I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an editor. Unlike many of my editing colleagues who work in publishing, I ply my trade within a corporation. Although my official title is not “editor,” editing is a large part of what I do. I’ve worked for years in information technology, where I’ve adapted to life as the lone English major in a room full of computer science graduates.
Part of this adaptation has involved developing my ideas on the role of an editor. When I read articles about the merits of the serial comma or how to use the word “hopefully,” I realize that I’m living in a different world than many of my fellow editors. And that if my publishing colleagues came to work in a corporation, they might have a difficult time navigating through it.
As Rosemary Shipton noted in her excellent article Twelve-Step Editing, editors are expected to do more with fewer resources. This is especially true in corporations. Over time, I’ve learned to simplify the editing process by following four key guidelines that capture the most critical concerns of the business. In thanks to all the editors who helped me learn more about my craft (and told me what CMOS* is without laughing), I would like to share my four guidelines for editing in the corporate jungle.
1. Focus on the reader’s needs.
Who is the author writing for? What does that person need? The answers to these questions help you to identify what content should be included and how to structure it. They also determine how much effort should be spent on copyediting and proofreading. Some examples:
a) If the author is writing a proposal to a time-crunched executive, then everything important should be summarized in the first paragraph. Chances are the executive won’t have time to read the rest. Eliminate any details that aren’t relevant to the decision. Sentences need to be grammatically correct to create a good impression.
b) If the author is writing a design document that will be handed over to a software development team, then content should be grouped by program module, because that’s how the team divides up the work. Instructions need to be simple, especially for ESL readers. The details of spelling and punctuation are not as important unless they affect clarity.
2. Don’t waste the reader’s time.
It’s not just executives who lack the time to read. No one has the cycles to get through email, let alone absorb the contents of a 50-page document. The bottom line: Keep it short. Authors need to write short sentences, remove all jargon and use the simplest words they can. Technical documents produced for business clients (such as user guides) should only include what the clients need to get the job done.
As a corporate editor, I have learned a lot about the plain language movement because it’s so critical to the work that I do. For the most part, writing for corporations is less about style and consistency and more about clarity. (Marketing is an exception — but that’s a topic for another day.)
3. Make the company look good.
The most important asset that a company has is its brand. Reputation is everything. The author needs to uphold this reputation by following all external communications standards, describing the company and its employees in positive terms and polishing externally published documents to a high level of professionalism.
Think about what happens to corporations that fire off casual tweets. When it comes to external communications, the author is always representing the company. As an editor, you are there to help the author represent the company in the best way possible.
4. Protect the business.
Every editor needs to address the legal implications of a text under review. Large corporations want to avoid potential multimillion-dollar lawsuits. To help reduce risk, the editor should ask the following questions and address any areas of concern:
a) Does the text include any intellectual capital that the company wouldn’t want revealed to its competitors?
b) Does the text include any inaccuracies that could result in legal action?
c) Are all company trademarks and names used correctly?
d) Is there any content that requires permissions before it’s published?
e) Has the document been reviewed by the legal department, if required?
By using these four simple guidelines in my work, I have been able to edit documents within a short timeframe while addressing the most important concerns of the business. Maybe number style hasn’t been applied consistently, or the phrasing is adequate rather than stellar. But my colleagues have learned something about editing, my clients are happy and the corporation is still in business. I’ve succeeded in my job as an editor today.
* CMOS: Chicago Manual of Style
Do you think working with a corporation is different from working with other editing clients? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts below.
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