Why Do We Need an Editor on the Team?

The Green Room 42 is the meeting place for active conversations about topics of interest for technical and professional communication practitioners. In this episode, we talk with practitioners about the impact that editors have in enhancing and elevating the overall quality of content strategy and how it works with corporate strategy. In this episode, you’ll find: Edna Smith, Li-At Rathbun, Sherri Leah Henkin, Kelly Schrank and Dr. George Hayhoe.

Season 1 Episode 2 | 64 min

Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:12.110] – Liz Fraley

Welcome to the Green Room. Today's guests are Edna Smith, who began her career as a sales representative in a classified advertising at a local Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper, where the director of the sales group labeled all the sales reps as professional writers. After all, they were being published every day in the newspaper. She went on to complement her English BA with a Technical Communication MS, which led to her work as a writer and editor going forward.

[00:00:38.670] – Liz Fraley

Li-At Rathbun: a technical communicator and technical communications advocate who helps share best practices through teaching, volunteering, and her work. She's an STC [Society for Technical Communication] Associate Fellow who, for the past 15 years, has worked primarily as the sole technical editor in a large software documentation department.

[00:00:57.090] – Liz Fraley

Kelly Schrank has always been a bookworm, but it wasn't until she got her degree in English that she realized people would pay her to read all day. Since then, she's taken her ability to bring structure to chaos and to add value to clients in a variety of industries for many kinds of deliverables.

[00:01:14.430] – Liz Fraley

Sherri Leah Henkin has worked in the tech comm community for 20 plus years, honing her skills through on-the-job boot camps. As an editor, she collaborates with her teams to produce error-free and user-friendly procedures, work instructions and user guides.

[00:01:29.790] – Liz Fraley

George Hayhoe started his professional career teaching literature and composition at Virginia Tech. He transitioned to industry, where he served as a technical writer and editor and then taught technical writing and editing for twelve years at Mercer University before retiring in 2015. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and served as editor of STC's Technical Communication from 1996 to 2008.

[00:01:58.320] – Liz Fraley

Today, they're all here to help us start answering the question, “Why do you need an editor on your team?” Welcome.

[00:02:06.090] – Janice Summers

Welcome everybody. But really quick, I need to know Edna, who was the gray kitty?

[00:02:12.610] – Edna Smith

That was a cat, she wandered in when she heard herself talking.

[00:02:14.970] – Janice Summers

A cat? How cute.

[00:02:16.410] – Edna Smith

She's going to stay.

[00:02:18.690] – Kelly Schrank

She should. We're cool.

[00:02:20.790] – Janice Summers

Right? Is she introverted?

[00:02:24.510] – Edna Smith

Yes. Actually, she's a diva.

[00:02:27.210] – Janice Summers

An introverted diva.

[00:02:29.370] – Edna Smith

She chooses which one she wants to do.

[00:02:33.690] – Janice Summers

Interesting. So all of you have come into this field. You're all editors, and you've come into this field from various angles and from various perspectives. So you grew into the position of editor, correct?

[00:02:48.990] – Edna Smith

Yes.

[00:02:50.070] – Janice Summers

Is that the common way that people become editors?

[00:02:55.170] – Kelly Schrank

I feel like there's more training now. Yeah.

[00:02:58.670] – Edna Smith

There's more training now.

[00:03:00.870] – Kelly Schrank

I see people doing it right out of school now, whereas back when I started, there really wasn't as much to do that. Does everybody else think that's true?

[00:03:13.690] – Edna Smith

I noticed that younger editors don't know editing symbols, and then I become a snob, and they're no longer as relevant.

[00:03:22.570] – Li-At Rathbun

I was just going to say that that's not just for editors, but for technical communicators in general; it used to be more common that you just kind of find yourself in that position and might not even know the label until somebody comes and tells you like, “Hey, you're a technical writer,” or “Consider becoming an editor because you're editing all day.”

[00:03:46.930] – Janice Summers

Right. Because there's a common trait, at least from my limited perspective, what I've seen of editors that makes them good editors. Have you seen this in your peers that are editors and have you experienced this in yourself and can you enumerate what those traits are?

[00:04:08.270] – Sherri Leah Henkin

I just have some thoughts on that. For myself, it seems like I need to look at the big picture, but the attention to detail… I had a couple of colleagues called me Eagle Eyes. I do miss things, but that's at the big picture, especially when it's a document that… I just had a long procedure that somebody that one of the teams wanted to work on, and we really had to look at the big picture of “Where are you going with this and what do you really want,” and then get down to the detail, even to the minutiae of, okay, what's going to be bullets and what's this?

[00:04:53.750] – Sherri Leah Henkin

That seems to be very helpful, and also, how to give feedback to the writer.

[00:05:04.170] – George Hayhoe

That is a very, very difficult process, and it's fraught with all kinds of perils if you're not careful. You really have to be a diplomat, particularly when you are editing somebody who thinks that they know it all. I had one experience editing a resume for a four-star Admiral in the Navy, recently retired, who provided a 24-page resume and the government's bid process allowed only two pages.

[00:06:01.150] – Janice Summers

Right.

[00:06:01.860] – George Hayhoe

And going from 24 pages to two pages was a real diplomatic quest.

[00:06:10.010] – Li-At Rathbun

Well, George touches on another thing here, too. So there are various levels of writing experts that we edit, that we work with as editors. You don't want to tell anyone that they're not good, but even with the ones that are good, it's not necessarily if you're good or not, it's whatever the standard is for this particular project. And so our role is to match that and to help. We're with the writers on the same side and our goal is to help them meet whatever the requirements are for the document.

[00:06:48.630] – Kelly Schrank

Sometimes it means that they just need to be consistent with everybody else, what everybody else is doing, and sometimes they can't show their good writing as well.

[00:07:03.130] – Janice Summers

Right. That's what I was just going to ask, because one of those things is like there's maybe one… Sometimes in some situations, there's only one of you on a team of writers. There's a lot of other writers and you're the editor. You're in a situation where you're the sole editor in a large group. Right? So you're the ones that had that universal look at the style because of the corporation, you want to have that universal front, that voice. That's the same. Right?

