Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Don't channel your inner Henry Higgins while editing business documents

Skilled editors and mentors recognize individuality, respect deadlines, and know where a document lives in the big picture of the organization's reasons for being.

Arbitrary editors impose their own syntax and biases onto others, turning dashes into semicolons, replacing "seems" with "resembles," replacing "stemmed" with "originated," inserting a comma where they want to hear a pause, adding "transitions," and committing other crimes against nature.

Unfortunately, we are all arbitrary editors at heart. It takes professional restraint to keep oneself from transforming other people's writing into what "sounds right" to us.

But remember: What they told you in kindergarten is schmaltzy but true. People are like snowflakes, each one beautiful and like no other.

Yes, even if your team aims to write in a particular client's voice, you still need to give writers some elbow room.

Here are ways you can become a more productive editor.

On your first read, use the blue highlighter in Word to mark any phrasing, punctuation or content that hits you funny. Don't stop to fix it. Just highlight it.

On your second read, look only at the blue and ask yourself questions like these:

- Are there recurring patterns in what bothers me?

- Is a key perspective missing?

- Have the audience's needs been met?

- Are proof points missing?

- What long-term business objectives do we need to serve?

- Does this document dovetail with related efforts and campaigns?

- What indirect takeaways do we need readers to catch?

- Are the content and tone credible? Persuasive? Authentic?

- Is the hook, decision, recommendation, surprise or change at the top (where it belongs), with back story, rationale, alternatives, "the how," archival record-keeping details or chronology pulling up the rear?

Create three to five bullet points & ask for speedy tweaks

Next, compose an e-mail (that you may or may not send), articulating three to five points that can be expressed as questions or how-to suggestions.

Then, send the blue-highlighted version with your questions in an e-mail to the writer, asking for the fixes within 20 minutes. Or speak by phone or face-to-face.

When you get the document back, read it afresh, again with the blue highlighter. (You'll be delighted by the changes, believe me, and you'll have saved yourself time by doing something else on your to-do list while the writer made the improvements.)

Then read the blue and begin editing, consciously treading lightly, trying to make as few marks as possible on the page.

Better still, call the writer over and have him sit beside you at the keyboard. This results in a dialog that makes the edits go faster. When you voice a concern, the writer will probably have an idea for addressing it.

Avoid changing something for a vague reason such as "it sounds/flows better that way." Don't impose your values, standards or prejudices on the document, even if yours are better than the writer's, even if you are the mentor and he is the mentee. Let other people's work be different from yours.

Focus on business outcomes and decisions.

Try it. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Or continue as you are, Arbitrary Editor, so that you can alienate your team members, keep working into the wee hours, and feeling as frustrated as the pompous Henry Higgins of "My Fair Lady," who asked, "Why can't ________ be more like me?"