Unedited content will get you deleted
The abundance of information today forces content consumers to filter out redundant and unworthy information—much like an editor would. That, however, doesn’t mean content creators can throw up their hands and send out unreviewed content for readers to sort through. Instead, authors (and particularly their managers) need to understand how editing skills can ensure their information doesn’t get filtered out:
[A]re we getting any better at editing in a broader context, which is editing ourselves? Or to rephrase it, becoming a better critic of our own work? Penelope Trunk (again) lists the reasons why she works with an editor for whatever she writes in public:
- Start strong – cut boring introduction
- Be short – and be brave
- Have a genuine connection – write stuff that matters to the readers
- Be passionate – write stuff that matters to you
- Have one good piece of research – back your idea up
They have one thing in common: difficult to do on our own.
Granted, some of those bullet points don’t completely apply to technical writing, but it is hard to edit your own work, regardless of the kind of content. For that very reason, folks at Scriptorium get someone else to review their writing. Whether the content is in a proposal, book, white paper, important email to a client, or a blog post, we understand that somebody else’s feedback is generally going to make that information better.
The same is true of technical content. A lot of documentation departments may no longer hire dedicated editors, so peer reviewers handle editing tasks. Electronic review tools also make it easier than ever to offer feedback: even a quick online review of content by another writer will likely catch some potentially embarrassing typos and yield suggestions to make information more accessible to the end user. (You can read more about the importance of editing in a PDF excerpt from the latest edition of Technical Writing 101.)
With so much competing information out on the Internet, companies can’t afford to have their official documentation ignored because it contains technical errors, misspellings, and other problems that damage the content’s credibility. Even if you don’t have the time or budget for a full-blown edit, take just a little time to have someone do a quick technical review of your work. Otherwise, end users seeking information about your product will likely do their own editing—in their minds, they’ll delete you as a source of reliable information. And that’s a deletion that’s hard to STET.
PS: Software that checks spelling and grammar is helpful, but it’s not enough: it won’t point out technical inaccuracies.
Good article. You touched on three different kinds of editing: mechanics (spelling and grammar), technical accuracy, and the one you started with: elimination of “redundant and unworthy information.”
They’re not the same thing. Editing is indispensable in all three cases, but not the same kind of editing.
For mechanics you need a good style edit, without which the intended customers will simply tune you out.
For technical accuracy you need an SME, or at least a writer/editor who’s proficient at using the product. Without this kind of edit, you’ll engage the customers but over time you’ll lose their trust.
The final case is the most interesting, and it calls for something that’s much harder to find: an editor who understands the subject matter enough to know what customers need and don’t need. Maybe a peer editor can do this, but only if the peer isn’t already busy with his or her own writing. Without this kind of edit, the customer will pick and choose what to read, and you’ll lose control of your message. Despite that risk, however, I see writing every day that fails the “redundant and unworthy” test.
The “redundant and unworthy” edits are one area where technical communicators can add great value to the process. But this approach requires writers and editors to be proactive. You have to be willing to ask the SMEs, “Why is this here?” If the material will be translated, you’ve got a demonstrable business reason for why unnecessary material should be cut: it’ll save the company $0.22 per word. Once you get into that habit, it becomes easier to apply the principle to material that won’t be translated. If readers don’t need that material in order to perform their job safely and effectively, then it’s a distraction that impedes their job performance. I like to think that I help people perform their tasks as efficiently as possible, so they can move on to whatever else they’d rather be doing. To me, that’s the definition of successful technical communication.