Technically Speaking: Tips, Techniques, and Targets to Make You a Better Writer

(As published in The Technical Writer magazine, articles by Hunter Brumfield)

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Three Little Words to Take the Headache Out of Proofreading

There's a dull throb behind my left eye, and as I lift the first page my hand trembles noticeably. "Oh, man," I think, "I should have left the sake alone last night." This morning the boss greeted me with a slight nod and a manila envelope containing a new proofreading job, the second I've been given in my new position as an editorial assistant at XYZ Inc., a technical publishing company.

The shakes are also, I know, due to the unnerving experience I had with the first proofreading work I did, which landed on my desk only a few days after I started at XYZ. It was a test, I found out later, which was being done by two of us - the actual job by an older employee who's been handling similar work for several years. She's good, and her finished effort went to the client, while mine came back to me with written comments by the boss. A lot of them. I had trouble going to sleep that night. In fact. I spent a long time staring into the dark wondering whether I might have chosen the wrong profession.

A few of the boss's comments were mildly praising. I had spotted several technical mistakes, and he liked that. It was not much comfort, though, compared to his blue-penned criticisms and additional proofreading marks that made me realize how much I needed to improve. Later he took me aside for a little lecture.

"Ando-san," he said quietly. "you know I have a lot of trust in you and think you have a good future with our company. You do your work diligently, and I have already seen some of the promising things that tell me we were right to hire you. But this proofreading you just finished was not satisfactory. In fact. it was just downright bad. You failed to observe consistent style. You noticed that bad mistake about the ROM, but you didn't notice that the illustration title had a problem. You also missed some misnumbered figure references, and the table of contents was full of errors. The worst thing, of course, was the missing page."

"I'm sorry," I started to say, "but I didn't have much time and there were many problems..." I shut up when he lifted his hand in a gesture of impatience.

"Look, I know that. That's the kind of business we're in. The writer also didn't have enough time, and the engineer before him. But there cannot be any excuse for letting so many mistakes go through."

I nodded glumly as he paused to let his words sink in. "Let me let you in on a little secret about proofreading under a tight deadline," he told me with a little smile. "Just break it down."

He went on to explain more, but the nugget of his advice is a simple three words: break it down. Since then I have practiced at every opportunity, and have drawn more than a few quizzical stares on my long subway commute to and from work. Proofreading a manual while being jostled in a crowded subway car is strictly for the birds.

Break it down. Break it down. Break it down.

Under my breath I semi-chanted the words now, as I stared at the chance to redeem myself, laying there on my desk. A feeling of confidence began to creep over me. The dull pain behind my eye began to ease slightly as I thought back on what he had told me.

Break the manual down into parts, he said. Not parts like chapters, or sub-sections, but by classification. "A manual is like a piece of complicated equipment," the boss pointed out. "The only way to systematically fix it is to break it down into its component parts and check them one by one. Then you reassemble it and see if the parts work together well. If they do, you're finished."

He had written out the component parts of a typical manual and gave me the short list. All I saw were 10 entries. "That's it," he said. "There's no better way to troubleshoot a manual than to start with this list. Next time, follow it and see if things don't go better."

And then he sent me back to my desk, chastened but determined.

• A Short List that Goes a Long Way

Since then I have put the list to heart, but habit forced me to scan the dog-eared sheet again. During practice I had checked off each category as I completed it. A tiny row of check marks next to each line attested to my careful diligence.

Proofreading Breakdown List

  1. Page Numbers
  2. Table of Contents
  3. Section Numbers
  4. Section and Sub-section Titles
  5. Figure and Table Numbers
  6. Illustrations and Illustration Callouts
  7. Figure and Table References
  8. Sentence Content, Style, and Structure
  9. Table Data, Including Spelling and Punctuation
  10. Now, Go Back and Check What You Did!!

Break it down. Break it down. Break it down.

First the page numbers. Easy enough. Just start at the beginning and count out loud as you go along, with your eye on each successive page number. If your count and the page count go wrong, back up and find the cause. I learned you have to pay close attention, though, because when your mind wanders, your eye can overlook a repeated number, or more likely, a missing one. If the manual has separate numbering for each section, such as 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, and so on, you have to be even more careful. In my "test" this was one of the things I had screwed up on.

