. But there was no awareness of this either at that time.

By the 1990s, the DEW stations had long since been abandoned. Technology had evolved to the point where far fewer radar points were needed to cover the whole North. So the infrastructure had to be dismantled, and Jennifer’s group was tasked with locating the contaminants in the dumps, sewage outfalls, and fuel spills and determining what they consisted of. All the equipment used, particularly the electronics – transformer oils and capacitors – had used PCBs, which were simply sent down a long pipe and dumped onto the land. Batteries full of heavy metals were just left lying around.

The group collected ground samples and used GPS equipment to collect data points, for mapping purposes, to locate the contaminants. The group set up a lab to do on-site analysis of PCBs and other contaminants. This work fed into the design for cleaning up the stations. All the stations have been demolished now, the contaminated soil has been dug up, and the sites have been largely restored.

Jennifer went for a few weeks each summer for seven years, from 1993 to 1999, to stations in Yukon, Inuvik, Baffin Island, and Resolution Island. It was a very rewarding experience, and she considers herself very lucky to have had that opportunity.

Writing Reports and Proposals

After the summer field work, Jennifer spent the winters writing up her reports. The professor she worked for reviewed and edited them, which expanded her writing ability a lot. Her familiarity with contaminated sites set the foundation for her environmental engineering career. She later worked mainly at mine sites and with municipalities. Any small municipality with a landfill site operates it under strict rules; this includes monitoring it every year, and this generates a report. Everything needs to be documented; even though it’s the design that goes to the client, a lot of technical writing goes on.

She began to help writing proposals, some for very large bids with clear requirements, and this expanded into a proposal-writing team. They learned what worked, the kind of things a proposal had to include to attract a reviewer’s attention and earn a good score. She also had to manage the subject-matter experts so that the material would get written and shaped into a proposal by the deadline. This involved a lot of coaching, cajoling, and ghost-writing – leadership and management. Some large bids can cost $20,000 to put together, so you don’t want to miss the deadline.

Jennifer sees the interconnectedness between writing and thinking in her environmental science work. She coaches the writers to recognize that the narrative form isn’t appropriate for all ideas. The interpretation is better presented in tables and graphs; save the words for your conclusion. In Sarah’s work too, the format carries information, and graphs are core content, but reports also need to meet the federal government’s accessibility standards. For example, in a TSB survivability table, there is data and colour, but the colour can only be secondary, and table captions have to be carefully worded. An editor’s experience is a big benefit because the job entails not just editing the grammar but also the information structure.

Jennifer worked on two very different proposals recently as a proposal consultant that were 40 pages long. The first was a straightforward assessment of a site with little contamination, so her involvement was minimal. She spent four hours on it, copy editing and proofreading it, making sure that the text was appropriate and the structure made sense. In contrast, she worked on the other proposal for half a year. She edited it, had numerous meetings about it and workshops to develop the content, helped the writers develop the figures, sent it for review, and processed the comments. The 40-page limit was a big restriction on developing the proposal.

Jennifer is employed by RMC, but for a fixed number of hours per year. She also runs her own business as a proposal consultant, a position that has developed organically. It’s hard to describe how to get into proposal writing; the work is proprietary, and the deadlines are fixed. It isn’t a standard role in an organization. But her employer has come to recognize the value she brings to that work and now relies on her more heavily.

Content people don’t understand what editors do, and they don’t recognize their value initially. This can occur in many environments: often, only once an organization takes the leap and hires an editor do people recognize the value of the editor’s contribution.

Technical Writing in the STEM Context

Jennifer agreed with Sarah that there is a noticeable difference between science and engineering in terms of writing ability and attitude toward writing and being edited. Writing is an integral part of learning how to be a scientist; it’s expected that you’ll do a lot of writing because knowledge transfer comes about through writing papers. Part of going through graduate school and science development is writing. In engineering, knowledge transfer occurs more often through design drawings and the specifications that go with them. Reports are part of this, but the design that’s documented in the drawings is the key product. So engineers are generally, although not always, more focused on the design than the writing. Jennifer has encountered many people who need encouragement and help to put their thoughts down on paper.

There is a constant awareness of liability, especially in engineering. In textbooks and academic writing, your peers will challenge your work but not you. Sarah gave the example of a technical report in which the subject-matter experts challenged every piece of information in it because it was an expert report in support of a legal process. The degree of confidence in every statement had to be really clear. In reports written by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, statements are codified into “not likely,” “very likely,” etc. The distinction between an expert statement and something else needs to be very clear. Every sentence is going to be challenged.

Camille Croteau also spoke about her work in financial technology, which deals with sensitive banking data and compliance; privacy is a huge issue. She encounters, and has to manage, writers’ reluctance to write grant proposals. It’s a strange experience in the private sector.

Working in a Regulatory Environment

Sarah described how relatively few regulations govern the software industry. This contrasts sharply with working for the TSB, a sector that is highly regulated. The amount of regulation affects how you write. For technical reports, there are many layers of meticulous review because there are so many regulations to certify. There may be many investigators on a project team; they go through the report, then it goes to the quality assurance team, then to the director of the group, then to the board, then to the people involved in the occurrence, then to the regulators. There are layers and layers of review and meticulous commenting.

For example, Sarah is working on what will become a 40-page report, but it started out much longer. She reckons it will be completely rewritten four or five times. When she worked on software Help, her group estimated one to two finished pages per working day; in her current work, it might be much slower. The time involves not just writing but also analysis and discussion of what you want to say.

While peers may challenge the content of a report rather than the writer, they also challenge the expertise of the investigator or engineers. The reports that Jennifer writes go through numerous reviews and a huge comments process before she can finalize them. In comparison, when Sarah was working with professional writers on software Help topics, she had more leeway to determine the cutoff point for comments in order to release the software.

Upcoming Meetings

Tuesday, February 15, 6:45–8:30 p.m. – “Taxes and Freelancers” – Two representatives from the Canada Revenue Agency will give us a slide presentation on all the issues and field our questions. Note the early start time; the program will start promptly at 7:00 p.m., so starting early will give us time for introductions, twig business, etc.

Tuesday, March 15, 7:00–8:30 p.m. – This will be another in our “Authors Talk Editing” series, this time with fantasy writer Nicholas Eames. Nicholas recently relocated from Kingston to Victoria, BC.