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The changing nature of the editor's work.

The Age of Information is seeing profound changes in the way editors work.

First, in industry we are seeing more and more "production teams" and "quality circles." The byword is collaboration.

Until now, no one has been very fond of "collaborative editing," in which groups sit around a table and discuss each sentence, and sometimes each word, until far into the night. Most professional editors will feign a sudden attack of cholera to avoid a conference like that, recovering the next day, of course, in time to fix the over-qualified statements and labyrinthine sentences that typically result.

Industry has always had collaboration of a sort. It has always had the approval cycle, the epitome of sequential collaboration. But we now need to find ways to collaborate simultaneously, so we can swap ideas and brainstorm solutions to problems. We perhaps need to explore "blind" computer sessions, where ideas are thrown onto a screen anonymously, theoretically removing the heavy influence that inevitably attaches to statements by the boss.

Software is now providing us with various options for simultaneous computer editing: split screens, mark-throughs that preserve the original copy, storage devices that again preserve the original, and many other computerized methods of implementation, including identification of the marks of each editor/supervisor by color.

In one way, nothing is changed. Even simultaneous collaboration is not entirely new. On proposals, for instance, multiple copies have always been routinely distributed, and supervisors at all levels have had the option of attacking the prose with their own color of pencil, the brighter the better.

But at the last editing roundup, good editors have been able to prevail, because (1) they find more mistakes, (2) they cut more wordage that is obviously superfluous, and (3) they furnish better beginnings, better summations, and more graceful language throughout. Thus, the editor's copy is the one that most often survives as the "master," with only emendations by the others. (This is partly because few supervisors edit patiently clear to the end, venting most of their spleen on page 1.)

Now, with the computer, we may see more participation by top management. (It's easier and more fun than using pencils.) Also, the distribution of copies is potentially unlimited, inviting participation by hordes of eager amateurs of all ranks.

But the real problem is that there is no readily apparent way in a last roundup to look at several dozen copies simultaneously and select the best, combining comments of all the others. Technology has forced us back into a linear appraisal. Now the editing that survives is likely to be that of the highest ranking vice president, who spent her valuable time punching out corrections and expects to see them in the final version. Even the editor's carefully crafted suggestions may be deleted.

Each company will eventually find its own way to cope. Maybe it can limit distribution to three or four people. Maybe it can assign a competent editor to the slow process of sitting in with the vice president and helping her edit (until the vice president gets too busy and gives the editor her authority).

But perhaps the happiest solution is for the editor to become so well established that she is trusted by the entire company to accept comments and meld them into a smooth document for final approval. This will take up her valuable time. (She has to edit the draft, too.) But if she gets too pressed, perhaps she will be awarded an assistant.

Contract Work

Companies are becoming smaller, less monolithic, and less stable. More and more, to smooth the peaks and valleys and also to avoid paying fringe benefits, they are relying on temporary workers, tied to the company not for the long range but only by finite contracts.

Contract work is certainly nothing new for technical editors, but it adds to the repertoire of skills editors must maintain, principally sales. They may find a sizable part of their work week absorbed by phone calls, networking luncheons, and job interviews, not all of them successful.

Here again, the answer is competence. Good, competent editors often prefer the contract system for its freedom, its higher rates, and its prestige.

Competition with Our Friend the Computer

Managers have always questioned the need for literate documents and today are increasingly wondering why editors cannot be replaced by machines, which are quicker and more accurate, and are daily becoming more clever.

The answer need not be belabored. Computers cannot think. They can't make judgments or interpret. They cannot write. They can indeed spell. They can also search out and replace words; format, page-number, and index complete documents; and print perfect copies.

But even on simple grammar tests, they flunk. "Style checkers do best with rules that are mechanical," says Ed Weiss in Writing Remedies, Practical Exercises for Technical Writing (Phoenix: Oryx, 1990). "They do worst with problems of meaning and interpretation."

Unfortunately, too many editors let software do their work for them. They put their brains on automatic. They become keyboarders. What editors need to do is to exploit computers' marvelous capabilities for quick and accurate action, while reserving for themselves the capabilities that require intelligence and judgment.

Good editing is cost-effective. Editors can easily justify their meager salaries by the money they bring in with their effective sales brochures and new business proposals and the money they save with their lucid user manuals and copy-cutting, cost-reducing editing techniques.

Forced Collaboration

With the advent of desktop publishing, much document production has shifted away from the printing plant and into the office. With that shift, the traditional lines of responsibility have become blurred.

Traditionally, in industry the work of an editor was distinct from that of a subject matter expert, on one hand, and secretaries, proofreaders, artists, and printers on the other. Now the subject matter experts have their own computers for originating their documents, and they may retain control of the files clear through the desktop publishing process.

So now, a computer file can become the site for collaborative activity. Documents can go from rough draft through multiple revisions and reviews to become camera-ready copy without anyone placing an editing mark on a manuscript.

One definite change is the growing political power of the people controlling the machines. In industry, document output can be controlled not by the proposal manager or the subject matter experts, but by the number of word processing machines available and the dedication of the operators. Even on major magazines, managing editors are finding that they have to fight for the right to make up the pages and select type faces. The machines themselves have so much capability that their operators are able to take charge.

The answer again is competence. If the editor is unable or unwilling to make a wide range of decisions in writing, artwork, format, layout, typefaces, paper selection, and printing, these decisions fall to someone else - many times not to one who is trained for the task but to a willing and eager keyboarder.

One of the big dangers to technical editors on the job today is that they may find themselves sitting in with the typists and reporting to a production manager who was formerly head of the steno pool. Such merged groups obviously tend to put the emphasis on the consistency of punctuation and capitalization rather than on the quality of the writing or the effectiveness of the message.

Once more, the solution to the problem is competence. A good editor can far outshine a keyboard operator in the quality of work produced.

The goal of editing is to reach the reader. No matter what trends surface in the future, editors will always thrive if they have the skill to produce documents that the reader understands. And the key to this mutual understanding is a solid knowledge of language.

RELATED ARTICLE: Advice in Dealing with Authors

Join the team. You are not grading papers, you are trying to get a message across. Don't consider editing a battle. Try to find out what the author wants to say and help her say it. Ask questions.

Let the small things go. Save your righteous indignation for important details, like technical accuracy. (You and the readers know when bad syntax distorts technical meaning.)

Challenge facts first, wording second. Check numbers. Check the basic outline, the organization, the logic, sequences. Check what's left out.

Use the natural, standard idiom of the language.

Learn to cut copy without losing information. Authors appreciate your help, particularly on proposals, manuals, memos, and bulletins.

Edit heavily on proposals and manuals, but take it easy on signed articles.

Have good reasons for every mark you make.

Learn to reward good writing with a note at the top. Recognition will breed more good work.

Smile. Be pleasant, agreeable, accommodating, and helpful.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Society for Technical Communication
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bush, Don
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:May 1, 1995
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