[00:07:36.970] – Li-At Rathbun

Right. And that's where you talk about the rules in my company, we talk about the rules as we establish them or move to change them. But bottom line in editing and writing is you have to agree to whatever the rules are, whether you like them or not.

[00:08:02.630] – Kelly Schrank

Sometimes, we don't even like them as editors. Sometimes the rules that get put into place, we're like, “Well, that's not really the style that I would have chosen,” but you still got to make everybody follow it.

[00:08:17.510] – Li-At Rathbun

But with that, and this is kind of a bigger issue, but I will say depending on how much your company cares about or whatever… There's different levels of leeway in the documentation, and obviously we always have to make sure that it's accurate and we can't deviate on that. But beyond that, there's different levels of how many editing rounds your company wants; what's an acceptable standard of deviation or number of errors, and how far away can they get from our standards?

[00:08:59.990] – George Hayhoe

And we've been making the point for years that the technical communicator has to be involved with the project from the very beginning. That includes the editor. The editor needs to be involved at the very beginning of a project to do things like establish style guides.

[00:09:24.390] – Kelly Schrank

Look for problems.

[00:09:25.300] – George Hayhoe

Manage the process, really.

[00:09:28.170] – Janice Summers

I think it was a conversation I was having with Edna that we were talking about having involvement in a lot of other business units within the organization so you get more of a global perspective of the company, right?

[00:09:45.490] – Edna Smith

I don't think that was me, but—

[00:09:48.810] – Kelly Schrank

I like to work for small companies for that reason, because it's much easier to get yourself into what marketing is doing and what tech comm is doing and kind of see what the whole company is saying about products and services.

[00:10:03.750] – Li-At Rathbun

Would you guys agree that a big aspect of editing is not just editing, but training on what actually what we're doing today; training on why you need an editor and the benefits of editors?

[00:10:18.440] – Kelly Schrank

Totally.

[00:10:20.850] – George Hayhoe

Training the other people on the team to do peer editing as well, because if you are a single editor in a very large group, you can't do the editing for all projects, right?

[00:10:35.730] – Janice Summers

I was just going to ask about that “pure editing” thing. You could have pure editing, but that still doesn't replace the role of an editor, right?

[00:10:46.530] – Kelly Schrank

I don't think so. But I think it's getting to the point where it's a luxury to have someone who likely sits there and edits all day. A lot of companies do go to this peer review, peer edit, or they just get rid of editors altogether.

[00:11:02.910] – Janice Summers

Is that a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish?

[00:11:06.450] – Edna Smith

Yes.

[00:11:08.010] – Janice Summers

Thank you.

[00:11:09.690] – Kelly Schrank

Yes.

[00:11:11.210] – Edna Smith

I think people discredit editors because they don't understand what we're doing and think, “Oh, you're just reading or you're just making marks on paper.” But it could be— I can't remember this story, but some guy went into an office and interviewed for a job. And he read through this document, and he caught this mistake that ended up saving the people thousands of dollars. But nobody thinks about it in those concrete of terms. It's just like, “Oh, well, you just sit back in the corner and read,” but no, it does save money and time.

[00:11:46.840] – Edna Smith

If you have the person in the room in the beginning because they hear all of the initial conversations, they know what the message is supposed to be at the end. And it's easier when you get that document at the end to say, “Oh, I already know what this is supposed to say, so let me compare it to all of these meetings I've been in, all of this information that I've gathered, and then it's a better document” as opposed to, “Oh, I'm at the end now I need to go back and learn all of these things and more time and more effort.”

[00:12:15.690] – Kelly Schrank

Instead you ask the questions as you go along instead of at the very end when you're questioning the whole document because you don't know what's behind it.

[00:12:24.360] – Janice Summers

Right. And I know this was a conversation with you, Edna, I know this part is. As a writer, it's hard for you to edit your own work. Like sometimes even as an editor, you'll have to go and write things, but you can't edit your own work. Right?

[00:12:42.090] – Edna Smith

Right. That's the hard thing about being the only editor or the only writer/editor. And I've been in that position. I'm sure probably everybody here has where you have to let your work read, and people will want their work five minutes ago, but you really need to step away from it to go back and edit after you've written it or rewritten it from somebody else's… attempt, let's call it an attempt. There needs to be levels, and there needs to be a writer and an editor, and their roles are going to be enmeshed.

[00:13:24.930] – Edna Smith

But they should definitely be two separate roles.

[00:13:28.270] – Janice Summers

Right.

[00:13:29.240] – Li-At Rathbun

Well, I think peer editing is better than no editing.

[00:13:33.610] – Kelly Schrank

Yes,

[00:13:35.110] – Li-At Rathbun

You always need a second pair of eyes. But I do think the importance of an editor… We're a separate pair of eyes. The writer, even if it's not their product or they're looking at somebody else's documentation, they've gotten used to the groove, the document of the standards, the procedures, as far as working through the product itself, and they might also be blind to certain aspects of it.

[00:14:13.790] – Kelly Schrank

Or sometimes you can see they tried—the writer acting as an editor will try to make the other writer be like them, as opposed to having one editor who's making everybody the same, like in peer editing. They're each editing each other against their own work, which is a waste of time.

[00:14:38.380] – Janice Summers

Pure dominance?

[00:14:40.550] – Li-At Rathbun

But the other aspect of it I wanted to share—back to your original question, Janice—about kind of a divide of editors and writers; I think there is a natural calling, and I think that in general, good editors are good writers. I don't think it's necessarily true that good writers make good editors. None of us are perfect, but we have different skills, right? Just like we're not going to do the engineer's job because they have a certain set of skills, the writers don't always have the skills required to be an editor.

[00:15:23.550] – Li-At Rathbun

And I can tell you, I remember… For me, I can write well, but I remember my problem is sitting in front of a blank piece of paper and starting a document. To me, that's really scary. I can do it, and I can do it well, but I much prefer taking something that somebody's written and helping craft it into something even better, even more nuanced.