I also found that you need to check that the left page and right page numbering scheme is consistent. Most books and manuals, when printed on double-sided pages, are published so that the odd number is on the right-hand side. (I kept forgetting which was which until I developed a silly little practice of shaking my right hand and saying "One!" and then my left and saying "Two!" It may look dumb but it works.) Should you run across page number inconsistency, it's a pretty sure sign that a page number (or, worse, the page itself) has been omitted.

Next down on the list is the table of contents. Actually, the table of contents can come later, but it became apparent that it doesn't really matter when you check the contents. It just matters that you do, in a consistent way. When you work on the table of contents, you're actually accomplishing several things. You check the table of contents itself, then you use it to help you check the manual.

Here's what you typically might find in its un-proofread form (in this case, an air conditioning manual):

1.    GENERAL 2
1-1.  Tools Required for Instalation  
1-2.  Accessaries Supplied with Unit  
1-3.  Optional copper tubing kit  
1-4.  Type of Copper Tube and Insulation Material  
1-5   Additional Materials Required for Instalation  
2-1.  Unit for Indoors  
2-2.  Outdoor Unit  

First I check for spelling, style, and capitalization consistency. In this example I could find three misspelled words, incorrect capitalizations in entry 1-3, and style inconsistency in 1-3, 1-4, 2-1, and 2-2. Oh, yes. There's also a missing period.


1.    GENERAL 2
1-1.  Tools Required for Installation  
1-2.  Accessories Supplied with Unit  
1-3.  Optional Copper Tubing Kit  
1-4.  Type of Copper Tube and Insulation Material  
1-5.  Additional Materials Required for Installation  
2-1.  Indoor Unit  
2-2.  Outdoor Unit  

Once you've finished correcting the table of contents itself, you can now use it to help systematically check page locations and each referenced section and sub-section title inside the manual (steps No. 3 & 4 in our breakdown list). For this, I like to place the table of contents to the right of the manual, then go down the contents comparing it to the titles in the manual, checking off every correct page reference and renumbering any incorrect ones. Usually, any inconsistencies you find in the table of contents will also show up in the section titles themselves. Also, any editing that was done inside the manual will often not be reflected in the table of contents. This is your opportunity to make the table of contents titles and section titles in the manuscript accurately reflect all editing changes.

Checking the figure and table numbers, the next task on the list, is quick to do but often gets overlooked. Figure numbers have a way of evolving during the writing and editing stages of a manual as new figures are added and others are dropped. The same thing is true, if slightly less so, for tables. Consequently, one of the last things done during the writing phase should be a quick scan of the figures and tables to make sure they are consecutively numbered -- a step that is easily forgotten by the writer. So this important job falls to the editor, who must be backed up by the proofreader who has ultimate responsibility as the last person in the checking chain.

During your check of the table of contents, you generally run across misnumbered sections. Naturally, you go ahead and fix any you see, but don't let this sidetrack you. There are a couple of reasons, as I had found out. Never leave a task before you complete it, otherwise you may forget to come back to it later. Also, you should not try to do too many unrelated tasks at the same time. This is one of the important strategies behind the Break It Down approach. By concentrating on one task at a time, you can do each one well. By jumping around, which ironically is what you are actually doing if you try to proofread a manual one successive page at a time, you can end up doing many of the tasks either poorly or incompletely.

So, check the section numbers carefully for consecutive numbering. It's okay, if you want, to check section titles as well for style and punctuation. Remember, if the tasks are closely related, it's acceptable to do two or perhaps three at the same time -- as long as you can still adequately focus your attention.

Hint: You should also try to complete each task in one sitting. That way, you can 1) be sure you actually finished it, 2) be more consistent in making changes and finding problems that repeat throughout the manual, and 3) work more efficiently. Should you have to stop for more than a few minutes, and especially at the end of the day, write yourself a short note to help you recall the details of what you were doing when you were interrupted. This can save you some time getting restarted.

Now do the section and sub-section titles. Ah, ha! This job is already partly done, because you already caught a lot of problems when you checked the table of contents against the section titles. But, usually, sub-section titles are not listed in the table of contents, and you probably were not being focused enough. On this pass, go through it one more time paying close attention to style, numbering, and formatting. Again, make sure all your changes are reflected in the table of contents. Also make sure all capitalizations are consistent if you're dealing with a western language.

*Generally, the first letter of all "significant" words in chapter and section headings is capitalized. What's significant often depends on the editor or proofreader, but as a rule of thumb, at least for American English, it will be all nouns and verbs and any word more than three letters long. There are no hard and fast rules for capitalization.

