So far we have been talking about editing as a business carried
on in your study alone or, at most, with one's cat as company. But
much editing is actually carried out in busy offices, with phones
ringing incessantly, conflicting demands on your time and your
standards, and people dropping into your cubicle and breaking into
your train of thought all the time. In this unit, I'll offer you the
fruits of some years of experience of working in such conditions.
First, of course, is the range of people who you'll have to work
with in the business world.
The relationship between an editor and a writer she is working
with can be a delicate and difficult one even if the project
involves just the two of them, but it can — and in industry, usually
does — get much more complicated than that.
If, for example, you're editing technical manuals at a high-technology
company, you will find yourself editing the work of several writers
concurrently, and these writers will have different personalities, schedules,
and expectations of their editor. Your writers will probably depend
for their material on subject-matter experts (SMEs), the people who
design and develop the products the writers are documenting; these people
have their own culture and their own priorities, and you may well have
to interact with them to help your writers get their work done. The
marketing staff will probably look at the company’s documents as sales
tools, and insist that writers (and you) handle some technical issue
rather differently from the way you'd naturally handle it. It may well
be that you report to a manager of editing, while your writers report
to a different manager, and the two managers may have differing agendas.
In short, you may find that a good preparation for editing in industry
is to learn to ride a unicycle while juggling firebrands.
In the publishing world, whether of books or periodicals, you will
encounter the tradition whereby everyone is called "editor" — there
are managing editors and executive editors and senior editors and project
editors and contributing editors and developmental editors and acquisition
editors; the guys who come in to hang the wallpaper are probably mural
editors, and the kid they send out for Mu Shu Pork is the culinary editor
— but what they all have in common is that they are not editors. It
would be only slightly unfair to say that in the publishing world, everyone
is an editor and no one does any editing. Don't be surprised, if you
go to work in publishing, to find that most of your fellow "editors"
are marketing people, managers, salespeople, contract negotiators, and
talent scouts. When such places find that they need some actual editing
done, they frequently hire a freelance temp who works at home or in
a remote cubicle at the office so that he won't interfere with the "editors."
In situations like this, you will want to find out from each of the
parties where his heart is: does he want beautifully organized and written
documents? Documents that appear on schedule, whatever the cost in polish,
completeness, or even accuracy? Documents that do a good job of selling
the product they describe, or minimize the company's liability to lawsuits?
Of course, no one is going to say in so many words, "I don't care if
the book is accurate, just get it out in time!" — so you have to get
to know the players well enough to be able to read between the lines
of what they say. If the objective of some player is incompatible with
what you believe is minimally good editing, you have a problem — but
your problems will be much greater if you don't even know what those
objectives are. So, Recommendation 1: Get to know all the players,
and understand what they want.
With so many masters and clients to serve, the editor has to
establish a well-oiled process so as to stay on top of her job, or
even just retain her sanity. The most important step in doing this
is to make the writers understand that no document will be accepted
for editing unless it's accompanied by an Editing Job Cover
Sheet. Here is a sample Cover Sheet:
Editing Job Cover Sheet
Book Title _______________________ Writer
Date Submitted __________ Editor __________________
Return By ________
Status of Document to Be Edited:
ϖ This is a portion of the book: chapters
ϖ This is a complete book, except for
ϖ This document has been edited ________ times
before, by _______________
This document will be edited for coherence, clarity,
and consistency; for writing mechanics (grammar,
spelling, and punctuation); and for conformity to our
guidelines and conventions. In addition, it will be
edited with special attention to any topics checked
ϖ Is the overall organization appropriate?
ϖ Are the cross-references properly formed and
ϖ Are all writers' and reviewers' notes removed
ϖ Are screen shots and other graphics clear and
ϖ Is the amount of detail appropriate?
ϖ Are tables correctly formatted, with sheet
numbers as needed?
ϖ Are headings correctly formed, in proper
sequence, and present in sufficient quantity?
ϖ Is the index usable, sufficiently detailed,
and in correct form?
ϖ Are headers and footers correct and complete?
ϖ Are typographical and formatting conventions
Other special requirements and requests:
Please ignore these parts or aspects, which will be
Consider this Cover Sheet a general model; you will almost
certainly want to modify it to meet your specific circumstances. But
with or without modifications, you must make everyone understand
that the submission of a completely filled-out Cover Sheet is a
nonnegotiable demand; you will simply lose your mind if you try to
remember, as you edit the several documents you will be working on
at any given time, all the special requirements and time constraints
that apply to each of them.
The next most important step is to retain a copy of every
document you edit, with all of your edits, exactly as you returned
it to the author — including the date on which you returned it to
him. You may spend a fair amount of your time at the photocopy
machine, but you will find it worth your while. Having your own
copies means that you have a record you can turn to in case of any
dispute; that you can document and review your own progress as an
editor, and each writer's progress in learning from your editing;
and that you can be a heroine in case the author loses his copy of
the edited document. So, Recommendation 2: Demand Cover Sheets
from the writers, and save copies of all your work (including the
With this infrastructure in place, the editor's main task is to
build a solid relationship to the writer(s) she's working with. The
difficulty that may have to be overcome is that the writer may have
had unfortunate experiences with earlier editors; you may even have
to overcome prejudices formed when the writer was in school, many
years ago. The hard grain of fact within the cloud of prejudice you
may face is that, in one sense, the editor and the writer are in an
adversary relationship: you are being paid to find faults in his
work. This is undeniably true; what makes all the difference is how
you deal with such faults when you find them. The saving grace that
makes the editor-as-fault-finder acceptable, even welcome, is that
this history can be overcome if you make it clear that:
• The document being edited is the writer's, not the editor's;
his name (if any) will appear on it, not yours.