[00:15:50.970] – Kelly Schrank

I like to compare it to…I like to watch those HGTV shows where they're “before and after.” That's what I like to do in my work. Like there's the before you get it, it needs some work and needs some attention. It could need some finessing here and there. Maybe it needs to be completely organize whatever it is. And then you could get to the after and you look at it without the markup and you're like, “Look what I did. This is great.” That's why I like being an editor, too.

[00:16:24.310] – Edna Smith

There's a question in the chat that I thought maybe we could look at.

[00:16:31.210] – Janice Summers

Go ahead and read the question.

[00:16:34.020] – Liz Fraley

Read it out loud because I want to capture it on the video.

[00:16:39.070] – Edna Smith

For technical editing, should editors be adapted other things more in line with technical writing skill sets, such as project management, or technical writing tasks, or is it too much to ask for an editor role? And I want to say, no, it's not too much to ask for an editor role. I wouldn't say project management, but whatever your passion is— I know that I really got into 508, and I really like it. So that's something that's becoming more and more in demand.

[00:17:11.870] – Edna Smith

So my advice for that person, which project management is always in demand too, but I would say find something that's kind of within the realm of where you want to work as an editor, and then hone that skill because then you're more marketable in that area that you want to be in.

[00:17:34.560] – Li-At Rathbun

Edna, can you clarify what 508 is?

[00:17:42.830] – Edna Smith

Accessible for people who have hearing disabilities, sight disabilities on the web, mostly, but it's also in different documents and different reports. But it's… If there's a picture, then there will be a description of whatever's in that picture available to the person. There will be ways to have content read to a person.

[00:18:07.410] – Edna Smith

It's just making everything accessible for everybody, whatever disability you might have, every piece of information. And this was a big government thing, but of course, a lot of industries are doing it, too. We're just making everything accessible to the general public, no matter who you are.

[00:18:29.430] – George Hayhoe

I would somewhat disagree with Edna about project management. I think if you're working on either on a large documentation project as an editor or if you are working as the editor in a sizable documentation organization within a company, I think project management is a really valuable skill set to have, because in some cases, you would be the project lead as editor in some of those situations.

[00:19:19.930] – Janice Summers

Right. Well, I think, isn't it a matter of agility less than title?

[00:19:27.450] – George Hayhoe

I'm sorry. Agility?

[00:19:29.110] – Janice Summers

Agility, the ability to manage projects, the ability to do writing, the ability to do a variety of things.

[00:19:37.290] – George Hayhoe

Oh, certainly. Yeah.

[00:19:38.590] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Not so much just having the title of project management.

[00:19:43.170] – George Hayhoe

I'm not talking about being the project manager. I'm talking about the ability to make sure that everything gets done on time, on budget, to spec.

[00:20:01.950] – Janice Summers

Is there a difference between, like— Okay, so somebody had said earlier that you can come in now there's classes at university and whatnot and you can come into the field at a much greener level. But a lot of you, from what I know have come into this from the long slog, right where you've proven yourself and you've done these different roles and you've elevated and you've fine-tuned. And you found that natural ability inside yourself, of that interest that you have and the details and the big picture, all of that along the way. So that makes you a lot more versatile, right?

[00:20:48.570] – Sherri Leah Henkin

I hear both sides of the project management question, but support more… I'm an independent contractor as a technical writer and editor, and so I don't have to be the project manager for my client, necessarily, but I have to manage my pieces of the project.

[00:21:09.160] – Janice Summers

Right.

[00:21:09.840] – Sherri Leah Henkin

So as I work with a client, we're working on several procedures, some have been assigned to me to edit. I need to track where those are, even though they've got their big project management, whatever tool they're using, I have to know oh, yes, it went to stakeholder on this day, it went to this person on that day, because otherwise, where is the document? As the editor, I need to know what status it's in. So it's an important skill and it can be learned. As Liz said in my introduction; on the job boot camp, I mean, that's where I got it.

[00:21:55.770] – Sherri Leah Henkin

It's like, let me track this, and it works.

[00:21:59.170] – Edna Smith

I think project management is pretty big. I'm not saying have the skill set to track the tasks that we do or the projects that work on, but project management is pretty huge.

[00:22:13.510] – Kelly Schrank

Like its own thing really. Some people have started out as tech writers, and they become project managers. I mean, that's something that you can do. I don't know that I would structure a technical editor position to also be a project manager, like that seems kind of strange. But if you look to publications in other fields, a lot of times you'll see editors and that's what they're doing. They're coordinating the whole project, all the projects. So it's not totally unheard of. 

[00:22:59.330] – Edna Smith

When I got my master's in technical communication, we did go through project management, but we also went through task management and scheduling our projects and our pieces of work. So I guess it's six of one and half a dozen of the other.

[00:23:18.210] – Li-At Rathbun

To add to that, and maybe as a resource for Fur and other people… Writing Assistance, writingassistance.com, they have this spreadsheet that gives you an idea of how long a project can take, which is like, I don't know how accurate that part is, but the part I wanted to say is it shows you the assumptions. Yes, you can expect an editor to provide things on the scheduled time, but there's also the part, the resources part, and keeping in mind how raw the document is. For example, if you think you're submitting just for proofreading and you're going to send this out but the document is very messy, then it's going to take more time.

[00:24:09.580] – Li-At Rathbun

Assuming you want to then stop and add that review cycle. My point is that there's also resources and expectations. So, yes, there is project management, but when you establish that and when you're evaluating that for the editor or with the editor, keep those other elements in mind. Like, for our writers, we tell them, “You can't write if the subject matter expert is not available to you,” for example. So the same sort of thing, we need certain things in order to make our process work as well.

[00:24:53.490] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Or you get in a situation like I was a couple of days ago with a client's department, and I was brought in as the writer/editor to help them really edit the procedure. And it turned out they don't have a documented workflow, so they don't even know where their information is coming from so that they can write the procedure. So talk about— that's a big contingency in a plan. So we couldn't get to step one because they were before that.

