Best Practice for reviewing documents?

Subject: Best Practice for reviewing documents?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "Lucero, Peggy" <plucero -at- atsva -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 20 Dec 2005 11:07:48 -0500

Peggy Lucero wondered: <<After the developer finishes his writing/delivering content, document then needs to go through peer review and then be reviewed by the client. Each of these reviews is likely to result in changes/deletions/additions/recommendations, etc. all done in WORD with tracking changes on.>>

So far, so good. This is the core of an effective review process. The trick is to minimize the number of iterations.

<<In the highly technical documents my part is mainly as an editor/overseer for spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, layout, format, etc.>>

Two key success strategies that I've used in the past: First, sit down with the author before they begin writing and create a kickass outline. I'm talking "blueprint" here, as in "you wouldn't build a house without a blueprint, so why would you write a complex document without an outline?" (This also applies to software engineering, but programming managers seem genetically incapable of understanding this. <g>) Get the outline approved by the managers before you begin writing and you'll also see many fewer "you forgot a section" or "the logic here makes no sense" comments later in the review process.

Second, if you eliminate all these types of error ***before*** you begin the peer review, reviewers can concentrate on the technical and political aspects of the review that they're best qualified to handle. The more simple editorial matters they see, the more their attention is drawn away from the actual technical aspects of the review and the worse a job they do during the review. It seems counterintuitive to devote all this effort to "perfecting" something that will be reviewed and changed many times, but if you review the content (outline) and style (editing) before the review, many fewer changes are required after the review.

<<during the review process, how many times should I be reviewing the document and making editorial changes?>>

As often as necessary. <g> Sorry to be glib, but that's the only broadly applicable answer. The most efficient review process I've been part of (and helped design) had me do the initial edit before peer and technical and external review, and a final edit before page layout. Then one last kick at the can when I proofread the layout. Two editorial reviews is the inescapable minimum. The first one makes the technical reviews effective; the second one fixes the errors introduced by those reviews.

<<Boss says that after the client reviews document and makes their recommendations document should not be changed.>>

There's a sound reason for this: it's surprisingly easy to introduce significant errors into a document by making seemingly innocent changes that change the meaning. If the client has done a good job of the technical review, then the document will be technically correct and that's by far the most important part of the review process--soyou don't want to risk that status with an ill-considered edit. That's what worries managers.

That being said, any decent editor will edit with a keen awareness of the risk of changing the meaning, and will be scrupulously careful to note any edits that might change the meaning. You can then discuss those with the technical experts to ensure that they're correct. If you can persuade your boss that this will happen, there should be no problem with this final review phase.

<<Also, I am allowing 5 days, typically, for the peer review and 5 days for the client review. Is that appropriate?>>

Review deadlines must be set based on two criteria: First, will the reviewer be available when you send the document for review. Second, is the length of the period sufficiently long for the amount of reviewing that must be done?

I've solved both problems nearly 100% by building a "query for availability and preferences" phase into the review process. Before we begin writing, we identify the reviewers. I contact them to ensure that they will be available around the predicted time when the documents will be available, and identify all their relevant preferences (Word file, PDF, faxed document, printed copy delivered by courier, etc.) and how busy they expect to be (i.e., how long they need for the review given their other duties). I then confirm their availability as the deadline approaches.

After sending the review copy, I ask them to confirm they've received the review copy with no problems and that the deadline is still acceptable. I then add a note to my calendar software to remind me to remind them of the deadline if they haven't yet returned the document. Works amazingly (but predictably) well!

I have an article on designing an effective review process in the works for _Intercom_, and hope it will appear early in the new year. In the meantime, there's a bunch of helpful stuff on my Web site.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Best Practice for reviewing documents: From: Lucero, Peggy

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