Editing gently but productively

Subject: Editing gently but productively
From: Tara Barber <tara -at- BARBER -dot- CTEXT -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 7 Mar 1996 13:51:48 EST

Glenda Jeffrey asked about ways to edit constructively to help new writers

I agree with Geoff Hart that the more you make it collaborative, the better
results you will get. Here's how we do it in my department; although all my
writers are experienced, they come from such different backgrounds that some
of the ways you need to deal with editing them are similar to what you need to
do with new writers.

First, when I initially took this job, there were several "styles" of
documentation being used for the company's old manuals. (A mixed litter of
kittens comes to mind.) The department was very small at that point, so the
senior writer and I sat down and hammered out a cohesive style, which included
making compromises between differences in the way we each did things. (Not
without tensions, but we managed it.)

Out of that grew a Style guide and a set of Manual conventions. I also
outlined the documentation process followed at our company. This meant
that any new writer we hired had guidelines and procedures to follow right from
the beginning. This helped to eliminate glaring editing problems.

Since that time, the department has grown, and on at least two occasions we
have all sat down as a department and readdressed the Style guide and
conventions. This helps with buy-in from everyone on how we handle things, and
allows for new ideas and problems to be addressed collaboratively.

The second thing is that, in addition to the usual subject-matter expert
reviews, we ALL review each other's materials. This helps us remain
familiar with each other's projects, and lets us develop a homogenization of
our writing styles which keeps our documentation consistent. It's also a
great way to get a good "clean-eyes edit." And frequently one writer will have
an original idea about how to approach a problem that eliminates a potential
editing dilemma.

In my role as Docs manager, I try to edit early and late, but not in the
middle. Our materials usually go through several iterations before they're
printable (usually due to the software doing likewise.) I try to look over
early material in the form of outlines and first drafts, to make sure
everything looks on-track and according to our styles and procedures. I
always edit final drafts because I'm responsible for the output of my
department. But I try not to do too much in the middle unless there's a
problem. Peer review works well during this intermediate phase, and I don't
want to step on individual creativity.

If I have to make comments, there are various levels of them. (And here I'm
not talking about catching grammar mistakes, spelling errors, typos, mis-
numberings, etc. If your writers have problems with having that type of
thing pointed out, you've got bigger problems than can be addressed here.)

A) I point out problems, or things that seem confusing, but let the writer
suggest fixes.
B) I make suggestions and provide examples. More than one, if I can.
C) I actively work with the writer to develop ways around a problem. Sometimes
this means coming up with a whole new way of approaching the documentation,
which is then addressed at our next Style meeting. Sometimes it also works
to get the rest of the department involved in a brain-storming session.
D) If nothing else works, I play the heavy manager and say "do it this
way because I say so." I try to avoid this, however, if I possibly can.

Working this way, we rarely have editing problems that we can't get around, and
everyone stays pretty happy with the comments they receive and their final
output. And our customers find the docs usable and valuable. More than that,
you can't really ask.

Tara Barber
Documentation Manager
CText, Inc.

Since my opinions belong to me, anyone stealing them deserves what they get.

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