[00:25:30.910] – Kelly Schrank

You were step three.

[00:25:33.310] – Kelly Schrank

Right.

[00:25:35.650] – Li-At Rathbun

Well, that's another aspect. The writers sometimes are expected to write to a moving target, like the product isn't even created itself.

[00:25:43.610] – Janice Summers

Right.

[00:25:44.120] – Li-At Rathbun

What exactly are you asking the editor to do? I mean, I can tell you if you've got a typo, is that going to help you?

[00:25:53.470] – George Hayhoe

That sounds like a Dilbert cartoon.

[00:25:58.430] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Right. The cool thing was that the group understood that they weren't ready and they liked it, what I was able to bring to the room, so to say, was the outside perspective. Like, have you done this? Have you done a workflow? And they said, “Wow, that's helpful.” Even though I was brought in to quote, unquote “write” it. Sometimes I think that's another role an editor can bring is— we're not in the weeds of the writing necessarily, so we might be able to say, “Did you cover this? Do you need to cover that?”

[00:26:34.310] – Sherri Leah Henkin

And to Edna's point about expertise: I've done expert, but I spent a lot of years in healthcare and especially healthcare compliance. So I have an eye for, if you're saying that… What are you compliant with, just in general, so that's I think another role of it. An editor is bringing in some things from the outside.

[00:27:00.950] – Kelly Schrank

Yeah. I want to go back to what you're saying, Sherri, about the outside perspective and the workflow. Sometimes your writers are actually SMEs, and they're not that good at the actual writing, and you can actually coach them through the writing process. I think it was probably some of what you were doing. She was like, well, this comes first and then this and then later on, I'll come in. I'm just trying to help them with the writing process.

[00:27:31.790] – Li-At Rathbun

That's another trend. Having the SMEs, the subject matter experts, be the writers and then having us as editors come in, or maybe the company can decide that we don't need an editor, we're just going to rely on the subject matter experts. So there's all these variables, but hopefully and especially if they're using the SMEs as writers, they use us.

[00:28:03.060] – Kelly Schrank

Definitely sell yourself when you have the SMEs as writers, it's much easier to sell your solid editor into the process than it is when it's just writers like, well, writers, they know how to write, so you don't really need an editor. When you can say they're SMEs and they don't know how to write, sometimes you have an easier chance trying to promote yourself into it.

[00:28:26.550] – Li-At Rathbun

I would say a big problem we have as editors—and in some degree writers have this problem—if the documentation is perfect, if you don't stumble on anything as a reader, then you don't notice the writing. You don't notice that there was a writer behind it. So the writer is invisible. Then we're one step behind them. We're doubly invisible. So it's very hard for us to justify, “You need us” because everything is perfect. How do you explain what we took care of before you saw the mess? Or that would be nice.

[00:29:06.300] – Kelly Schrank

Yeah. I mean, if we do our job well, everybody looks good and there's nothing to complain about.

[00:29:15.030] – Janice Summers

Well, it's like Edna pointed out, that person who came in for that interview and found that error that ended up saving that company. So it's one of those risk aversion things. That's what an editor is, is to help avoid risk, right?

[00:29:32.370] – Kelly Schrank

Also to build confidence.

[00:29:34.150] – Janice Summers

Yeah. You guys also brought up a really good point, because sometimes there's the accident. Just like some of you kind of became the accidental editor. It's just you elevated to that position or went into that position— I don't want to say “elevated.” You went into that position.

[00:29:46.870] – Kelly Schrank

I'd say elevated. I love that. Thank you.

[00:30:01.210] – Janice Summers

I have a deep admiration for editors. I could never be an editor. I could never be an editor. But there's a lot of people who kind of, I don't want to say trip into, but they do trip into the field of technical writing. And having an editor on the team means that you're also safeguarding because they didn't necessarily go through all the training that a professional technical writer going through university now, where there's professional technical writing classes, they might not have even had English as a major at university. Right? But they ended up in the field of writing. They tripped into it.

[00:30:37.980] – George Hayhoe

Yeah. That was, I think, a lot more common 20, 30 years ago than it is today. We're graduating quite a number of technical communicators out of the 50 or so undergraduate programs, maybe more than that now, in the US. Anyway, I stumbled into the profession myself. I was an English professor and had been trained in textual editing definitive editions of literary works, which has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of editing that I do now. But I started out editing SMEs and discovered that it was a whole lot easier rather than asking them to write a draft, to play with the software myself and write it and then pass it by them.

[00:31:55.010] – George Hayhoe

For years, I was a technical writer, and then the company said, “No, you've got to be an editor in this group.” So that's basically how I got into technical editing again. I had very few students who wanted to specialize in technical editing because it's a really tough game to get into. But not that there aren't plenty of opportunities to do that, but comparatively few students want to do that. They want to do the sexier stuff playing with—

[00:32:43.690] – Kelly Schrank

Going into UX (User Experience) because that pays more.

[00:32:46.200] – George Hayhoe

Yeah. UX.

[00:32:46.880] – Kelly Schrank

Right now. I was just going to say I feel like STC is getting a flood of new… they're called new professionals now, people who are in teaching or they're in something else that are coming into tech comm. It's kind of interesting to see that. Some want to be editors, some just technical writers.

[00:33:16.010] – Janice Summers

The field of writing, because it's so diverse, has a diverse entryway. There's not just one way into it, right? So I think that's one of the challenges, but to be an editor is different than coming into writing because being an editor, you have all of that, all of those disciplines behind you, like you have that structure and organization behind you. I think it's a little different, don't you?

[00:33:50.110] – Edna Smith

I think it is because I always find it interesting that I have some very intelligent friends who can't write a complete sentence. I find that so funny. But for me, I was reading all the time when I was younger and I was writing and journaling, so I was always paying attention to the rules, so I always wanted to know how to put something together properly.

