Forget About the Lawyers! First, Let's Kill the Editors! Right?

by Marilee J. Sorotskin

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Some companies and upper management, and even some documentation managers and writers, seem to agree. After all, in today's world of desktop publishing, writers are also typesetters and illustrators -- why not let them be editors as well? They know English. So why not save money, terminate the editors, and let peer editing begin? Or if we do keep some editors, let them be the designers, illustrators, and typesetters. As for language? Forget it! The readers will understand. Besides, who reads documentation anyway?

No question, somehow desktop publishing has made us forget that a writer is a creator, organizing raw material logically and coherently for a given audience, and presenting it clearly and succinctly. The writer has a vision of the whole document. But what happens to this vision when the writer is pressed by the urgent deadlines of several documents, formatting all of them on a powerful workstation and cloning one book from another? Or what happens after a dozen or so reviewers add, subtract, change, then re-add, re-subtract, and re-change a writer's manuscript? In both instances, the vision blurs; the writing becomes ragged at best, confused at worst.

What is essential now are the services of good editors, those artisans and wordsmiths who help writers meet their goals. And writers and editors do have the same goals. But good editors have a separate set of skills:

Again, the goals of the writer and editor are the same. That's why a veteran writer uses an editor as a sounding board about organizing a complex manual or approaching an especially difficult passage. Their talents and skills are different, but both writer (the creator) and editor (the artisan) are equal partners in presenting clear documentation.

A department of five writers would do well to have an editor. Otherwise, their manuals will look like they come from five different departments. The editor, while respecting the individual styles of the writers, gives the documents a departmental unity. By way of negative example, I recently had to cope with a document set of five manuals purchased by my company. One had a table of contents and no index, another an index and table of contents but no preface. Each manual lacked something essential. Even head levels, vocabulary, and spelling conventions differed from manual to manual. The set was obviously written by five writers who didn't talk to one another. No editor had seen the set. Each writer had labored away on a single, personal version of one manual.

If the same five writers had edited another manual, they might have succeeded in unifying two or three of the five manuals. But peer editing is inconsistent at best. At one end of the scale is the writer who simply plucks commas and typos, while at the other end is the one who imposes his or her own style on a colleague's document. This is not to say that all writers are bad editors, but that in general they want to get back to their real work, creating. I've also heard their resentment at having to perform editing chores in addition to writing and typesetting their manuals. And resentment tends to be user-vicious -- internally and externally.

In addition to all the skills that editors need and all the tasks they must undertake, they must have one last all-important quality: a simple kindness and understanding that guides their skills and their dealings with others. Call this quality interpersonal skill; call it empathy; call it whatever you want. The fact is that an effective editor gets to know a writer's strengths and weaknesses, and helps that writer become a better creator.

This same quality in good editors makes them negotiators and bridge-builders. They find ways to help writers accommodate the crotchets and last-minute brainstorms of the engineers and the marketing people. They find ways of communicating not only with writers but with production and printing people, solving problems, locating and extending, perhaps, a scrap of schedule to whoever needs it most, thus making life a bit easier for everyone.

Do away with the editors, and documentation departments will do away with documentation quality and consistency. They will also lose, in my opinion, a kind of humanity that affects the workplace. As this sense of humanity in the workplace erodes, the sense of humanity in our documentation -- their user-friendliness -- will also erode. We will all be the losers.

Kill the editors, and we kill something essential not only to the whole company but also to its customers.

© 2001 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published January/February 1991 in the Boston Broadside