So you want to write quilt patterns? Awesome! If you've sought advice from anyone in the industry, someone has probably recommended that you hire a tech editor to review your pattern before releasing it. Good advice, in my opinion. But what exactly is a tech editor and how on earth do you go about finding a good one? After all, if you're going to pay them your hard-earned money to review your pattern BEFORE you make a dime from it, shouldn't you make sure they're actually good at their job first?
Now full disclosure, I am a tech editor. And I like to think a pretty good one at that. This piece comes out of a frequent complaint I hear in pattern writing circles that goes something like this: "I sent my pattern to a tech editor and my testers still found a math error. What do I do?" As a tech editor myself, I have some pretty strong opinions about this and it frustrates me to no end when I hear this complaint because it shouldn't be happening. So in the next few paragraphs, I'm going to try to outline exactly what a tech editor's job is and what makes a good one so if you're ever in the market for one, you know what to look for.
What is a tech editor?
For someone to be a technical editor (tech editor), they need to meet two requirements: (1) they need to be able to edit written documents (copy), and (2) they need to have technical expertise in the field for which they are editing. If a tech editor only possesses #1 they are a copyeditor, not a tech editor. The goal of copyediting is primarily to check that the organization and flow of the writing makes sense and that it is free of grammatical errors and typos. The vernacular uses a slightly different term for this: proofreading (although in publishing, there is technically a distinction between copyediting and proofreading).
Most people with a strong command of the language can copyedit. In the context of pattern writing, a friend or family member that writes well can probably do a pretty good job of copyediting your pattern. However, that isn't going to ensure that your fabric requirements are correct or that the difficulty rating for your pattern is appropriate. For an editor to be able to make those recommendations, they have to meet requirement #2; they need to be a subject matter expert (SME or "smee") in the particular discipline of your target audience. In the case of quilt pattern writing, they HAVE to be a quilter and they have to have enough experience and knowledge of different techniques and pattern conventions to be able to know if your pattern conforms to those standards.
This is what I think a lot of people offering pattern tech editing services miss: copyediting does not equal tech editing. A tech editor's job is much more than just making sure a pattern is free of typos and grammar mistakes. I would argue that the technical side of things is actually more important, because your testers (if you use them) or a gracious family member or friend, can probably catch almost all of your typos without issue for free or, at least, much cheaper than a tech editor fee. You are paying for experience and knowledge gained over many years when you hire a tech editor and it is well worth it.
A tech editor's job
The job of a tech editor can be split into a couple of different broad areas. The best tech editors will be able to advise on all of them. In order of importance, they are:
Verifying the accuracy of instructions - will the directions actually result in the design shown on the cover? This means checking the math (fabric requirements, cut dimensions, intermediate and block dimensions, etc.), checking that there are enough instructions for the average quilter to follow, and making sure that those instructions are clear and unambiguous.
Ensuring that the pattern conforms to the industry convention and is as simple and straightforward as possible - Are all the necessary elements of a pattern present? Is it organized and formatted in a way that provides maximum clarity? Are the methods used the simplest and most straightforward way to assemble the shapes in question, or are there simpler techniques available? This is the most nebulous of the tasks, but arguably also the most important because this kind of feedback is often the kind you would never hear otherwise. If given enough time and enough concentration (and some decent testers), you can probably catch most math errors and typos yourself, but suggestions arising from task #1 are often things you'd never in a million years think of. These kinds of suggestions are the thing that will take your pattern from good to excellent.
Copyediting - are the sentences clear and concise? Is it free of typos? Are the instructions in the pattern easy to read (i.e. the sentences aren't long and convoluted and full of unnecessary vocabulary)? Note that this task is distinct from task #1 since its focus is on the grammar and sentence structure NOT the meaning.
Now, there's a reason that copyediting - i.e. finding spelling and grammar typos - is last. Quilt patterns exist to communicate a process that, when followed, produces a quilt with a specific design. A couple of letters swapped in a word, a missing comma, or a run-on sentence isn't likely to prevent a customer from following your pattern. However, a cutting or dimension error OR a general lack of detail in your diagrams or instructions can and does prevent people from finishing a project. Those designs go into the perpetually unfinished WIPs pile and that customer will likely never buy a pattern from you again. Perfect grammar and spelling is a secondary goal (but a good tech editor will still include copyediting in their review).
What makes a good tech editor?
Here's my list of essential tech editor qualities. In the last section, I'll give you specifics of what to look for when you're hiring a tech editor to ensure they possess these qualities.
Experience Quilting - This one may be obvious; it's the technical part of tech editor. A good tech editor should have been quilting more than just a couple of years. Why? Because they need to have made enough quilts and followed enough patterns to be able to advise on whether a pattern has enough information. You only get that context if you've made a bunch of quilts, followed a bunch of patterns, and tried a lot of techniques.
