Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part V

THE EDITOR'S HABITAT


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.

Dramatis Personae


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.

Organizing the Editing Process


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 _______________

Editing Instructions:

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 here.

ϖ Is the overall organization appropriate?

ϖ Are the cross-references properly formed and working correctly?

ϖ Are all writers' and reviewers' notes removed or hidden?

ϖ Are screen shots and other graphics clear and readable?

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 consistently followed?

Other special requirements and requests: ______________________________ _________________________________________________________________

Please ignore these parts or aspects, which will be changing: _________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________

 


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 Cover Sheets).

The Editor–Writer Relationship


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 an adversary.

Disputes and Special Circumstances


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.

Style Guides 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 ourselves!"

Feedback and Follow-Up


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.