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Editorial Strategies and Mind Games

by Tom Johnson on Aug 3, 2010
categories: technical-writing

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.


photo from Flickr by Nic's events

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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