Document Review Techniques (take II)

Subject: Document Review Techniques (take II)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "Blount, Patricia A" <Patricia -dot- Blount -at- ca -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 21 Dec 2005 10:41:27 -0500

Patricia Blount noted: <<The best editorial review consists of a round table meeting of the minds. All team members are present: SME, Editor, Tech Writer and a representative or two from the target audience, i.e., end users.>>

Nice work if you can get it. <g> This is indeed a key part of the review process I co-developed at a former employer: after the author completed their research and wrote up an outline (often with my help), all in-house stakeholders met to discuss/critique/polish the outline. It was very effective.

<<But Editors are NOT responsible for the writing. They - in my opinion - SHOULD ONLY BE RESPONSIBLE FOR ENSURING STANDARDS.>>

Sorry, but I have to disagree here. The advantage of having an editor is that they can serve as the reader's advocate. Even professional writers have their own unexamined assumptions, and benefit from a review by someone who does not share those assumptions. They already understand what they're trying to say, and often forget that readers don't. Fixing that gap is the job of a substantive editor. You're probably thinking of a copyeditor, and while I have no qualms about the value of copyediting, that's only a small part of what a good editor can do for you.

<<I've found that when editors are granted full responsibility for a document, the relationship between technical writer and editor deteriorates into 'one-up-manship' where preferences for second person over third, or gerunds over infinitives, or even Arial over Times Roman prevail over what's best for the end user.>>

You've clearly had limited and bad experience with a narrow range of editors--from context, people who are not specifically trained as editors, but who instead fell into the job from writing positions. I make a very good living helping authors examine their assumptions, pointing out the very many things they've forgotten to say, and helping them say things better. My style is never about one-upmanship: it's about working together to make the author look as good as possible, with an emphasis on collaboration rather than dictation. It's the message that's important, not who "wins" over word choice.

<<Because most editors are writers, it is natural to want things written to preference.>>

Few professional editors are writers, though some (me, for instance) also write professionally. Good editors do not "write to preference"--they _re_write to make the text effective, and they understand the difference between their preference and what is correct and effective. The really good ones (me, at least some days) also retain the author's voice to the extent that this is possible; sometimes that voice is inaudible, and sometimes there's a house style to be achieved.

<<However, editors did not write your document. They do not know the context within which you chose specific words or phrases.>>

It's the fact that we _did not_ write the document that offers us necessary critical distance that all authors lack. I say this as someone who recently passed my 300th published article: I'm a very good writer, and a better editor, but I still benefit greatly from having my writing edited by a pro. A good editor makes a large effort to understand the context of your writing--well enough, in fact, to help you write effectively in that context.

<<They should never be permitted to make changes without the author's and SME's approval. Granting editors full control often introduces ambiguity to the finished document.)>>

No, editors should be removing ambiguity from the document; if they're not, they're either incompetent or not doing their job. A properly implemented editing process is one in which the editor _proposes_ changes and justifies any that are not obvious so the author can understand and make the final decision about whether the change is necessary. When the author disagrees, they discuss the issue with the editor until they understand the problem: if the editor misunderstood, many readers will also misunderstand, particularly when the editor is sufficiently familiar with the field to be an honorary SME. I've stopped counting the number of honorary doctorates I've received from journal editors and authors for my contributions to their work. <g>

<<The Editor should enforce compliance to your company or departmental style and standards guide...>>

Style guides are very useful, but consistency of style is one of the least important things we do. Much more important are issues related to logic, organization, and clarity--if these are not fixed by an editor, all the consistency in the world will not make the document useful to anyone other than the author.

<<The SME is the technical expert. This person has ultimate approval of the message itself.>>

We agree 100% if "the message itself" means the content. But SMEs rarely have good enough writing skills, and almost inevitably lack critical distance--which is why writers and editors must be responsible for how that message is delivered. Successful communication requires both form and content, and it's the teamwork between SMEs and the author and editor that provides both.

<<During the review, typos, grammar issues, and even word choice are likely to be challenged by any member of the team. This is fine and to be encouraged.>>

This is generally an inefficient way to conduct reviews. As noted in my previous message, editors should fix all these problems so nobody else has to waste mental effort fixing them. Think of it this way: you can have one person spend an hour fixing the minor stuff, or you can ask five people to each spend an hour doing so. Which wastes the least time? The team review should focus on matters of substance--and any issues the editor identifies as unclear and needing clarification, such as word choice. However, word choice should be clearly defined in a constantly updated style guide so that nobody has to waste time arguing over the best words. Define a solution that works, and teach everyone to use it.

<<Change the obvious errors, but you, as the technical writer, should retain control over the language.>>

"Control over the language" is decided by consensus. The SMEs understand the jargon better than anyone, the writers understand how to use the jargon correctly and to replace it with non-jargon when appropriate, and the editors ensure that this is done effectively. It's a team process: nobody can succeed all by themselves, though of the three groups, a really good professional writer is most likely to do so.

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

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References:
RE: Document Review Techniques: From: Blount, Patricia A

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