• Any fault you find will, except in special circumstances
(discussed later), be discussed only with him — not with his
colleagues, and certainly not with his boss.
• In any disagreement on points of judgment and taste, the
writer's decision is final; on matters of fact, the decision will if
necessary be referred to a third party.
• Your job satisfaction comes not from finding faults, but from
helping the writer correct them before anyone else finds them, and
making him look good.
You must say this to the writers, and mean it. If you convince
them you do, they will be grateful for your help, and seek it; if
not, they will try to evade you, and make your job impossible. So,
Recommendation 3: Make sure the writers see you as a friend, not
It's inevitable that disputes will arise sometimes in the heated
atmosphere of a company working on an aggressive schedule, with
fewer resources than they should have. A writer who's not been able
to deliver a document on time may say, and really believe, that you
as editor took too much time to do your part, or required too many
finicky corrections, or are otherwise responsible for his failure to
deliver on time. Most of these disputes can be nipped in the bud by
your files, which enable you to show (by means of the Cover Sheet)
just what you were asked to do with the document in question, and
(by means of your copy of the edited document) just what you did in
response to that request, and when you returned it.
It is also possible, though in my experience very rare, that a
writer may insist on something that you think is just wrong, whether
a misstatement of fact or a grammatical solecism or whatever, and
simply will not accept correction from you. Here you may have to
refer the matter to higher authority: his manager, your manager,
perhaps some committee. If you have to do this, you must make it
clear that there is nothing personal in your doing so; you are
simply trying to help the writer avoid what you think may be a
serious mistake. And you must be completely open about the steps you
plan to take; tell him "I think we need to bring this to X's
attention to get it resolved; let's go see him together."
And as mentioned earlier, you may need to intervene between
writer and SME in order to help get a stalled project moving again.
The product developers who serve as SMEs are generally working long
hours under great pressure, and have little interest in
documentation efforts. Especially if an SME gets the impression that
a writer has wasted his time, he may get very impatient, and refuse
to make any further time available, either for giving the writer
information or reviewing his drafts for technical accuracy. You can
help the writer by making sure he is well organized when he meets
with an SME; see to it that he enters the meeting with a written
list of clearly expressed questions and issues, with a copy for the
SME; that he deals with these points, and records the answers,
systematically; and that when the last point has been dealt with, he
thanks the SME and leaves promptly. If the SME sees that the writer
is well organized and efficient, it's much more likely that he'll be
forthcoming with information and reviews.
and Process Tracking
Your job may require you to enforce the use of an existing style
guide, to update that guide, or to create a guide from scratch. You
may have to deal with two guides: a general one like the Chicago
Manual of Style, and an industry- or company-specific one
designed to handle special needs or desires felt by your employer.
If there is already a house style guide in place, find out if the
writers actually use it — and if not, why not. Supplement what you
hear from them by performing the White Glove test: run your finger
over the top of each writer's copy of the guide, and see how thick
the dust is. The half-life of a guide is about six months, in my
experience; if not revised at least semiannually, it tends to get
ignored because new problems keep coming up for the writers that the
guide fails to deal with. If an organization is serious about its
in-house guide, it has to review it regularly, and devote some
effort to keeping it current.
My recommendation is that an organization should have only a very
brief in-house style guide, if any. Almost all general style
questions are competently dealt with in any of the two or three
best-known published guides, and there is no reason I can see for
anyone to try to do over again what they have already done well. The
only excuse for an in-house guide is a need to supplement such
general authorities with the special vocabulary and documentation
practices of a particular industry or individual company, and this
should be very much shorter than any of the general guides. And
there are by now published style guides for particular industries,
such as the computer industry, so even such specialized guides
seldom need be written by individual companies. As Jacques Barzun
indicates in "Dialogue in C-Sharp," one of the essays you've already
been referred to, much of the demand for company-specific guides,
especially publisher-specific ones, is due simply to corporate ego —
"we do things in a special way here because we're special
From time to time — every six months, perhaps — the editor
working in industry should circulate to all of her clients a
questionnaire that asks, in effect, "How am I doing?" To make it
more likely that you get replies, try to link each distribution with
some kind of event; the release of a new generation of
documentation, or a new revision of the style guide, or a
reorganization. This gives you a hook to hang your questionnaire on,
and makes it less likely that it will be greeted with a "Ho hum,
here's that thing again" response. The questionnaire should be
partly structured ("Which of the following short answers best
represents your opinion on ..."), partly free-form ("What three
things could we do that would most improve the ..."). Not everyone
will respond to each questionnaire, of course, but half to
two-thirds of the recipients will, and you will learn some things
that will astonish you; you will hear of things the writers regard
as problems that you either never heard about or thought were
welcome improvements, and of uses the writers are putting your work
to that you never dreamed of.