Editorial Strategies and Mind Games

This week, after Mindtouch released its top 25 elite blogger list, most of the tech comm blogosphere was taking bows and saying congratulations and writing posts that began I’m-so-honored and wow-what-can-I-say. These posts started to make me feel a little ill, because I suppose I enjoy reading more about suffering than success, but that’s beside my point here. Reflecting on my rank, I felt an irony about it all. Apparently the ability to write a blog post doesn’t always translate into the ability to write other sorts of communications.

I don’t usually wear the corporate communications hat in my organization, but my manager was out of town this past week, and so I filled his role in editing and approving company communications. I have mixed feelings about editing. Half the time when someone submits a piece of writing to me, I either want to completely rewrite it or avoid touching it at all.

During the week I played editor, our organization decided to go through a reorganization, and the CIO’s chief of staff called me in to brainstorm the wording of the announcement. As they sat describing various ideas for the reorg, going over the reason for the reorg, the new structure of the reorg, and anticipating objections employees might have toward the reorg, they asked if I would write the announcement.

Sure, I thought. Because I can write an 800 word blog post in a couple of hours, I felt confident that I could whip out an email announcement about a reorg.

Still, I dreaded writing the thing, because my past experience with these sorts of communications always ends badly. It’s a corporate mind-game, trying to guess what the person actually wants me to say, figuring out the right tone and word choice and length and story to tell.

I stayed up late writing the copy, after postponing it for hours. When I finally sat down to write, I cranked out 350 words in about an hour. What I wrote was clear and captured the main reasoning behind the restructuring. I was feeling fairly good about it and even slept on it before finalizing everything. I had my wife read it, input her suggestions, and then made one more edit in the morning at 5:30 am before sending it out to the others at 6:00 am.

When I didn’t hear any feedback for a few hours, I began to suspect something was wrong. I was tired and slogged through the rest of my morning work, feeling a bit upside down about the copy.

Editing Copy

Being the IT communications lead, I began to see my manager’s perspective. Unlike timelines on software projects, which spanned months into the future, the timelines for editing company communications followed a different kind of pace. As soon as people sent in requests, they expected me to drop everything and review and approve their request immediately. Never mind that I may be in the middle of something important, their comm request take precedence.

One person submitted a newsletter. Fairly boring, its only redeeming value was it was one page long. But the first sentence was lengthy and convoluted. The writer had too many ideas jammed together. I sorted out the ideas a bit and rewrote the introduction. The writer took my intro and apparently met me half way, as if compromising somehow. Now the introduction was even worse than before, but I decided to let it go.

Another person sent in a one-sentence announcement and asked me to post it on the intranet. One sentence. You would think I couldn’t screw that up. I noted to the requester that the announcement needed a link, because it was announcing a new resource and encouraging people to check it out, but it failed to include the link, because the resource wasn’t yet ready. The requester responded that this announcement was more like a pre-announcement and a teaser to leave people wanting more.

They finally bullied me into their marketing ploy, and then I spent the rest of my editorial time going over their unconventional use of the word “which.” The questionable sentence went something like this: Check out the new resource which has lots of new features, such as x, y, and z. I reworked the sentence a bit, but the requester was adamant about using it as it was originally worded, because it had already been approved by her manager and the other editorial bodies. I finally let it go, but not before spending at least a half hour thumbing through the Chicago Manual of Style (without success).

When we published the announcement about the new resource, it turns out not a single person cared about the grammar of the sentence. Whether it used that, which, or some other construction, readers could care less. But about five people wrote in to complain about the missing link. One reader even said the announcement was “frustrating and worthless.” I forwarded the feedback to the requester.

I don’t often play the role of the editor. Editors are a dying role in today’s tech comm world. If you search the job sites for editorial jobs, you won’t find many. I do always appreciate an editor’s feedback, regardless of who gives it, but most editors I have worked with end up committing the same error I did with the intranet announcement: they focus on matters of style more the content.

Neil Perlin has an excellent article called “Perfect vs. Good Enough” — Writing Quality in the Online Age” in the December 2009 edition of the Intercom. Perlin describes an experience in which a client contacted him for a “content provider.” Perlin writes,

It was the first time I’d ever heard that title so I laughed and said, “So you’re looking for a writer?” I was taken aback when the caller said, “No! We don’t want a writer.” I asked why. The answer–“…writers get too focused on perfection…we don’t have time for it. If we wait until the material is perfect, our competitors will beat us to market. We do not need it perfect; we just need it good enough.”

Perlin goes on to say that speed, convenience, and content may be more important in today’s web culture than perfectionist writing.

Writers are perfectionists — to a fault. At one company I worked, our tech writing team met to discuss a style guide matter. We spent 45 minutes discussing whether we would allow a certain type of comma usage. 45 minutes. These kinds of conversations are filled with a heat and passion that non-writers will never know or care to know.

Perlin says the trend away from perfectionist writing extends to software and services as well. Users are content with a scratchy Skype call as long as they can make the call quickly and cheaply. Users will accept MP3 quality over CD in exchange for the immediacy and portability of the download. We’ll accept a netbook computer with mediocre performance and limited features if it’s less expensive, easier to carry, and boots more quickly.

A while ago Joel Spolsky wrote about duct-tape programmers. Duct-tape programmers are programmers who aren’t stuck in academic modes of coding; they aren’t fixated on coding it in elitist ways. Instead, they get the job done quickly and ship the software, even if it involves some duct-tape development techniques. Joel writes,

It’s great to rewrite your code and make it cleaner and by the third time it’ll actually be pretty. But that’s not the point—you’re not here to write code; you’re here to ship products.

