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Subject:Flashpoint of the week: editors and writers egos? From:Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca> To:"TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com> Date:Mon, 15 Mar 2004 13:57:40 -0500
Lynne Wright wondered: <<A year ago, I was promoted to in-house editor,
which I saw as a chance to reverse years of sub-standard
While that's laudable, recognize that as soon as you make it known that
you have "A Goal", particularly one as threatening as the one you're
proposing, you're going to encounter resistance. You're starting out
with the attitude that "things ain't satisfactory", so be very careful
not to wear this attitude on your sleeve when you start approaching
your colleagues to suggest changing the situation. In short, the docs
may indeed be substandard, but you'll get nowhere if you rub everyone's
face in this.
<<... our marketing, QA, and training departments had all given up
trying to get Tech Communications to do the job right.>>
That suggests a fairly intractable problem. If you have no authority to
impose a process of improvement, you're looking at a world of trouble:
the current staff have learned that they don't have to change their
behavior, and won't see any reason to change just because you are
telling them to do so. The simplest solution here is to have the Tech.
Comm. manager inform the current staffers quite clearly that if they
don't do what you tell them, heads will roll--and not yours. I doubt
that's going to happen, and even if it could, it sets up some
unpleasant "good cop" (you)-"bad cop" (the manager) dynamics.
So here's an alternative: Start by getting clear authority to do your
job and a clear mandate from the Tech. Comm. manager to impose changes.
If you have no authority as an editor, you might as well quit now. Make
sure that the staffers get the message that things are going to change,
and that you're the one who's going to make that change happen. Now you
have an opportunity to work with the staffers as their ally (the person
who will help them satisfy your joint manager) rather than as the
enemy. You can now set about working with them to figure out how to
make that change as painlessly as possible.
Make sure that the manager responsible for driving this change provides
a reasonably clear list of the problems you'll be setting out to solve.
Without knowing what you're aiming for, you can't hit the target other
than by chance. Set priorities, and work on those first.
<<The problem had always been that Tech Comm. was more or less ruled by
one "senior" writer who considered herself the in-house authority
simply because she's been here the longest... even though she really
doesn't have a firm grasp of basic writing principles (grammar,
punctuation) and is not terribly good at thinking analytically or
This person will be your biggest challenge, since she has the most to
lose and the least to gain from making the change. Your job will be to
convince her that as in any good writer-editor relationship, your job
will be to make her look good in print. If you don't have any authority
to "force" her to work with you, changing many years worth of status
quo will be very difficult at best. You can try asking her what kinds
of things she's not confident about, and then offer to help her get
better at these things; that lets you build a supportive relationship.
But if she doesn't want to admit she has problems, that approach won't
get you very far.
<<As far as I know, she started out as a secretary, then lucked into a
job as a writer when the tech writing department was created... but to
my knowledge she has never taken any writing courses or studied on her
own to learn the basics of writing, let alone to study tech writing.
She has also been the mentor for our other main writer, whose first
language is French, and whose only prior 'writing' credentials included
one or two years writing papers for English lit courses.>>
FYI, several members of this list started out as secretaries, and are
now top-notch writers. So don't let her "humble" origins bother you.
The next step is triage: identify the most serious problems, and start
working on those. Editorially, I'm a bit of a heretic in that I believe
it's more important to focus on communicating the content clearly than
on the minutae of grammar and spelling. People may mock you for your
typos, but so long as the instructions are comprehensive and clear,
they'll at least be able to complete their tasks. So work on the
high-level stuff first, and fix the details if time permits.
<<I want to compel them to write more clearly and concisely, but any
attempts to "dictate" how they write prompt complaints to my boss (not
to my face) that i'm being "too mean" or "too controlling" ... even
though i'm 100% sure that all the suggestions i make are based on
legitimate tech writing and/or English language usage guidelines. >>
Note your use of the word "compel": this tells you how you're thinking.
You can't compel anything unless your boss gives you the authority to
do so, and even then, you're better to persuade than dictate. I
understand your frustration (been there, done that), but don't let it
dictate how you think and act.
<<I'm also supposed to be in charge of maintaining our style guide, but
I'm "not allowed" to impose conventions without getting group
consensus... even though when we meet to discuss issues, I'm the only
one who bothers to research what the norm appears to be and think
through what might be best for us...everyone else just goes on their
"feelings" as to whether something "sounds right" or not.>>
If you're the editor, you shouldn't have to work by consensus where
there are clear standards. If you've done your homework, they should
simply accept your edits and move on. Get the authority to dispense
with the consensus process where clear guidelines already exist. Of
course, you don't want to dictate everything, so always offer your
colleagues the chance to come up with any reputable authority (e.g., a
style guide) to support their choices. If they can justify a choice,
then accept their choice: even if you prefer a different style, at
least their recommendation is defensible. More importantly,
compromising shows that you're willing to work with them rather than
just dictating, but also emphasizes that they must have good reasons,
not just "opinions".
<<They don't seem to trust or value my opinions much, even though by
now I would think it would be fairly obvious that I know what I'm
If they don't trust or value your opinions, then you need to do a
better job of making your opinions trustworthy and valuable. If you're
already doing that, the real problem is not that they don't trust and
value you: it's that they resent your approach or fear the need to
<<i'm not just pulling rules out of my butt to make their lives
From their standpoint, that's precisely what you're doing. The fact
that you're right isn't really the point: you're still making them
change when they don't want to. If you have authority to impose that
change, then use it--gently, but firmly. If you don't, get that
authority. Your job is to teach them to do the job right so that their
lives become easier.
<<We have a new boss that seems to trust my judgement, but who has also
been urging me to be kinda gentle on people, since he is trying to
reverse a history of conflict and power struggles amongst the
That kind of namby-pamby attitude always leads to trouble. Get him to
give you the support you need to do your job, or tell him you'd rather
just go back to being a writer and know that your own work is of high
quality. I've been in the position of having responsibility but no
authority, and it's horribly stressful. Not worth suffering through it,
in my opinion.
<<do I stick to my principles and edit according to normal standards,
and if they can't handle it, too bad?>>
That's going to be the final result if your job is editor. It's how you
get there that makes all the difference, and you want to get there in
such a way that your colleagues won't hate you for dragging them along
on the journey.
--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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