A couple hours have passed now. Looking up. I see the boss eyeing me. He glances at his watch and turns back to his work. I lean forward and start to work faster, moving onto the next item: Illustrations and Illustration Callouts.

• Illustrations a Special Concern

Problems with illustrations can run the gamut from misspellings, to incorrect placement, to being turned the wrong way. The bad thing, the scary thing, is that sometimes an entire print run must be redone because an illustration appeared on the wrong page, had the wrong caption, or, as occurred with one 5,000-copy manual job I heard about, ended up being printed twice on separate pages.

The proofreader is one of the last hopes for catching a serious illustration problem. If you're careful, you can verify illustrations at the same time that you check the illustration callouts. But just be sure that you are extremely attentive to the illustrations themselves.

Callouts -- the labels that identify parts in technical illustrations -- I was told, are also a frequent source of trouble in manuals. Too often, illustrations are handled separately from the main text, and may even be proofread by separate individuals. The result is inconsistency in spelling, style, and terms. Of course, the ideal thing is to be able to proofread the illustrations after they have been placed on the page. If you can't do that, then have the manual open to the page where the illustration is to appear. Check the text for terminology, and verify that the same terminology is used in the illustration. For instance, if the text describes a "wire" and the figure's callout reads "cable" then one of them needs to be changed. Usually it's the callout. Also, you should make sure that illustrations are consistent with each other. That...

I feel a presence next to my desk. Glancing up, I see the boss's unsmiling face. He pushes the glasses up on his nose and says, "How's it going? You know we have to have this finished by mid-afternoon. Can you make it okay?" Looking at my diminishing list, I decide that if I take a short lunch, it should be smooth sailing. "I think so, but it's a little hard to say right now. If I start running into any problems, I'll let you know." He nods and heads for the company's smoking area. I get focused again, diving into item No. 7: Figure and Table Number References.

Text references to figures and tables are an essential part of a technical document. Sure, it's a lot easier to NOT reference, or to say "as shown in the figure," but neither is kind to the reader. As mentioned before, the figures and table numbers tend to get changed a lot as a manual develops. It is, of course, necessary to change the reference to them in the text. Other people may have overlooked them, but your job as proofreader is to make sure they are correct.

The work continues as I continue my way down the list. I reach the item that made me wonder earlier, on Sentence Content, Style, and Structure. When I had seen this listed I had been a bit surprised. Was this really the responsibility of the proofreader? After all, that's what the editor is supposed to do. I had mentioned this to the boss. "Well, that's true, and we don't really expect you to read the text the way an editor would," he told me. "But you're a professional, right?" I had winced, thinking about my botched earlier job, but nodded affirmatively, anyway. "Well, I think so, too. And anytime a professional reads a line of words, even on a subway advertisement, he subconsciously checks it for content, style, and structure. We're counting on you to help catch mistakes that even the best editor can let slip past." I had nodded again, and the weight of this new responsibility actually felt sort of good. Being a proofreader really is an important job, I had decided.

• Doing the Final Check

After a 15-minute soba lunch I spend the next two-and-a-half hours going through all my work. I catch the occasional missed punctuation mark, clarify a point here and there so the person doing the corrections doesn't have to guess, and basically clean up and confirm. I also check one more time for no missing pages.

Almost finished. I look up and see it is nearly 3 pm. The day has flashed past and while I have worked at a rapid pace and covered a lot of material, I have been able to budget my time well enough to get completely through the 10-item proofreading list, with a few minutes to spare.

Much more confident than before, I take the finished work over to the boss's desk. I place it on a pile of other documents, but he reaches over, picks up the work, and starts scanning through it. I wait, and find that now the time passes very, very slowly.

Finally, he looks up and a smile cracks his usually stern countenance. "You obviously had it under better control this time. Ando-san. I still see some things that need changing, but they're not so bad, and overall you did a much better job than last time. Good work -- I'll have another batch for you tomorrow."

"Oh, and by the way, if you have nothing else planned, would you like to join me and some of the other staff for a little beer and sake tonight?"

Copyright © The Technical Writer Magazine. All rights reserved.

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Company Background

Windows Inc. is a corporate and technical publishing company located in central Tokyo within the city's financial district. Established in January 1989, Windows has an in-house staff of publishing professionals with long experience in writing, editing, translation, design, computer illustrating, typesetting, and web publishing in English, Japanese, and European languages.

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