Why Dangle Me Participle and Shiver Me Timbers: He’s Struck a Pernicious Nuance

©2016 Mark K. Henderson

Technical editors fear nuances. They’re akin to land mines when your job is to make a safe, straight, sensible path for others. Technical editors’ fear & loathing of sneaky nuances is only matched by the fear & loathing of a computer science engineer being tasked with writing an expository paper on Keats…for presentation to the class.

pirateWhile I dare say that most readers will have a pretty good grip on the CS engineer’s dread of presenting a dissertation on Keats, some might not catch the big deal about every technical editor’s nightmare—the pernicious nuance. The source of the angst lies in the nuance. (If you didn’t get that, hold the thought and come back to it when you finish reading.)

Nuance phobia does not affect an editor performing what’s commonly called a line edit. An editor performing a line edit scrubs for defects such as typos, misspellings, maybe a misused word, and the like. The line editor is bullet-proof when glossing over nuances.

However, for the technical editor performing a thorough “conceptual edit”, the challenges are more in-depth:  Does each word-choice and phrase make sense? Is the information logically presented and organized to convey the idea(s) the author intended for the target audience? Are new concepts, ideas, and terms sufficiently explained? And the list goes on…The editor’s challenge, then, is to do whatever it takes to get the document right (a.k.a clear and concise), but without changing the technical meaning of a document (i.e. rendering it invalid).

Enter in nuance:  The nuance lies in ambush inside these documents, because the nuance lies on the fine line between greatly improving a document or erroneously changing its technical meaning. It’s the nuance of meaning in the author’s words and what he or she intended.

Perhaps an example would be helpful. A while back, I was tasked with performing a thorough conceptual edit to a plan for maintaining electrical components in and around detonable atmospheres and other hazardous environments. I was given wide leeway to “make it right”.

Unfortunately, I didn’t even get past the overview before I hit a what I suspected to be a live nuance. Specifically, the nuance was the way author used the phrase “levels of containment”. While some of the other thoughts and phraseology needed work, I could tell contextually his usage of that phase was intentional, and I suspected that there was a nuance to the meaning that I did not understand.

Even though I called him right away, since he wasn’t immediately available and I was on an aggressive schedule with his document, I took a shot at revising the overview section based on my experience and my understanding of what is typically meant by “levels of containment”.

As soon as he got my message, he came down to my desk and spent about 20 minutes on a dry-board literally illustrating the traditional approach versus the contemporary philosophy for managing devices in these high-hazard environments. During this excellent tutorial, I realized immediately that—as comedian, Ron White is wont to say—“I was wrong.”

So I completely scrapped my first revision of this plan overview and was able to make the necessary revisions to get the document right. When we were finished, my subject matter expert (SME) was, in the words of the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey, “tickled pink” with the product. But, it took truly learning and understanding the nuance meanings of his phrase before I could successfully get the document right and not change the technical meaning of what the author intended.

So, for those of us charged with editing documents to get them right, don’t fear the pernicious nuances of what a SME might provide; rather, read what the author developed, and then try contextually to determine the intended meaning and whether some phrase or word choice was intentional.

Of course, when a technical editor suspects the presence of nuance, it’s best to immediately tag up with the author/SME so he or she can explain the meaning and their intent.

And for you readers charged with authoring documents for your technical editor to do their conceptual edit, take a page out of my SME’s playbook and take the time to explain the intended meaning, or nuance, of what you wrote. It will help your technical editor make your document clear, concise and valid before he or she inadvertently changes it technically while trying to make it right.