Let the Author be the Hero: What Managers could Learn from Editors
In my job, I spend a lot of time reviewing written work. I think that this skill has been one of the hardest to learn and despite being blessed by by lots of classroom training and colleagues with many strengths, it remains a skill in need of improvement.
Most of what I know has been picked up through trial and error, observation and extrapolation from experience. I know that I want to lean toward giving direction and away from redoing the work of my team members. Generally, if I give specific suggestions for redoing work (crossing out sentences or paragraphs and writing new ones) members of the team will just input the change without necessarily a lot of insight into why the changes are being made and, more importantly, how to extrapolate the changes requested into strategies for improving their work over time. As well, I consider the rewrite lazy on my own part – it’s easier to write it a new way than to coach someone into figuring out their own way to redo something. In the earliest days, explaining what you want instead of doing it the way you want, will likely take more time. However, in the long haul, I think it takes less time and promotes more and lasting development.
Still, I have struggled to construct a language to explain how to improve written work.
A few strategies have worked except when I falter (usually) because we are out of time:
- I try to group my comments into the general including what is working and less so, and the more detailed line-by-line suggestions. Sometimes this is supported by multiple reads of a document – the first macro read and the second and perhaps third, micro-read.
- I have placed a ban on my use of track changes because that tool makes it too easy for me to lapse back into the role of the writer. This is a role that I loved and I am easily seduced back into it. But, alas, it is like the frog in the slowly warming pot. It all seems good until I am well and truly cooked and I have rewritten the whole document.
- I also tend to make clear what elements of my feedback are for consideration/suggestion (tending to be stylistic – can you flip this into active voice, remove the negative, this needs to be shorter and here are some suggestions to start) and which need to be discussed before they are discarded (these tend to be substantive – this doesn’t make sense, I don’t think this is accurate, this strategic consideration is missing, can we update these numbers? Etc.). From the book “On Writing Well” the level of edits could be put into an even finer gradation: necessary (mistakes or omission), felicitous (smoother phrasing) and meticulous. Bottom line, consider if all suggestions hold equal weight and how to communicate this.
- I give general direction on do’s and don’ts for certain documents:
- For presentations/decks: aim for more white space than less, full sentences are not mandatory.
- Products for the Minister should use “may” over “should”
- Emails to senior managers need to get to the point early (within one blackberry screen is best) including the use of clear titles (Media lines for review by 3pm)
In Part II, I’ll explore the types of editing and how they might provide more language for managers to review written work.