The best ways to provide a comprehensive edit for technical documents can feel elusive. Where should editors focus their work?

Technical editing can present unique challenges because technical documents are often written by industry professionals who are content experts but who are not always accustomed to working with editors. Despite their potential lack of content expertise, editors may still be tasked with editing the documents for substance as well as for sentence-level edits. These challenges can cause technical editors to wonder how to approach their task and how to ensure their edits are high quality.


In February 2011, Michael J. Albers and John F. Marsella published a study called “An Analysis of Student Comments in Comprehensive Editing” focusing on how well technical editing students handle comprehensive edits of technical documents. Because a substantial requirement in comprehensive editing is the ability to write constructive comments addressed to authors, the authors decided to center their study on the level, type, and quality of comments provided by the students.

A group of 11 students were given a seven-page report comparing two electrical engineering textbooks and were told to focus their efforts on editing to improve higher-level problems with the report rather than on catching copy editing-level errors. The authors of the study coded the students’ edits based on the following criteria (57–58): the level of structure commented on (global-level, paragraph-level, and sentence-level), the type of comments (direct or indirect), and the quality of comments (good, which here means clear and would produce positive results, or poor, which means unnecessary, confusing, or could not be easily acted on). The coding was developed by the authors of the study and was based on a schema of the authors’ expectations.

Albers and Marsella found that the most common types of comments were direct comments, and the most common levels of comments were sentence- and paragraph-level comments. Ultimately, they found that students who made more global-style comments (meaning they commented on the work as a whole) also had higher-quality paragraph- and sentence-level comments.


This study’s implications for professional editors and editing students are clear. Despite their need to defer to the authors as content experts, editors should focus on more than just copy editing and seek to improve the documents on a substantive level. One way editors can focus their efforts appropriately is to start at a global level of editing and work their way to paragraph-level and sentence-level issues through multiple passes. Approaching their task in this way could help editors ensure that all their editing and feedback will be of high quality.

To read more about how global-style comments improve editing quality, read the full article:

Albert, Michael J., and John F. Marshall. 2011. “An Analysis of Student Comments in Comprehensive Editing.” Technical Communication 58, no. 1, 52–67.

—Emma Saavedra, Editing Research


Find more research

Read D. Zimmerman and C. Taylor’s (1999) article to learn more about how to improve technical editor/author relations: “Technical editors: Are we our own worst enemies? Strategies for working with authors.” In Proceedings of the 46st Annual STC Conference, pp. 351–354. Arlington, VA: STC.

To learn more about finding the balance between making clear and polite comments to editors, read J. Mackiewicz and K. Riley’s (2003) article: “The Technical Editor as Diplomat: Linguistic Strategies for Balancing Clarity and Politeness.” Technical Communication 50: 83–94.