How One Technical Editor Champions Clarity and Good Rapport with Writers

July 14, 2022 By Mike Maisen
McAuliffe (at far right) and fellow editors at the 2019 Red Pencil Editing Conference near Seattle.

Marcy McAuliffe has always stood out. In my 15 years as a technical editor, I can say she is one of the rare editors who veers into the extrovert side of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. She was hired as an on-call editor at my company to edit some of our biggest and most high-profile technical reports. On our work phone calls, Marcy would usually flip the conversation on me and ask, “So what’s new? What are you working on?” 

That dynamic may sound simple, but we as editors can be a reluctant bunch. Wordsmithing? Yes. Being comfortable talking to people about the words they wrote? Um ... not so much. Yet Marcy made it look easy. Recently retired after 30-plus years running her own editing business, McAuliffe Technical Editing Services, in the Pacific Northwest environmental consulting industry, Marcy reflects on what contributed to her success.

Young McAuliffe at Camp Wapalanne

Mike Maisen: The environment has been a lifelong passion of yours. You studied environmental conservation as an undergraduate and environmental education and policy in graduate school. Where did that interest start?

Marcy McAuliffe: I had a profound experience at age 14 after attending northern New Jersey’s State School of Conservation summer camp, Camp Wapalanne, in Stokes State Forest. The director of the camp in particular, but also its entire staff and every single camper, cared deeply about the natural world. The camp, together with my family’s love of the outdoors, made me want to learn everything I could about“conservation,” as the field of environmental science was called at the time.

Maisen: When did you get interested in editing?

McAuliffe: I fell into it. I went to school for environmental education, fantasizing that I would eventually put myself out of a job by helping students integrate environmental ethics into daily life. Soon enough, though, I realized that a structured classroom approach would not work for me. There were very few opportunities for the next best option — being a naturalist. I turned instead to written communication. Even with the very technical and complex material that scientists and engineers write, I look for the story first, and then I pick it apart and see if it holds up. I guess I inherited the best aspects of my father, the engineer, and my mother, the actress hiding as a laboratory technician and substitute teacher.

Maisen: How would you define technical editing?

McAuliffe: A technical editor shepherds science and engineering documents — civil engineering, geological, computer science, and many other fields where the writers typically have advanced degrees. Technical editing looks at the accuracy, structure, presentation, and readability of the technical story.

Maisen: How did you get your first break in technical editing?

McAuliffe: I was working at the University of Washington as an administrative assistant. It was the first full-time, permanent job I found after moving to Seattle, but I wanted to work more directly with science and words. I sent a letter asking for a job to every company listed in the Yellow Pages under environmental consultants and engineers. Only one wrote back. They ended up hiring me because I knew a little bit about a lot of different aspects of environmental science, was willing to take any related job, and could write coherently.

Maisen: What did you work on?

McAuliffe:  My first manager was not an editor by trade but an oceanographer. With his help, I developed a skill approaching — but never surpassing — his eagle eye. My initial work soon expanded into editing any and every document from the entire office, from highly technical subject matter to interpretive studies meant for policymakers. After a few years, prompted by organizational and family changes, I started my own editing company. I’ve edited a wide variety of environmental documents, ranging from landfill monitoring reports to EPA Superfund-level deliverables to analyses of regulatory policy.

Maisen: What was it like owning your own business?

McAuliffe: At the end of the day, people liked my work. It’s probably as simple as that. I’m also curious and was lucky enough to have a lot of contacts when I went out on my own. That certainly helped. But showing an interest in the authors as much as in their work can make all the difference. Some editors may feel uncomfortable with asking what’s next, but writers — as we all know — like to talk about what they’re writing.

Maisen: What tips would you give to editors who want to edit and/or do technical editing?


1. Be diplomatic, yet don’t beat around the bush. Do your best to understand the content, and be honest if you’ve missed the point. Scientists and engineers generally approach communication analytically — no surprise there. This can sometimes mean they feel challenged by an editor trying to get their attention on edits that will help the reader(s). However, they DO care deeply about the accuracy and presentation of their data. Your job is to help them help the reader. Remember that even Ph.D.readers prefer straightforward explanations that are neither oversimplified nor unnecessarily complex.

2. Use “I” statements and “blame” the reader. There's a lot of difference between “I don’t get this.” and "Will the reader understand what you’re trying to say? I had a little trouble myself.” How you offer suggestions that drive the writer to act on behalf of the reader really leads to success as a technical editor.

3. I usually have a heavy hand when it comes to editing (other successful editors have a lighter touch). However, I communicate that upfront and writers have come to trust me. Editors can get into trouble when they don’t understand or communicate the scope of what they’re asked to do. Ask early and often. You’ll always be rewarded for it.

Marcy McAuliffe worked for more than 30 years as a technical editor for public and private clients, addressing a wide array of environmental problems. Mike Maisen is a senior editor at Aspect Consulting in Seattle, Washington, where he was lucky enough to work with Marcy as well as learn from her. 

This interview has been lightly edited.

This article was originally shared in ACES quarterly journal, Tracking Changes Spring 2022.

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