Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bad Editors Are Bad for Business -- How to Cope

Your bosses or clients might in fact be the problem. If they are re-writing, sending you a lot of tracked changes, or making vague demands like "make it more punchy" or "make it less like a brochure," you are in the majority.

If I could wave a wand and fix the world in one graceful sweep, I'd make everyone a better editor. Poof! Now people are respectful, appreciative, nurturing and specific. If that's not how you'd describe your boss or client, it's a good thing you met me.

Bad editors are not only bad for morale, they're bad for business. First, there's the immediate waste inherent in over-editing that takes up time on deadline without altering the eventual business outcome. Second, an insidious dynamic develops within the team and poisons efforts yet to come. All kinds of weirdness ensue: blame, apathy, polarization, ineptitude ... don't get me started. For perspective, ask: "Will this edit alter our business outcome?"

So, how to cope with bad editors?

First, don't take it personally. I'm a mercenery myself. I do this for a living, not for my ego.

Second, don't join in the over-reacting.

Third, OK, now it's going to get a little messy. To go on, I need to know more about your situation. Please tell me your specifics, but mask the names of people and companies, of course.

Before getting too far into this, I need to let you know that I only coach smart people. My clients are professional writers at companies that are famously smart. So this blog is not a confessional or ghetto for writing washouts.

Know that your problem is many people's problem. You are just the one with the guts to speak up about it. Take a stand. Be a leader. Articulate the problem. I guarantee you won't be alone in experiencing it.

That qualifier aside, here's a bit of generic editing advice, in case you are able to suggest something like this to your taskmaster of the moment.

1. Try side-by-side editing. This means the writer sits beside the editor as he reviews the document. The editor thinks out loud, so you can hear his thoughts immediately rather than try to guess later what he was trying to get at when he made the entire page bleed.

It also takes no extra time. The editor doesn't have to make an appointment with you to "walk you through the changes," as so many bad editors tend to put it. Instead, you just sit there in real time, observing while it happens. Both parties will learn from this exercise, painlessly.

2. Step back and look for patterns. Rather than fixing every little thing, reacting one by one to each micro-episode of mental discomfort, the editor distances himself from the document. He looks for repetitive choices or a missing perspective.

He sends you a note with two or three questions that get you to think differently about the content. He sits back and waits, then gets a pleasant surprise. The quality ratchets up about 200 percent. And he didn't do a thing.

3. Decide what really matters and let the rest go. Sometimes your editor is horrid simply because he's gifted -- at writing, not editing. It may be that you will never be as good as he is.

Your editor needs to accept this reality, even if it hurts. He needs to make a list of two to five things that are really important to him and let the rest go (crying or gnashing his teeth, fine, but he needs unloose those white knuckes).

Once you can do everything on his list, he can add other items, one at a time. He needs to let you evolve over time. You can't be him. You'll never be him.

Editors with this problem always say to me, "Yes, but I need to uphold quality standards for the client's sake." Yes, but some quality standards matter more than others. Choose.

4. Proofreading is a separate issue. It's something to be done at the very end and done surgically. That is, the editor removes only the tumor while leaving all healthy flesh intact.

Yes, your grammar and punctuation need to be impeccable. That's a credibility issue. And yes, your business needs to convey credibility.

But senior people shouldn't be doing this particular task, so I'm not counting it as editing in this particular blog, which is about edits by bosses and clients.

Change is hard, I know. A mantra that can help you keep this advice in mind while under duress on deadline is the question I posed earlier: "Will this edit alter our business outcome?"

If you are the writer, this question can help you steady your emotions. If you are the editor, it can help you keep your eye on the ball. A red sea of tracked changes helps no one.