(This takes 9 minutes to read.)
By definition, “editing” appears to be a reactive exercise—we have a text and edit it, finding and fixing weaknesses and whoppers. But some of the most important, time-saving editing editors can do should come before any words are written, or, to be more precise, before any drafts have begun. How does that work?
As any good editor or writing teacher knows, all workplace documents come out of an ISSUE—an area of risk, concern, or interest that brings the writer and reader/user together. The ISSUE is the reason the writer is writing and the reader/user is reading. The ISSUE also informs all choices for content, organization, and style.
Greek and Roman rhetoricians thought of this as two circles—one containing all the information the writer could amass about the ISSUE in question; the other containing all the questions the reader/user should have answered about that ISSUE. Their term for successful communication was “stasis” (this word referred to a boxer’s “stance”); the situation when, like a Venn diagram, the two circles perfectly overlap. That is, all the information going out plugs into all the questions coming in.
And as any good editor or writing teacher knows, any workplace document operates through seven discrete, interdependent systems: CONTENT, ORGANIZATION, DOCUMENT DESIGN, PARAGRAPHS, SENTENCES, WORD CHOICES, and MECHANICS. And these good editors and writing teachers possess the toolkit of specific concepts and techniques, which they can teach writers to use, to manage each of these systems that we bundle into the mercurial term “writing.”
Furthermore, these good editors and writing teachers understand the difference between “message-soundness” and “message-presentation.”
Message-soundness means appropriate content, appropriate because it
1. understands the ISSUE as fully as possible,
2. factors that ISSUE into all the questions the reader/user must have answered about the ISSUE in question,
3. answers those questions directly, and
4. supports those answers with a substantial methodology; accurate and sufficient evidence; and, if it is evaluative content, the constituent elements of a finding that support a helpful recommendation: criteria, condition, cause, and effect.
Message-presentation means organizing the information logically and helpfully so the reader can find important information and navigate all the information easily, an organization that has big and small parts, including
1. how the answers are arranged to best inform/persuade the reader/user,
2. where the main points are placed in relation to the information that explains/develops them,
3. how the document is designed to optimize UX (the user’s experience),
4. how each paragraph is arranged,
5. how each sentence is crafted,
6. why each word is selected, and
7. how the components of house-style, including punctuation, capitalization, grammar, etc. are deployed.
All these things the good editor or writing teacher knows and can teach the writer. Yes, editors should also be teachers.
A good editor (document reviewer) or writing teacher also knows that the role of “editor” has one over-arching task—to be a stand-in for the eventual reader/user of the information, to make sure that all seven systems in any workplace document work as they must to convey useful information to the targeted busy, interested reader/user.
And further, as any good editor or writing teacher knows, writing conglomerates (a glomus is Latin for ball of yarn). Though sentences seem linear, writing is not. Though arguments may seem linear, writing is not. Like weaving, writing accrues in layers.
As any good editor or writing teacher will tell you, writing is a fractal unfolding that involves activities we might label PLANNING, other related activities that we might call COMPOSING, and still other related activities we might call REWORKING. But these activities do not unfold in a linear manner.
During the whole writing evolution (I resist the word “process” because it fails to capture the convergent nature of all the activities that go into the conception and birth of any workplace document), these activities and probably countless others percolate, consciously and unconsciously, in no particular order until a document is made public (published).
Simple workplace documents go through this evolution mostly unconsciously. As writers we may be aware of almost no planning or reworking, just composing, which, comically enough, most people think of as “writing” itself. When documents are more complex, but individually authored, the writer may well be aware of more formal planning and rework activities. But when the document is complex, authored by more than one person, and must be vetted through channels in which many internal stakeholders must be included in the document’s evolution, an editor should be involved, to make sure the final document is ready to come into the world, but also to make sure the evolution happens as satisfactorily as possible for all concerned.
Unfortunately, so-called editors are usually plugged in at the back-end of this evolution. Thus all their editing is essentially reactive—finding and fixing problems. But good editors, as good writing teachers will tell you, can be powerfully helpful when they are involved in the making of a document from the very start, where they can practice proactive editing, before any drafts are composed.
And thus we come to the final thing any good editor or writing teacher knows: General Eisenhower was right, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
Planning sets objectives and the necessary steps for achieving them. But once the journey has begun, stuff happens (as the famous bumper-sticker proclaims). Thus the product of our planning, sine qua non, is a plan, which must be, as we say, “a living document.” It must adjust to the horseplay and skylarking of the unexpected as we go along on the glorious quest to reach that unreachable STAR…a.k.a., publicly available, multi-authored workplace document (PAMAWD).
Remember CONTENT? Remember how it stands at the top of the seven discrete, interdependent systems through which any document operates? Remember “message-soundness”? Much activity, including planning, preliminary composing—sometimes known as note-taking and research—and reworking, must happen before a first coherent draft even begins. Here, the editor can help.
The good editor (as the good writing teacher will attest) can help to make sure that the writer (and others involved) understands the ISSUE and develops the list of appropriate reader-questions about the issue that must be addressed. The editor can be a conduit through which an informal or formal question outline of the eventual document (planning) can be shared where necessary with all internal stakeholders and can bring back useful comments from all precincts so the writer can scope and focus research activities.
When answers and supporting information come in, the editor can help the writer (team) arrive at a message that links the information developed back to the questions asked and through them back to the ISSUE itself to ensure that the information is coherent, responsive, and truly useful. From this, a full sentence outline can arise, which in turn can be cussed and discussed by all involved.
Remember, changes happen. The editor can help “the plan” live…that is, adapt as necessary so that the writing project meets its objectives.
By the time the first real draft of the PAMAWD is undertaken, much editing has been done; much time has been saved. Having done this proactive editing, it’s far more likely that the subsequent draft will be closer to being ready for public viewing than if the draft had arisen without said proactive editing.
Then the more traditional reactive editing can happen…systematically, through a structured review. That is, the editor, as any good editor or writing teacher knows, must consider each of the seven discrete, interdependent systems from top to bottom and one at a time.
That is, the good editor begins by assessing content: does the information (geeze, I almost said “writing”) sufficiently address the reader-questions appropriate for this ISSUE? Should more or other questions be addressed? Should any questions be removed? Are all questions appropriately supported? Is the information accurate and factual? If the document is evaluative, are the elements of criteria, condition, cause, and effect adequately developed? If there are recommendations, do they link back to cause? Are they doable? Will they fix or improve the ISSUE?
There may be other questions about the content. All should be answered. If there are any problems with CONTENT (message-soundness), the document, as any good editor or writing teacher knows, must be reworked at that point. Only when all content problems have been fixed is it time for the good editor to consider the next system, ORGANIZATION, with all its proximate questions…and then on to DOCUMENT DESIGN.
Beyond that, the good editor can check out the style, starting with a look at every single PARAGRAPH. Then on to every single SENTENCE, WORD CHOICE, and all the MECHANICS. And the good editor knows you do this reactive editing one system at a time. If any problem arises in a system, those problems must be addressed before the subsequent system gets edited.
And so it goes. The document is born.
But let’s not forget that EDITING should be a proactive activity before it’s reactive. Three cheers for planning. Three cheers for all the specific editing techniques a good editor and a good writing teacher know, techniques applied BEFORE and AFTER composing a draft document is done. And three cheers for teaching writers all about this whole blessed event. Amen!