[00:34:26.370] – Li-At Rathbun

So I used to love playing Spot the Difference, right? And I still like finding little details, right? Not to point it out because it's wrong, but just the excitement of like, oh, there it is. And some writers just want to understand the concept and just want to get it out.

[00:34:47.440] – Janice Summers

Get the idea out.

[00:34:49.630] – Li-At Rathbun

They just want to get the idea out. They don't want to spend time. They do need to follow some rules, but they want help in somebody going through and making sure that all those little spots that should be clean are clean. It comes down, I think ultimately to personality. Again, I guess that's part of the talent for it part. But some people are just a better fit for the editor role, and some people resent having to peer edit or whatever it is. Right?

[00:35:21.490] – Janice Summers

Let's talk about that. Have you ever run into a situation where you had to give hard feedback to a difficult person?

[00:35:33.410] – Liz Fraley

All nodding.

[00:35:36.770] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Especially on the independent side, anything from— and George alluded to talking about resumes, anything from editing resumes to someone's document that they really are connected to. I actually learned about how to give feedback. So when I have to give feedback to a writer who's got expertise, it's a good writer and they have subject matter expertise or anybody that I have to, I really try and be diplomatic. Point out what's good, use words like consider or could you consider stating it this way? Would that mean the same?

[00:36:27.810] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Because as an editor, I may not have the subject matter expertise. And if I suggest a difference, we may be changing what the whole sentence means. It may not be correct. So I find when I do it that way, it's helpful, because sometimes I'll get— I just had this in another procedure I was doing. I said, “I'm not seeing this step by step whatever was supposed to be there. Are we missing something or is this okay?” And I said it as a question. They said, “Yes, we can leave placeholder language.” Okay, it's their document.

[00:37:10.690] – Kelly Schrank

And I try to sell it to them as I'm here to make you look good. I'm here to make the company look good. This isn't about you and I. We're getting paid to put out a good product, and I'm just here to help you do that. And I ask a lot of questions, too.

[00:37:29.480] – Edna Smith

I don't ever tell anybody what to do. I make suggestions—

[00:37:34.730] – Kelly Schrank

Ask a lot of questions.

[00:37:36.770] – Edna Smith

Yeah, questions. I never say anything, but I have two questions. One is anybody else having the whole serial comma drama?

[00:37:51.150] – Kelly Schrank

Who has not been through the serial comma drama?

[00:37:57.430] – Li-At Rathbun

There's a really good article in the Gregg Manual style, I think. Gregg, G-R-E-G-G by McGraw Hill, I think. There's an article called The Comma Trauma, and I love it. That really clarifies for anybody who's ever wondered, why should I use a comma? Why should I use the Oxford comma? It really clarifies when to use a comma.

[00:38:27.690] – Kelly Schrank

I haven't seen that, but that sounds great.

[00:38:30.770] – Edna Smith

My other question was: we haven't already anything from Liz.

[00:38:38.610] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, I'm a huge fan of editors. I actually have worked with a couple of people on here, but I had an editor who… He would take what I wrote and know what I meant, so it would turn it from mediocre writing by me into something that was spectacular. He knew what I was after. He knew what I meant and it made all the difference.

[00:39:07.140] – Li-At Rathbun

While keeping your voice.

[00:39:09.510] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, well, and making it better. The voice I think I have rather than the one I actually have.

[00:39:15.280] – Kelly Schrank

Liz plus.

[00:39:20.110] – Li-At Rathbun

I wanted to respond to Janice's question about hard feedback, and I actually wanted to use two examples early on in my career at the company I'm at now. There was somebody who'd been there for a really long time and nobody had bothered to tell him that he was not a good writer at all.

[00:39:43.950] – Li-At Rathbun

Yeah. So it's very hard for me to… I mean, I provided feedback and met with him and did it in a gentle way and never said, “You suck.”

[00:39:58.030] – Kelly Schrank

Sometimes you want to, don't you? Sometimes you want to say that.

[00:40:01.060] – Li-At Rathbun

And he had found himself in that position in the company, he had rolled into this at some point, and he's been in it for years and for whatever reason, like, standards changed or whatnot. So I was really proud of the way I handled that because I made him excited about the journey of it. Separately, last year, for the first time in all my years—some people know about this already—I had a bully. We had a newer writer. He's been in industry for a while, but new to ours, and I considered him a bully.

[00:40:40.490] – Li-At Rathbun

I met with him for a training session and talked about our standards, and he was questioning why it's our standard. And even when I was like, “Look, this is what the president wants. The president of the company wants this.” And because of COVID times, it happened to be… Anyway, I happened to to record this training and was able to share it with my supervisor and ultimately other people, and they backed me up in like, “Oh, yeah. Why did you even continue this conversation?” But even then, I wasn't attacking him or even his writing, just trying to stay focused on, “Well, I submit to you that this is the way people in our this is how the other writers are doing this.”

[00:41:29.670] – Li-At Rathbun

And the other thing that we ended up doing is I was still able to deliver training to him through email and also just through global messages when we have documentation team meetings. Just to share. And I don't know if other people have similar—

[00:41:59.240] – George Hayhoe

Did it take?

[00:41:59.280] – Li-At Rathbun

Sorry?

[00:41:59.280] – George Hayhoe

Did it take?

[00:41:59.280] – Li-At Rathbun

With some of our stuff more, and he's more… I have not met with him since then. We don't talk directly unless it's in a staff meeting, but I have been able to provide feedback.

[00:42:13.830] – Li-At Rathbun

And he's a contributor now, he helps shape general standards for our new documentation environment, for example. So yeah, I guess in that respect, it took. And the other important thing is that I have the backing of my supervisor and the boss is involved everywhere. So that's definitely an important aspect in this role and in other roles.

[00:42:42.630] – Janice Summers

Do you guys think like the peer review—and now they're teaching editing and university—do you think that helps prepare them to work with an editor out in the field?

[00:42:54.310] – Kelly Schrank

It might help the tech writers that are going through the programs because they do have to do that kind of stuff. Don't they, George?

