Editor Gone Wild: Defining “Good Enough”

frustrated editorIn the field of technical communication, “good enough” documentation is becoming the norm. For me as an INFJ writer, this is a difficult concept to master. I want documentation to be as good as it can be. As an NF, I’m passionate about effective communication. As a judging type, I want to see style rules applied consistently. So when you tell me that my task as an editor is to make the document “good enough,” I go into stress mode. For an INFJ, this means the inferior sensing function surfaces. I may avoid the task by indulging in an activity that engages the senses, like getting a snack or playing Scramble on my iPod. If I try to edit, I may become obsessed with mundane details. Every sentence sounds wrong.

It used to be that working as an editor meant proofreading and ensuring consistency. It meant helping writers to better organize the material and to identify sentences that could be better written. Those things seem like a luxury now. Two technological developments have changed the role of the editor, perhaps forever:

  • Economic conditions dictate that we must publish faster—because technology allows us to do so.
  • Easy-to-use blogging software allows people to publish content even if they lack writing skills.

Our customers have become desensitized to bad writing because it’s everywhere. What does that mean for editors? Do they no longer have a place?

I believe that good writing still has value. The problem is, in some contexts, companies can’t afford to pay for it. So we must shed our current notion of what constitutes good writing, and find a more economically viable one.

In my department at work, we’ve so far come to consensus on the following points:

  • If the meaning is unclear, then it’s not good enough.
  • If the meaning is clear, then maybe it is good enough.

That maybe is still to be defined.

In certain contexts, I’m willing to let style issues go if they don’t affect meaning. Here are some examples:

  • omitting serial commas
  • using numerals for numbers under ten, rather than spelling them out
  • using an apostrophe to form the plural of a number (for example, 1950’s instead of 1950s)

At this point, I’m not willing to accept grammar errors (because I’m pretty sure it would lead to the collapse of civilization):

  • dangling participles
  • subject-verb disagreement
  • using an adverb instead of an adjective after a linking verb (no, you don’t feel badly, even if you think you do)

On some other points, I struggle. A good example is the practice called telescoping—the omission of articles before nouns, when the article would normally be used in speech. Articles seem like little, throwaway words. But an article is a sure sign that a noun is coming. If the noun in question can also serve as a verb, then in some contexts, omission of the article can make the sentence ambiguous. Consider the following:

Align the mounting plate and bolt to the baseplate.

This could mean either of the following:

  • Align the mounting plate and the bolt to the baseplate.
  • Align the mounting plate and bolt it to the baseplate.

Further, if a translator misunderstands the English text, the translation won’t be ambiguous—it’ll be wrong. So I consider a, an, and the to be three of the most important words in the English language.

When it comes to the economic viability of good writing, I haven’t lost all hope. If technology has created the problem, I think technology also offers the solution. Controlled authoring software like acrolinx IQ automates tasks such as identifying missing articles and serial commas, so editors can focus on more important things. Content management systems allow us to write once and reuse many times. If technology helps us write and edit faster, then we may have time to write and edit well.

I don’t think the time has come for professional communicators to stop caring about good writing. I do think it’s important for technical communicators to carefully consider the business needs of their companies or clients. There won’t be a single definition of good writing. The definition will be context-specific. In some cases—like writing technical material for translation, or writing instructions for products that pose potential hazards to the customer if used improperly—writers must still be meticulous. For promotional material or web copy, a more casual approach might be appropriate.

Maybe it’s time for technical communication to follow the journalism model. The newbies serve as copyeditors (proofreaders), and the more experienced writers create the copy (content). At the top of the chain are the editors (content managers), who control how it all fits together. In the context of “good enough” documentation, asking a grammar maven to copyedit the work of a new writer who doesn’t know a gerund from a gerbil is not a good use of the editor’s skills. Such editors are forced to rubber stamp material they know is wrong, because they don’t have time to fix it. They don’t have time to mentor new writers. In short, they don’t have time to do the things that made them want to be editors in the first place.

As the role of the technical communicator continues to evolve, practitioners will continue to debate the importance of good writing. I think the debate is healthy, because it shows we’re not complacent. We’re responding to changing technology and changing economic conditions. In an age when technology and communication are both experiencing explosive growth, technical communicators are well-positioned to take advantage of changing times.

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8 thoughts on “Editor Gone Wild: Defining “Good Enough”

  1. Andrea,
    You offer some very good points about the challenges we face every day in our work. Since technical writing is often done in a business setting, the business value of the communication is always the deciding factor. Just as the engineers and developers could work longer to perfect their technology, we could always work longer and improve our communication about their work, but at some point a business decision needs to be made that the technology and the communication are enough to satisfy the customer or otherwise satisfy the business requirements. Setting the bar as high as possible for communication is good. Beyond grammar and spelling and punctuation are the other levels involved in communication, involving rhetoric and persuasion, organization and consistency, message, localization and globalization. There is so much more that can be discussed. You’re just getting started. Keep up the blogging!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bill. My niche is grammar and usage, so I think I’ll stick with that. But you’re right, those other things you mention are also important. It would be easy to say that we should focus on the big things and not worry about the little things. But unfortunately, in my experience, writers and editors often can’t see the big things until the little things are fixed. The little things are too distracting.

