Vol 44, Issue 5

May/June 2005

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From an Editor

What Do Editors Really Want?

by Jamie Diamandopoulos, Director, Corporate Communications, Decision Information Resources, Inc.

Well, Sigmund, you don't have to spend a lifetime trying to figure that question out. Here are some answers—at least from one point of view.

What Editors Don't Want

We don't want perfect original documents. That would mean forced retirement. (Yes, some editors have been forcibly retired in spite of reams of murky documents crying for help, but you know what I mean.) We're glad that people don't write as well as they think that they do. We want them to write better, but faulty writing is not usually as dangerous and expensive as bad driving (most people think that they drive well, too). However, sloppy documentation is embarrassing and can also be costly: in September 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because the engineering team at Lockheed Martin used English units of measurement while the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, used the metric system for a key spacecraft operation. And no one noticed until after the loss! Later, three investigative panels came to the breakthrough conclusion—just a tad late—that standards and consistency are an essential end-to-end process.

We don't want to change the intended meaning of the original text. On the contrary, the intended meaning isn't always clear, and readers don't have ESP; they rely on what they read. Therefore, we make suggestions, insert modifications, and ask questions. Sometimes, we find critical errors, too.

We don't want to own or have our names on an author's document —even if we had to perform major surgery on it. We'll write our own stuff when we want a byline.

We don't want to do an incomplete job. Of course, conflicting ideas about the definition of a good edit can cause Armageddons of nearly Biblical proportions, but settling for poor to mediocre quality irritates the heck out of a professional editor.

We don't want to offend or hurt authors. It's our job to be objective, meticulous, and exacting so that we can improve documents and reach goals for quality. Our comments are not aimed at a writer's personal sensitivities. We edit with consistent standards and intensity for everyone, but we know that not everone accepts our edits in the same way. We are happy to discuss our markups.

What Editors Do Want

We want the opportunity to do higher-level editing. Contrary to popular opinion, many of us would like to be able to spend less time finding and correcting problems with number agreement, serial commas, and parallel structure so that we can spend more time on substantive issues like organization, content, completeness, coherence, and so forth. Surely, the language rules that were taught during my junior high and high school years are still fun to implement. And following a corporate style guide is important. But oh, for a loftier challenge.

We want writers, managers, engineers, doctors, oil tool manufacturers, and others to recognize the importance of communicating well. Reminder: editors are advocates for readers. Many writers forget that their readers are not usually the folks in the neighboring cubicles.

We would like to see progressive improvement in each successive generation of documents—in other words, we want our clients—internal or external—to use an edit as an exercise in learning. Yeah, I know, when pigs fly.

We want colleagues and customers to perceive the improvements that careful edits have made.

I could go on, and other editors will probably add their favorites to my list, but you get the idea.

The Bottom Line

Editors might occasionally dream of the perfect job—maybe editing fascinating reports or stories by great authors for The New Yorker, as Eleanor Gould Packard did for 54 years. But how many gigs like that are there, and how many of us are there?

We are more practical than you might think. We are almost unshockable by crazy deadlines, unrealistic workloads, weak writing, and a poor editor-to-writer ratio—especially in technical fields. We acknowledge and respect the needs and limited resources of our clients and employers.

We like what we do. We find satisfaction in our work by continuing to strive for excellence, to coach, and to offer suggestions. We like to pay compliments and receive them. Sometimes we whine to each other. Then we watch an escapist movie and eat chocolate.


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