[00:43:04.630] – George Hayhoe

Oh, yeah. Our students always said the course they liked the least was Technical Editing; the course that was the most valuable was Technical Editing. Because many of them wind up in situations where they are not working with a full-time editor, and so they've got to do their best to edit themselves and to peer edit other people.

[00:43:36.610] – Kelly Schrank

Right.

[00:43:40.510] – Janice Summers

What role does does AI [artificial intelligence] have in editing? It seems like AI is all over the place. I saw an article where they said AI is going to replace the writer. I didn't read the whole article, I just walked away. I'm like, “I can't deal with that right now,” but does it play anything into the role of an editor?

[00:44:03.910] – Edna Smith

Even with Grammarly [online writing assistant program]—and I look at that and how it's supposed to correct everything and I don't use it because I refuse—but I just think that there needs to be a thinking brain behind the decision.

[00:44:19.450] – Kelly Schrank

I mean, I use PerfectIt, which is better than Grammarly and helping with consistency and things, and I still have to double check it. It's still not catching everything. It helps, especially for me being an independent, helps smooth things. But it's not foolproof.

[00:44:41.290] – Li-At Rathbun

Kelly, I think you can… maybe with that, speak more to Janice's question, because I think maybe with things like PerfectIt, which sits on top of MS Word, and you can essentially program it to catch certain errors, like T-H-E-I-R versus T-H-E-Y-R-E. But I think, so, they're a big thing. PerfectIt says they kind of help free the editor for more advanced or different kind of edits. So I think that that's the role, if anything, it changes so that you don't have to focus on certain minutiae. You just need to approve like that's the other part of it, right? It tells you I found this error and you have to—

[00:45:33.170] – Kelly Schrank

Yeah. You have to decide whether it's good or not. Just spell check and grammar check. And Word. I mean, you've got to tell it no quite a bit.

[00:45:42.960] – Li-At Rathbun

I haven't worked with it, I've just heard about it and actually presented it as a tool to some of my students. But do you find that it frees your time more to deal with, like copy-editing or substantive editing, like different levels of editing than you otherwise would?

[00:46:01.850] – Kelly Schrank

I just think it makes me faster, which being everybody wants that, right? It helps me catch more, I think. Maybe I would have caught every little thing, but I think that sometimes I do it at the beginning and the end, and sometimes it catches stuff both times. So I think it's really helpful.

[00:46:28.470] – George Hayhoe

I haven't worked with PerfectIt, but I have used Grammarly and it is helpful. I wouldn't say that it replaces a technical editor, but it certainly makes the tiny tasks of technical editing a little bit easier.

[00:46:53.350] – Li-At Rathbun

I have a word of caution from years ago: not Grammarly and not PerfectIt, but just spell checker. Actually my teacher in Technical Communications somewhere along the way told us this: one of her students wrote a whole essay on what should have been about warehouses, but it was actually about wh***houses.

[00:47:25.670] – George Hayhoe

There's also the Fornicator's Bible, if you want to go back in time a bit, where the “Thou shalt not commit adultery”— the “not” was omitted. Little word.

[00:47:39.990] – Kelly Schrank

Little word.

[00:47:40.800] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Big word in healthcare of compliance, we get “complaint” and “compliant,” and they'll come out. So the eyes, we have to read that—

[00:47:57.070] – Kelly Schrank

We have clinical “trails” a lot too, instead of clinical “trials.”

[00:48:01.550] 

Right. The trick with “complaint” and “compliant” is they're used in the same document because— how people can complain to the organization, there was a compliance piece of that. Getting tongue-tied here.

[00:48:21.260] – Janice Summers

Your complaint is compliant.

[00:48:23.180] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Exactly. The complaint process has to be compliant.

[00:48:28.430] – Li-At Rathbun

Bottom line, it sounds like we still need a human eye.

[00:48:33.200] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Yeah.

[00:48:34.050] – Kelly Schrank

So thinking about even spell check, as simple as it is. Most people know how to use it, right? But how many of you have gotten a word document to edit and they've turned off the spell check and things, and there's all kinds of stuff spelled wrong because they've turned off the spell check.

[00:48:54.470] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Or they have it set to UK English and we're working on a document in the United States.

[00:49:04.590] – Li-At Rathbun

Kelly's comment brings to mind for me, there are certain expectations we have of the writer. So even though we don't expect them to know the standards perfectly well, we do expect them to go spell check. We expect them to earnestly try to learn all the standards, not memorize it. And I joke with them, don't become perfect, because then what would I do? But we want them to try to get a perfect document. We don't want them to just throw it over the fence to us and give us all the fun of trying to make it all work.

[00:49:44.770] – Kelly Schrank

You could at least do kind of a find replace for the product name, just not spell the product name wrong. I just found that the other day I'm going through a slide deck and it's two different ways over 40 pages. I'm like, “Okay, you did this more than once. You could have figured this out.”

[00:50:11.810] – Janice Summers

So AI will not replace an editor.

[00:50:14.690] – Edna Smith

No.

[00:50:19.910] – Kelly Schrank

If AI does replace writers, that actually gives the editors more work.

[00:50:24.170] – Janice Summers

We're all in trouble, right? I really think it takes human interaction to write for humans.

[00:50:34.090] – Janice Summers

So it takes some human thought in a lot of consideration and writing for humans. And if you've ever had autocorrect on your phone, then you know that AI can't replace a human.

[00:50:45.810] – Li-At Rathbun

Oh, my gosh.

[00:50:47.100] – Janice Summers

Right? The proof is in the phone.

[00:50:51.510] – Li-At Rathbun

I told my brother once I was going to send flowers to his friend for helping with something, and I wanted to send “exotic flowers,” but it almost wrote it as “erotic flowers.”

[00:51:07.790] – Edna Smith

Somebody asked me how I was doing, and I tried to say “I'm good,” and it said, “I'm God,” and I said, “Yes.”