Math and Organization - Your tech editor is going to be checking all of your requirements, dimensions, and counts. In order to do that, they need to be good at math. But more than that, they need to be good at keeping track of a lot of numbers. Quilting math isn't hard, there's just a lot of numbers. Some people are just better at this than others. If your tech editor get's confused easily or is just a bit scatterbrained in general, chances are they're probably going to have trouble keeping track of all the math and are therefore prone to mistakes.
Technique Knowledge - A good tech editor will have experience in a bunch of different quilting styles (bonus points if they have experience following other types of sewing patterns as well. Think garments, bags, etc.), This is helpful even if they are only tech editing one specific style of pattern. Why? Because different styles have different conventions that are useful for communicating different kinds of processes. That additional context will make them even better at identifying suggestions to improve the clarity and conciseness of your pattern. Diversity is good, full stop, but it's extra good when it comes to your tech editor's perspective.
Language Command - This goes without saying, but good tech editors should have a good command of the language because they're going to be checking your pattern for grammar and clarity. They should have a strong foundation in English grammar and read and write a fair amount themselves.
Technical Writing Experience - And by technical writing, I mean specifically procedural writing because, after all, quilt patterns exist to convey a process. A good tech editor will be experienced at writing procedures and breaking down processes step-by-step either in the context of quilting or in another field (think science, recipes, directions,
The tech editor checklist
Here's my checklist for a good tech editor. You can use this when trying to find a tech editor yourself. If a person ticks most or all of the boxes, chances are you're probably found someone well worth whatever fee they're charging. If this information isn't readily available on their website, you should feel free to ask these kinds of questions in an email or phone interview. Anyone worth their salt will not be offended in the slightest.
Has been quilting for more than 5 years OR has been quilting at least 2 years, but has been very active in that time (made 30+ quilts in a variety of patterns).
Has experience with a variety of techniques - scroll through their Instagram feed. Do you see traditionally pieced quilts of all difficulties, FPP, applique, etc.?
Has some sort of math background - go through their website "about me" page. What do they do for a day job (if they have one)? Look for someone who is (or used to be) an engineer, math teacher, or accountant.
Writes frequently and writes well - Do they have a blog? If so, is it well-written? If not, do they write documents frequently in formal English as part of their day job (if they have one)? Look for engineers, scientists, or folks that work in communications or publishing.
Has written a quilt pattern - This one is important because there are some details about quilt patterns and best practices that only become clear when you've written at tested your own pattern at least once. See if they ghostwrite or sell any of their own patterns (doesn't have to be many) or if they've written a pattern for a magazine, blog, or quilt shop. Obviously, the more the better, but I wouldn't hire anyone who hasn't written at least 1.
Sample pattern or tutorial is clear, well-organized, and concise - If they have a free pattern or tutorial, download it and assess its quality for yourself. If they don't have a freebie, consider purchasing one of their patterns for research purposes. If you instantly see things you would improve, they're probably not a good tech editor.
Lists specific services in their tech editing service information - Do they tell you exactly what they will be checking your pattern for? If so, does it include the 3 tasks listed in Section 1?
Provides clear information on turnaround times, terms of service, and estimated fee - You should have this information readily available before you hire anyone. If they don't make it available to you, you're probably not hiring a professional; stay away.
Has been recommended to you or has glowing testimonials on their website - If they're good at their job, word eventually gets around and their customers will happily vouch for them. If they've been in business for a while and you hear crickets, they're probably not a good tech editor. If they haven't been around for a while, you can disregard this point but then it's even more important that each of the other requirements is met.
Armed with this information, you'll be able to make an informed decision when hiring a tech editor. Since there's no certification or degree in quilt pattern tech editing, anyone can offer these services; that doesn't mean that they're good at it. Do your due diligence before you hire anyone. It's just good business.
And . . . If you find yourself in a situation where you have found a math error that your tech editor didn't catch, let them know about it (politely) and see how they respond. If it's the first time it's happened, it's probably not a big deal; everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Maybe they were just having a really bad day and your pattern happened to be what they were working on. They should acknowledge the error and be more troubled by it than you are. While not ideal, it happens.
If it happens more than once, it's time to find a new tech editor. The purpose of hiring a tech editor is to give you peace of mind that you are publishing a pattern free of errors, If they aren't catching everything but a few minor typos that have no effect on the meaning of the pattern, they haven't done their job. In any other field, if someone doesn't do their job, you replace them (and also possibly get a refund). It's not personal, it's business. You shouldn't feel bad in the slightest for moving on to another tech editor if your current one isn't able to provide you with the service you require. Yes, better tech editors charge higher rates, but you decide: would you rather pay a little more to have the job done properly, or less and have it not done at all? I know which I would prefer.