Editing Face to Face
Writing in a large organization is usually done “by committee.” That’s a challenging process at the best of times. After doing a first pass, which almost invariably contains more edits than the writers expected, I’m often asked to sit down (these days, virtually) and work though my comments with them.
The first few times were a little nerve-racking, but I’ve found what works for me. Maybe it will work for you too.
Be clear about your own authority. I act mostly in an advisory capacity. The authors are ultimately accountable for their content. I have authority when it comes to issues of style (list punctuation, formatting, etc.), but outside of that, I can only advise.
Emphasize shared goals. Make sure they understand you’re on their team. You’re there to support them. Assure them that readers will appreciate their efforts to improve the document.
Respect expertise. I completely respect that these authors know so much more than me about things like geology, petroleum engineering, and well integrity. My expertise lies in knowing our different stakeholder groups and in expressing complex ideas in ways those audiences can understand. I demonstrate my respect for them and demand it for myself.
Pick your battles. Before you go into that meeting, be clear about what edits you feel most strongly about and which you’re softer on. Writing by committee involves give and take. Often letting some of the smaller stuff go sets the stage for big wins. If everything is an 11 out of 10 in your mind, then it’s time for some introspection. Are you being too rigid? Or, if the document is really that bad, perhaps you need to escalate it.
Make your best case. You must be able to explain precisely why you made each change or what you meant by every comment. What problem were you trying to solve? If you can’t articulate it, you probably shouldn’t have made the change in the first place. Let me tell you, these meetings taught me real quick how to write better comments. You will see first-hand how unhelpful and easily misunderstood tongue-in-cheek or angry-sounding comments can be.
Be humble. You are going to make mistakes. Be prepared to unconditionally acknowledge and fix them. You are going to discover that things are more complicated than you thought. Be prepared to collaborate on finding a mutually agreeable solution. If the writers find a way to solve the underlying problem, even if it’s not how you would personally fix it, go with it. And remember, you won’t win every battle. That’s okay. See #1.
- Be healthy. Practice good self-care. While working with the same teams over time has its perks, it has risks as well. Frustration can turn into resentment. You can start to carry that resentment from project to project. If there’s toxic behaviour happening, go to your manager or HR department. If you are personally struggling to maintain professionalism, seek out some professional help of your own.
I love face-to-face meetings now because they quickly humanize everyone involved, and usually de-escalate tensions. They’re also an opportunity to build relationships of trust and goodwill that will serve you well when things get … complicated.