[00:51:32.210] – Li-At Rathbun

If I could go back, I saw that a few people sadly said they had trouble with bullies and so feel free to reach out to me. I'm not necessarily the expert on—

[00:51:43.480] – Kelly Schrank

Li-At's counseling.

[00:51:47.130] – Li-At Rathbun

But what I did want to say, so what helped here… First of all, like I did have support, but I had created a PowerPoint of different things I wanted to share with this person anyway, so I was able to directly share some of that, create an email that took some time. But a series of emails over that, that was one thing. And the other thing that helped, and I still do, is just find things that I want to say to this person, but as general reminders in staff meetings. So that might work for you people who are going through it.

[00:52:27.700] – Li-At Rathbun

And my apologies to you. I'm sorry.

[00:52:32.530] – Janice Summers

Yeah, bullying on a job is never acceptable. And if you do have a bully, then you get your manager involved. And if your manager is not getting involved, you get that manager's manager involved, and you can go all the way to HR because bullying on the job is not acceptable. You know, some people have rough personalities, but even that they need to work with because we only need to work as a team. So, yeah, that's never an acceptable thing. So you need to escalate and get some interaction and get some communication going that's healthy, because that's not acceptable.

[00:53:08.810] – Janice Summers

The role of an editor is to make us all look better, right? Not to make us look bad.

[00:53:16.850] – Kelly Schrank

Well, you're probably not the only person having a problem with the bully.

[00:53:20.670] – Janice Summers

Probably not, exactly. That's why I say you have to escalate and elevate. And oftentimes by the time you get to HR, HR has heard from other people that this person is a problem and they have to interject themselves into the situation and rectify the situation or… One way or the other, they have to solve that problem because it's not acceptable in a workplace. And if you're having a problem, like Kelly says, somebody else might be having a problem.

[00:53:49.530] – Kelly Schrank

You think about it like a team thing, not an individual thing. It's not just about you.

[00:53:56.630] – Janice Summers

Yeah, it's not you. It's them. Clearly, I mean, any time you're dealing with a bully, it's not you. It's about them.

[00:54:03.300] – Kelly Schrank

I think the hardest thing is probably to recognize it, to have to just realize that that's what someone's doing to you, as opposed to just thinking you're having a personal clash with someone. So that's very smart of all of you that recognize the bully when you see it, because I'm sure I've had some bullies, but I was too young and just assumed it was a personal thing.

[00:54:30.030] – Li-At Rathbun

Well, that's what I said. That's what helped in this instance that I had a recording and that my supervisor was interested in listening to it… Because your confidence shakes. I mean, I hear places in the recording where I— not so much I can guess myself, but I do sound more shaky than I would usually be about something, and it was really good to have reinforcement. So, yeah, if you think you're having a problem, share with your manager.

[00:55:07.030] – Janice Summers

Cool.

[00:55:07.960] – Liz Fraley

Good advice from some great editing people.

[00:55:13.490] – Li-At Rathbun

Oh, that's us. Thank you.

[00:55:14.770] – Kelly Schrank

Thank you.

[00:55:16.070] – Liz Fraley

That is you guys.

[00:55:21.090] – Kelly Schrank

Thanks for having us.

[00:55:22.700] – Janice Summers

Yeah. It's been such a pleasure. You guys have shared so much of your knowledge and wisdom, and just everybody knows there's a link that you can connect with all of these lovely editors, and I highly recommend you fill your tribe with these people. So again, I want to thank all of you for coming. It has been a pleasure talking with you. And hopefully everyone understands the importance of having an editor on the team, at least one editor. And not making their writers be the editor, too, because I don't think you can do both. You need to have editors.

[00:56:06.910] – Kelly Schrank

Go editors.

[00:56:10.790] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Thanks for that plug.

[00:56:13.190] – Janice Summers

It really is amazing because I had the luxury of being able to work with an editor, and they pointed out… Because when you write something lengthy, you write it in bits, right? You don't sit down and just write it out in one fell swoop. You all know this. And they pointed out that I had changed my voice. I didn't know I changed my voice. I was shocked that they realized, and I was shocked that they realized that I had a voice.

[00:56:39.230] – Kelly Schrank

You're shocked you're had a voice?

[00:56:42.770] – Janice Summers

Right? Because I'm not thinking I have any voice, for lack of a better phrase. You know what I mean when I say voice, but they saw the consistency and the inconsistency when I broke that pattern and were able to guide me. And I like what Edna pointed out: suggestions always work the best. There's some people that are really tough-skinned, like Luz is pretty tough-skinned. I'm not as tough-skinned. I like Edna's approach with suggestions, they work really well. Options and alternatives. And it's interesting how each one of you took a turn at editing.

[00:57:19.570] – Janice Summers

When I originally wrote up the paragraph, which was kind of fun, and it got edited by each one of you, and each one of you had a little different style and how you edited. So it's kind of nice, but you were all pretty consistent.

[00:57:35.490] – Li-At Rathbun

Can I just say one more thing about the editing? Since you were talking about peer editing and you need an editor. Something to consider for companies because they like the bottom line: If a writer is busy being a peer editor, then they're not busy writing their own documentation or learning the product that they're documenting. That's another argument for them.

[00:57:56.590] – Janice Summers

Let's face it, too. If you're making your peer be your peer editor, that's kind of like… It's a little tricky on the peer-to-peer relationship, too. Right? Whereas an editor is expected to have a little different relationship with the writing team. Peer-to-peer is fantastic and you should absolutely do it, but you need to have an editor as well. Save your company, hire an editor.

[00:58:29.570] 

Like large writing teams, absolutely, you need to have at least one editor, if not more. But some of you are independents working for other companies where you'll cycle in and do the editing work for them and in and out you go to do the editing. So even small companies, you need to have an editor. Might not be that the editor is there full time, but you need to tap into an editor.

[00:58:52.570] – Kelly Schrank

And I think there was something in the chat about, what if you don't have enough editors to not edit everything? And I didn't see if anybody responded to it, but, what are the most important things? Have the editors work on the really important documents.