The elitist programmers may employ superior coding techniques, but it takes them so long to get the job done, they never ship the product.

My feeling is the same with writing. You can refine the content until your eyes are bloody. You may have phrased your words with eloquence and grace. Your editorial input may have increased engagement by 30 percent, as IBM editor James Matthewson points out. But at the end of the day, most readers won’t care about the small style tweaks, which they’ll consider trivial. They want the content quickly and cheaply.

Back to the Reorg Announcement

At about noon, one of the staff members sent me their “edited” copy of the reorg announcement, which turned out to be a complete rewrite. There may have been a similarity of structure and a faint trace of common ideas, but that was it. Pretty much my copy had been replaced.

The staffer rewrote the copy in a more formal style, incorporating more business speak. The clarity I had achieved about the purpose of the restructuring was lost in a sea of names about new leads and directors.

I was feeling both tired and down that I hadn’t been able to conceptualize and pull off this corporate communication. Apparently you can be an elite blogger, experienced in writing posts on the web engaging enough to get plenty of links sand retweets, but completely fail in the corporate world.

And maybe that distinction is what I struggle with. On my blog, my writing assets are my voice, my story, and my transparency. In the corporate world, even the non-profit organization world, voice, transparency, and story take a backseat to corporate speak and officialeze.

The staffer asked me to edit the copy. I knew what he meant. He meant proofread it for typos, not evaluate the content. If I were evaluating the content, I would have copied large chunks of my original copy into the edit, but that would have only frustrated him.

A colleague and I put on our proofreading eyes and pulled out the “e.g.’s” and “etc.’s.” We formatted a list into bullets, changed the phrase order of a sentence, inserted a missing word, and made a few other trivial proofreading edits that any college English major could do half asleep.

I told my manager about the experience and asked whether the same thing happened to him when he wrote communications like this. He said he rarely writes the original communication. Instead he asks the requester to write it, and then he edits it. Then he lets them edit him, allowing the requester to get in the last word.

A brilliant technique. I’m sure that, had I taken this approach, I could have saved myself a lot of grief and headache.

After I sent the edits back, I didn’t hear from the person all day. The announcement was supposed to go out sometime in the morning or early afternoon but never did. I waited, and waited, and waited. At 4:30 p.m. I left, because it was a Friday and I had a date with my wife planned. I checked my mail several times that night and over the weekend, but the announcement was never sent.

Finally on Monday, the announcement was sent out to the organization. Of course by this time, everyone had already been briefed and double-briefed through follow-up sessions explaining the re-org. The announcement may have benefited from careful and exact editing, but by the time it was sent out, no one much cared or needed the details.

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photo from Flickr by Nic’s events

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

12 thoughts on “Editorial Strategies and Mind Games

  1. Karen

    I’ve ventured into the world of marcomm myself (strictly by accident, mind you), and have learned the same hard lessons. Marcomm is a whole other (nonsensical, fluffy, non-technical) form of writing, and I have neither the savoir-faire nor the stomach for it. Thanks for a great post, Tom.

  2. Gordon

    Having recently started down the ‘editorial’ route myself I am currently feeling your pain.

    And on the ‘influential’ list, I admit it is flattering but the only reason I CAN write on my blog is because I’m good enough at my job that I’ve been reasonably successful (yes, even if I say so myself).

  3. Gordon

    Ohh yeah, and considering how badly represented our industry is in the wider world, and how slow we are to congratulate ourselves, surely the ‘list’ SHOULD be shouted about and backs should be patted?

    (sorry, I know I’m probably biased as I’m on the list but it’s not often that such lists even exist, seems a little harsh to poo-poo it so readily).

  4. Larry Kunz

    Great insights, as always, Tom. You’re still elite in my book.

    The cardinal rule of editing, and of MarCom, is to understand expectations from the get-go. What voice do they want — clear and lucid, or corporate-speak? What level of edit — substantive or just clean up the Latin abbreviations. The funny thing is, you’re never told what the expectations are. You have to ask. And even then you might not get a straight answer.

  5. Glenn Lea

    Hi Tom, I prepare invitations for business events for a non-profit organization (www.dkbcbb.de) with a professional copy editor and speech writer. I see this tension you identified in this post almost every time we are preparing the invites. It takes considerable time to craft a good persuasive invitation. Yet I often wonder if we are putting in too much effort to create this text. Should it be “good enough” or perfect. I can never answer this to my satisfaction, yet I sense good enough would be ok, yet we also need to keep our standards high which reflects on our image as a business club. If no one reads the invitation because it takes too long to prepare and it arrives late, then the extra effort is not worth it. Yet, if we send out sloppy invites people will think we are a sloppy organization. It is a tension that somehow never finds a happy medium.

  6. Tasha

    I can definitely relate to dampening down my perfectionism so I can release documentation faster. You have to remember who your audience is.

    But I also notice you slightly trivialize the craft of writing when you say any English major could edit a paragraph of copy half asleep. It’s still valuable. Take pride!

    See, watch me: it’s “COULDN’T care less.” If they could care less, they would!

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks Tasha. I appreciate your comment and insight, especially about the “couldn’t care less” phrase. Re trivializing the craft of writing, maybe I overestimate the abilities of English majors, but back in the day, I felt fairly competent as a writer even without professional experience.

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