Saturday, May 23, 2009

Articles? I don't need no stinkin' articles!

This is an article I submitted to the TechCraft E-Newsletter, so I thought I'd also post it as a blog entry.


Sometimes I wish the English language didn’t use articles. I also wish I had hot keys for a, an, and the on my keyboard. At my previous teaching position for a hakwon (after school academy) and my current position with a Korean company, articles were and are the bane of my existence. These simple words that native speakers take for granted seem to make up half of my editing tasks.

Even though my position is technically as a technical writer, I also handle the editing for my small tech writing team (3 members total), the manual team, and random software UIs. It’s a delicate balancing act to make time to do my own writing and edit everybody else’s at the same time to ensure we all meet our deadlines (especially since Koreans are famous for I-need-this-in-5-minutes assignments). So how do I attempt to catch all of the article issues and everything else (hopefully) quickly?

Meet with the writer

If the document is over something I’m completely unfamiliar with, I’ll meet with the writer before I start looking over it. This allows the writer to give me a quick overview of topic and who the audience is going to be. It also gives the writer a chance to tell me about any known issues in the document.

Give the document a quick once-over

Before I start any in depth reading or making any major changes, I’ll typically print out a hard copy and skim through it looking for any glaring formatting errors (e.g., formatting changes, figure labels, alignment issues) that I might miss if I’m editing on the computer screen.

Read through the document multiple times

I’ve found that if I try to split my attention between content, readability, grammar, etc, I usually miss something. In order to try and prevent this, I read through the document multiple times and try to focus on a different aspect each time.

One of the things that always drives me absolutely crazy while reading is grammar errors: I read through the document the first time and try to focus on only those problems. Since the writers are non-native English speakers, this tends to become the brunt of the workload…with most of that spent adding in/removing articles. Sometimes that can be quite a challenge for me as well since sometimes I’m not sure which article to use myself and have to leave a comment for the writer asking for clarification.

The second time I read through the document, I try to focus only on the content and if it will be understandable to the expected audience. Because of the Korean culture (low-context), I tend to find myself constantly asking for more information since that’s expected in the Western world. We don’t like guessing. Ambiguity and uncertainty can lead to mistakes/errors which in turn could lead to trouble for the company. If I could possibly misinterpret something, the reader could as well so I ask the author for clarification.

Also, since I work in R&D HQ, these documents are used as the basis for translation into about 30 languages. To make sure we can get the clearest and best possible translation, I try to make sure only Simple English is used and all idioms or slang have been removed. It might seem strange that non-native speakers would use these, but Koreans are taught idioms during their English language study. Also, oftentimes, the engineers they are working with have studied abroad and might use slang/idioms during the SME interview.

Take breaks

Let’s face it, editing isn’t the most thrilling thing in the world to do and can also be frustrating when you find yourself correcting the same things over and over again (“Find and Replace” in Microsoft Word works wonders for this sometimes). I try to take breaks every hour or so, when I find myself mindlessly scrolling down the document, or when I have to re-read paragraphs multiple times. If it’s not a very big document, I might just walk away and get a cup of coffee, or work on something else for a bit. If it’s a large document and I have time, I might take a half a day break from it or a few hours at least. A bored and unfocused editor doesn’t do anybody any good.

Pass it back to the writer

After I think I’ve caught everything, I send the document back to the writer to review and make changes. I also ask the writer to please make sure to send it back to me again for another review before finalizing the document. Sometimes this final review process can take a long time to happen. The writers tend to go back to the SMEs to clarify something or just to drag more information out of them. Also, since the writers aren’t native speakers, sometimes we have to meet to go over the comments I’ve made or just so I can explain why I’ve made some of the suggestions/ changes that I’ve made.

I tend to be a perfectionist and want my division to produce the best documentation possible, but I have to remind myself that nobody is perfect and sometimes I can’t remember a particular rule or question changes I make. To help combat these issues I keep Technical Editing (Fourth Edition) by Carolyn Rude on my desk at all times. Editing documents written by non-native speakers can be frustrating at times but also very rewarding. I like to think that they learn something each time I pass a document back to them and that makes the “article headache” worth the pain.