[00:59:08.630] – Janice Summers

Right.

[00:59:10.510] – Li-At Rathbun

And always accuracy. But with a subject matter expert for that, you have to make sure that the document is accurate, and then write Kelly's right after that. Prioritize.

[00:59:20.590] – Kelly Schrank

You have to prioritize, make sure that we're looking at the really important documents.

[00:59:25.390] – Li-At Rathbun

Would you say to add a checklist or two while you're going through the process?

[00:59:31.630] – Kelly Schrank

Everybody needs a checklist. Absolutely.

[00:59:35.380] – Edna Smith

They have their own conventions list, sometimes for each project.

[00:59:43.310] – Janice Summers

Right. You have multiple. So this is a common thing with all of you: checklists. Okay.

[00:59:58.480] – Edna Smith

It depends on which style manual they're using, too.

[01:00:01.640] – Sherri Leah Henkin

Right. Having spent time with Kelly, I'm with her, and I'm now doing checklists or checklists on my checklists.

[01:00:15.070] – Janice Summers

Kelly is kind of a checklist queen. Kind of one of those known for it.

[01:00:22.150] – Kelly Schrank

Reckless specialist, that's what I say.

[01:00:26.750] – Janice Summers

Well, any other parting words of advice for anyone who's wanting to break into the field of editing?

[01:00:34.730] – Kelly Schrank

Just do it. Find ways to edit people's stuff.

[01:00:41.430] – Edna Smith

I would say join an organization. I just rejoined STC, and my time with it before was I met a lot of people, learned a lot of things. The conferences are great, the special interest groups are great. There are opportunities to learn. So I would say join a professional organization. And ACES [society for editing] is also a good one.

[01:01:06.030] – Li-At Rathbun

A-C-E-S. Right. So where I work, originally I wasn't the editor and they didn't have an official editor, I'd kind of just do it. I asked if I could edit a writer's document when things were slow and they liked it, and then later on, I edited something else. So if you have that opportunity, if you work somewhere and you'd like to try editing, it works sometimes. I mean, it could work if that's what you're interested in doing. If nothing else, you'll have stuff for your resume, perhaps.

[01:01:40.660] – Kelly Schrank

And you'll learn new things. You may decide. You don't like editing. After all, you thought it was going to be cool, and it wasn't. But she'll learn other things about other products or other parts of the company. I've edited HR stuff for the HR Department and learn new things there, too. You just don't know that wasn't my job, but I helped them out in a pinch.

[01:02:04.910] – Janice Summers

You bring up a really good point, too. If you want to break into the field of editing, go find a nonprofit to help edit their documents.

[01:02:15.490] – Kelly Schrank

That's a good place. I've helped other variants for nonprofits. Interesting to see what they get asked for. It's very much a technical writing kind of thing. They have to put them into systems, and they have to be very succinct. They have word counts and things. So it definitely fits into it.

[01:02:41.750] – Janice Summers

But even just editing a nonprofit website, with all the content that's on there, right? And it's not as technical as technical and professional writing, but it's communicating, informing.

[01:02:55.730] – Kelly Schrank

A lot of websites for companies that I worked for. That wasn't my job, but I just did it right?

[01:03:02.920] 

Exactly.

[01:03:03.740] – Janice Summers

And that's a good way. And it's also, there you go, glowing portfolio. You have the before and after. Take a screenshot of their website before you edit it, let them implement it and then take another screenshot of before and after. So there you go.

[01:03:19.000] – Li-At Rathbun

Well, great.

[01:03:19.650] – Janice Summers

It's been lovely having you all here. I really appreciate your time and all of your well-thought input and advice and guidance for everyone.

[01:03:32.510] – George Hayhoe

Thank you.

[01:03:33.580] – Li-At Rathbun

Thank you.

In this episode

In this episode of Green Room 42, we sit down with a group of very talented and tenured editors. They share what it takes to succeed as an editor and the impact the role has in enhancing and elevating the overall quality of the entire team.

Editors come from a variety of backgrounds but share some common traits. Sure, they know grammar and punctuation and they can spot errors with a keen, well-trained, analytical eye. But they also see the big picture of the overall content strategy and how it works with the corporate strategy. They also have a fine-tuned ear for language and make sure that content created by many sounds as unified as content created by one. 

The versatility of a seasoned editor goes far beyond just editing, this person can be a big asset to your team. If you care about accuracy, consistency, and clarity, and if you want a stronger writing team, then you must have an editor on your team.

Who's in the room

Edna Smith began her career as a sales representative in classified advertising at a local Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper where the director of the sales group labeled all sales reps as professional writers, having been published every day in the newspaper. She went on to compliment her English BA with a Technical Communication MS which led to her work as a writer and editor going forward. https://www.linkedin.com/in/ednapsmith/

Li-At Rathbun is a technical communicator and technical communications advocate, helping share best-practices through teaching, volunteering, and her work. She’s an STC Associate Fellow who, for the past 15 years, has worked primarily as the sole technical editor in a large software documentation department. https://www.linkedin.com/in/li-at-rathbun-8213674/

Sherri Leah Henkin has worked in tech comm for 20+ years, honing her skills through on-the-job boot camps. As an editor, Sherri collaborates with her teams to produce error-free and user-friendly procedures, work instructions, and user guides. https://www.linkedin.com/in/sherrihenkin/

Kelly Schrank has always been a bookworm, but it wasn't until after she got her degree in English that she realized people would pay her to read all day! Since then, she has taken her ability to bring structure to chaos to add value to clients in a variety of industries for many types of deliverables. https://www.linkedin.com/in/kellyschrank/

Dr. George Hayhoe started his professional career teaching literature and composition at Virginia Tech. He transitioned to industry, where he served as a technical writer and editor, and then taught technical writing and editing for 12 years at Mercer University before retiring in 2015. He is currently editor-in-chief of the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, and served as editor of STC’s Technical Communication from 1996 to 2008. https://www.linkedin.com/in/george-hayhoe-409b52/


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