  3. Hallo Andrea

    Great post! There’s a lot to think about here. My take on it is that we, as technical writers, do need to think about writing well, at all times. Clear, correct and concise communication is our role, there’s no-one who does it better 🙂 and there’s nothing more pleasurable than reading a well-crafted document.

    On the other hand, it’s not only technical writers who write the documentation these days. Aided by technology, many other parties have a hand at adding to and updating our documentation. Should we correct the grammar in all those contributions too? Now, that’s where things get difficult. If we spend our time correcting the contributions from our support teams, from our developers, from our marketing department, even from the customers themselves, then we’ll never have time to write new content ourselves.

    I guess that’s where the roles of editor and technical writer diverge. Very few companies have the luxury of a dedicated editor, more’s the pity. Perhaps this is where “good enough” plays a role: If someone updates the documentation, and the grammar is less than perfect, it’s OK to leave the contribution unedited, provided the meaning is clear and the content correct, until you next do a major overhaul of the affected page or section.

    On a lighter note, there are actually three meanings to your example sentence: “Align the mounting plate and bolt to the baseplate.”

    The one you didn’t mention is: “Align the mounting plate and run like hell to the baseplate.” 😉

    Cheers
    Sarah

  4. Andrea, this is a very insightful article and applies so much to what I do in my day job, which is more editing than writing although I bear the technical writer title. Generally, I edit work directly in our authoring tool, which is a Wiki-based tool in a collaborative model, and I cover the gamut of editing roles from copy editing and proofreading to fitting development parts together. I do have power to re-write sentences to improve clarity, but I must run by my re-writes to some of my authors. Others generally trust my judgment on what is going to present information best. I am very strict on everything you point out here, but because our writing and editing cycles are rapid fire due to the technology and demand to get out fast. You pretty much outlined my current role in this article, and you’re spot on, but I will say that as an editor, I do not let little things by since I have direct power to make the change right there on the spot. But, if I miss it, I am in a position where I can only worry about it if somebody points it out later. And it’s because of the demand to get it out there fast. Thanks for this article. Your blog rocks!

  5. Sarah, that’s hilarious! And I agree that in cases where someone other than the tech writer is contributing to the documentation (such as user-generated content), it’s best to worry more about clarity and accuracy than grammatical correctness. What I’m struggling with is material that was written in French and translated into English. Most of the time, the translations are good. Sometimes, they sound like translations, even though the meaning is clear. I want to fix them, but as Bill says, the business doesn’t require it. They’re good enough.

    Michael, I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I envy your ability to directly edit content on the wiki. I’m peer editing PDF files, which means that every revision I make, the writer has to find and change in the source file while flipping between programs. So when I edit, I have to consider not only my time but the writer’s time. If I could key in a missing serial comma myself, I wouldn’t think twice about it. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple—for now, at least. Collaborative tools may be the answer.

  6. Andrea, I can imagine your frustration at having to lower your standards under the circumstances you describe. Time seems to be the biggest modern-day culprit when it comes to doing anything properly. Though I think your comment about the collapse of civilization is a little strong, I am concerned about the lack of time and resource to train juniors, not only in the communication business, but other industries too. Compromised quality may be the problem we’re dealing with now, but lack of skills seems to be the problem of the future.

  7. Thanks, Belinda. The comment about the collapse of civilization was intended to be ironic—I think every generation believes to some degree that if their values aren’t preserved, society will go into decline. But I think society is more resilient than that.

    The Millennial generation wasn’t taught many of the things we were taught. But they’ve been using computers since they could stand up. Their brains are wired for technology. They’re entering the workforce with different skill sets, but I have faith they’ll learn what they need to know, just like we did when computers took over the world.

    My hope is that we won’t have to compromise quality—that instead, we’ll be able to redefine quality. For instance, in a global economy, is British English OK, or do I still need to change everything to American English? We can’t apply a strict standard of “right” or “wrong” anymore—it’s about meeting customer needs.

  8. Yay for the little words. I’m always adding them in when my compatriots leave them out (like the GUI guys when they write error messages and send them to me to review). They are little, but they go a long way. Not only do they clarify ambiguity, but they ease cognitive processing, so our readers don’t have to work as hard to understand the meaning.

    Another problem is maintaining consistency over multiple revisions of a document. I might change my approach to the material over time, but seldom have time to review the entire book and ensure that all the content is consistent.

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