Flashpoint of the week: editors and writers egos?

Subject: Flashpoint of the week: editors and writers egos?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 15 Mar 2004 13:57:40 -0500

Lynne Wright wondered: <<A year ago, I was promoted to in-house editor, which I saw as a chance to reverse years of sub-standard documentation...>>

While that's laudable, recognize that as soon as you make it known that you have "A Goal", particularly one as threatening as the one you're proposing, you're going to encounter resistance. You're starting out with the attitude that "things ain't satisfactory", so be very careful not to wear this attitude on your sleeve when you start approaching your colleagues to suggest changing the situation. In short, the docs may indeed be substandard, but you'll get nowhere if you rub everyone's face in this.

<<... our marketing, QA, and training departments had all given up trying to get Tech Communications to do the job right.>>

That suggests a fairly intractable problem. If you have no authority to impose a process of improvement, you're looking at a world of trouble: the current staff have learned that they don't have to change their behavior, and won't see any reason to change just because you are telling them to do so. The simplest solution here is to have the Tech. Comm. manager inform the current staffers quite clearly that if they don't do what you tell them, heads will roll--and not yours. I doubt that's going to happen, and even if it could, it sets up some unpleasant "good cop" (you)-"bad cop" (the manager) dynamics.

So here's an alternative: Start by getting clear authority to do your job and a clear mandate from the Tech. Comm. manager to impose changes. If you have no authority as an editor, you might as well quit now. Make sure that the staffers get the message that things are going to change, and that you're the one who's going to make that change happen. Now you have an opportunity to work with the staffers as their ally (the person who will help them satisfy your joint manager) rather than as the enemy. You can now set about working with them to figure out how to make that change as painlessly as possible.

Make sure that the manager responsible for driving this change provides a reasonably clear list of the problems you'll be setting out to solve. Without knowing what you're aiming for, you can't hit the target other than by chance. Set priorities, and work on those first.

<<The problem had always been that Tech Comm. was more or less ruled by one "senior" writer who considered herself the in-house authority simply because she's been here the longest... even though she really doesn't have a firm grasp of basic writing principles (grammar, punctuation) and is not terribly good at thinking analytically or logically, etc.>>

This person will be your biggest challenge, since she has the most to lose and the least to gain from making the change. Your job will be to convince her that as in any good writer-editor relationship, your job will be to make her look good in print. If you don't have any authority to "force" her to work with you, changing many years worth of status quo will be very difficult at best. You can try asking her what kinds of things she's not confident about, and then offer to help her get better at these things; that lets you build a supportive relationship. But if she doesn't want to admit she has problems, that approach won't get you very far.

<<As far as I know, she started out as a secretary, then lucked into a job as a writer when the tech writing department was created... but to my knowledge she has never taken any writing courses or studied on her own to learn the basics of writing, let alone to study tech writing. She has also been the mentor for our other main writer, whose first language is French, and whose only prior 'writing' credentials included one or two years writing papers for English lit courses.>>

FYI, several members of this list started out as secretaries, and are now top-notch writers. So don't let her "humble" origins bother you. The next step is triage: identify the most serious problems, and start working on those. Editorially, I'm a bit of a heretic in that I believe it's more important to focus on communicating the content clearly than on the minutae of grammar and spelling. People may mock you for your typos, but so long as the instructions are comprehensive and clear, they'll at least be able to complete their tasks. So work on the high-level stuff first, and fix the details if time permits.

<<I want to compel them to write more clearly and concisely, but any attempts to "dictate" how they write prompt complaints to my boss (not to my face) that i'm being "too mean" or "too controlling" ... even though i'm 100% sure that all the suggestions i make are based on legitimate tech writing and/or English language usage guidelines. >>

Note your use of the word "compel": this tells you how you're thinking. You can't compel anything unless your boss gives you the authority to do so, and even then, you're better to persuade than dictate. I understand your frustration (been there, done that), but don't let it dictate how you think and act.

<<I'm also supposed to be in charge of maintaining our style guide, but I'm "not allowed" to impose conventions without getting group consensus... even though when we meet to discuss issues, I'm the only one who bothers to research what the norm appears to be and think through what might be best for us...everyone else just goes on their "feelings" as to whether something "sounds right" or not.>>

If you're the editor, you shouldn't have to work by consensus where there are clear standards. If you've done your homework, they should simply accept your edits and move on. Get the authority to dispense with the consensus process where clear guidelines already exist. Of course, you don't want to dictate everything, so always offer your colleagues the chance to come up with any reputable authority (e.g., a style guide) to support their choices. If they can justify a choice, then accept their choice: even if you prefer a different style, at least their recommendation is defensible. More importantly, compromising shows that you're willing to work with them rather than just dictating, but also emphasizes that they must have good reasons, not just "opinions".

<<They don't seem to trust or value my opinions much, even though by now I would think it would be fairly obvious that I know what I'm talking about>>

If they don't trust or value your opinions, then you need to do a better job of making your opinions trustworthy and valuable. If you're already doing that, the real problem is not that they don't trust and value you: it's that they resent your approach or fear the need to change.

<<i'm not just pulling rules out of my butt to make their lives difficult>>

From their standpoint, that's precisely what you're doing. The fact that you're right isn't really the point: you're still making them change when they don't want to. If you have authority to impose that change, then use it--gently, but firmly. If you don't, get that authority. Your job is to teach them to do the job right so that their lives become easier.

<<We have a new boss that seems to trust my judgement, but who has also been urging me to be kinda gentle on people, since he is trying to reverse a history of conflict and power struggles amongst the writers.>>

That kind of namby-pamby attitude always leads to trouble. Get him to give you the support you need to do your job, or tell him you'd rather just go back to being a writer and know that your own work is of high quality. I've been in the position of having responsibility but no authority, and it's horribly stressful. Not worth suffering through it, in my opinion.

<<do I stick to my principles and edit according to normal standards, and if they can't handle it, too bad?>>

That's going to be the final result if your job is editor. It's how you get there that makes all the difference, and you want to get there in such a way that your colleagues won't hate you for dragging them along on the journey.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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flashpoint of the week: editors and writers egos: From: Wright, Lynne

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