This post is a part of “Editing After Academia,” a series that spotlights editors who have found fulfilling careers outside academia.
Mike didn’t chart a deliberate pathway into editing. Instead, he moved almost accidentally from graduate school into the computer industry, where he did “just about everything.” He thinks the critical thinking and reading skills from his humanities degree have been essential for technical writing and editing. Yet he also credits flexibility and the willingness to learn as important assets. In the following interview, Mike talks about his lateral path into technical writing, his experience with writing and editing, and some ways into the field.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Graduate school, computer stuff, and the lateral path to editing
It was a peculiar experience.
I was working on a graduate degree in German. A woman who was in my department said, “Are you looking for a summer job? I work for this company that does computer stuff.” I got a job with them, and by the time I got out of grad school, the IBM PC came out. Suddenly, businesses were very interested in what you could do with PCs. This was about 1982.
My supervisor hired only graduate students because she thought they had proved that they knew how to read. Forty years later, I still think it’s true. It’s not the specific degree that was relevant, but the constant critical reading and writing and having your work looked over by other people. That’s what graduate training was all about, which is why I think so many tech writers and editors come from humanities and social sciences.
I transitioned laterally from writing into editing. I did technical writing for a succession of companies and then ended up at Microsoft. After I’d been there as a technical writer about 10 years, one of the editors said, “I’m retiring.” So I went to her manager and said, “You should let me be an editor.”
On finding an editing job
I sometimes tell people that a job will present itself whose title doesn’t have the word “editing” in it. It might be “tech writer,” for example—people have all these different names when, really, much of it consists of editing. A typical example is that someone will advertise a job in which the candidate might work on blog entries and marketing materials. They often mean that you’ll be “producing content,” meaning writing, editing, and formatting.
I’ll add that many times the technical editing positions that companies advertise represent an ideal candidate. I can guarantee you no one is going to walk in the door with all those qualities. As long as somebody’s willing to learn many of those things, that’s great.
Nobody plans to be an editor . . . but every editor loves it
I think no one sets out to be an editor. Editors I know discovered they liked editing accidentally. When I was in college, I discovered that a lot of people were terrible writers. People would bring me their term papers—I didn’t have any formal training, but I could clearly see all these things that were wrong in their papers. So I got a taste of it early on.
Another story you’ll hear often is that people had a role at a company—as a marketing person, a support person, something—and they just couldn’t stand the writing they were seeing. So they started editing other people’s stuff and eventually moved into an editing role. I’d say most people I know moved laterally into editing after discovering both an affinity for it and then an opportunity to start doing it full-time.
Nobody becomes an editor unless they like editing. They enjoy the process, the challenge, whatever you want to call it. That’s essentially what happened to me. I had gone through a weird career path in which—all of a sudden—an opportunity to do something that I’d been interested in all along provided itself to me.
Becoming an expert nonexpert
When you’re a tech writer, you’re often assigned to a beat. You become expert on that and you write about it, and you write about it, and then there’s a new version and you write about it some more. On the editing team, we’re spread thin, so I’ll read something about machine learning today, I’ll read something about security tomorrow, and the next day something entirely unrelated. I’ll go from blog entries to white papers to documentation. It’s constantly interesting. There’s always a new thing.
Technical writing presents exciting challenges
We’re not writing literature here—it’s not about being interesting. It’s like: I’m in a hurry, I’m sitting at the side of the road, I have a flat tire, and I need to find out how to jack up the car.
It’s a challenge to ask, “How do we get the information to the user as fast as possible with the least amount of friction?” Or, “What is the information they need?”
Plain language editors like Iva Cheung are doing some cutting-edge work by investigating how to write and edit important information for audiences who don’t necessarily have a lot of skill in interpreting complex material. It’s very challenging work. It’s the kind of thing that can really change people’s lives.
How can I become a technical writer or editor?
There are many open-source projects that need volunteers. You can seek out these opportunities and get hands-on experience by changing people’s texts, interacting with authors, getting a feel for the flow of the whole system—who does what and when.
Another path for technical editing is to work with communities. For example, I work a little bit with the ukulele community and with our homeowners’ association. There are opportunities out there to be seized!
Mike Pope’s recommended resources:
- Developing Quality Technical Documentation: A Handbook for Writers and Editors (Carey et al.)
- Technical Editing (Rude & Eaton)
- Technical Editing: The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers (Tarutz)
- Technical Editing in the 21st Century (Amare et al.)
- The Society for Technical Communication foundations and advanced courses
- Technical style guides (software):
- GOV.UK Content Principles: Conventions and Research Background
- Write Accessible Documentation (Google style guide)
- Write for a Global Audience (Google style guide)
Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor in the software industry for over 35 years. He has worked at Microsoft and Amazon, and is currently an editor in Google’s cloud division. You can read some of his thoughts about technical editing on his blog.