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Sue Archer

Four Guidelines for Editing Your Way Through the Corporate Jungle

Woman in Borneo jungle

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.

Woman in Borneo junglePart 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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About the author

Sue Archer

Sue Archer’s official job title keeps changing, but she remains an editor at heart. During the day, she helps people from different worlds (business and technology) communicate with each other. At night, she writes urban and paranormal fantasy and occasionally assesses manuscripts for indie authors. Her debut novel Fortune’s Shadow was published in April 2020.

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10 Comments on “Four Guidelines for Editing Your Way Through the Corporate Jungle”

  • Gael Spivak

    says:

    Great piece! (says this in-house writer, editor and communications advisor.)

    • Sue Archer

      says:

      Thanks, Gael! I’m glad you liked it.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Sue, it is wonderful to see my career described here. I used to think I was not really an editor because I worked for business and well, anybody that paid what I expected to earn, which was not book publishers. But I certainly was, and I did a lot of the stuff that Rosemary Shipton talked about in her recent entry on this blog. I also do not know CMOS and did not use it in my work. We either created our own style guides or used Canadian Press.

    Thanks for this.

    • Sue Archer

      says:

      Anita, I believe a lot of us suffer from impostor syndrome, where we don’t feel like we can truly call ourselves “editors.” And yet we are. I think we can all learn from each other and benefit from a variety of editing experiences.

      I have yet to use CMOS in my day job, either. Before I met editors in publishing, CMOS meant the CMOS battery in my laptop. 🙂 I consider myself lucky if I have access to an existing style guide. But I love my work.

      I’m glad that my post resonated with you. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Stephanie Warner

    says:

    Excellent point — Instructions need to be simple, especially for ESL readers. This is a very important consideration, now that our country is increasingly a country of immigrants. As a facilitator of a online learning component to an ESL class, I learned pretty quickly that if my instructions were not clear, the resulting assignments did not appear as I envisioned them! Thus, I learned to adapt my message into clear language with short phrases and action verbs.

    • Sue Archer

      says:

      Hi, Stephanie! Thanks for commenting. I agree that short phrases and action verbs are critical for ESL readers. I have also learned to watch for idioms that native English speakers take for granted. I think envisioning an ESL reader is a useful exercise for any communication.

  • Christopher Clunas

    says:

    Thanks for this informative post.
    As another editor who has worked primarily for IT companies—and currently for IBM—I can relate to much of what you have written. Your four guidelines are right on the mark.
    For user-facing technical content, I might add three points for focusing on the reader’s needs: make your content easy to find, easy to use, and easy to understand. These are the main subdivisions described in the book Developing Quality Technical Information, 3rd edition, published by IBM Press.
    On my team, we have to deliver content that is of high quality in terms of both accuracy and style, and we rely heavily on the company’s internal style guide. One reason for the emphasis on consistent style is that nearly all our content is translated into many languages; any shortcomings or ambiguities in the English version will inevitably cause problems either during or after the translation work. And this can affect everything from the online user guides to the user interface and error messages.

    • Sue Archer

      says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Christopher. It truly is a small editing world, because I know the book you mentioned. 🙂 I have read Developing Quality Technical Information, and I think it is a great model for user-facing content. Thanks for calling it out.

      That’s an excellent point you make about style consistency and its benefits for translation. I have found using plain language is helpful because there is less likelihood of the translator misinterpreting the wording. (And as a side benefit, it results in fewer words to translate.)

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s always nice to meet a fellow technical editor!

  • Anna Biunno

    says:

    You’re not alone in your world because I live there, too!

    Much of what you’ve described is what technical editors or corporate staff editors do all day long. Your four guidelines are on the mark. You mentioned that writing for corporations is less about style and consistency and more about clarity, I’d like to add that it’s not entirely true for some of us. Like Christopher Clunas, I also worked for IBM; a place in which we all needed to speak in “one” voice. Thus, style and consistency were highly regarded and doggedly pursued.

    As a senior technical editor for my current company, I try to instill a similar philosophy in all my writers. Upholding the “single voice” standard (style/consistency and clarity) requires a tireless, rigorous enforcement of tough guidelines. These guidelines are usually spelled out in an in-house style guide. You’ll find that most of the time the in-house guide is loosely based on some other industry guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the Microsoft Office Manual of Style.

    I applaud you for bringing this discipline to light. Some of us can work in multiple disciplines but find that when we work on these various projects, they require a huge mental shift. Possible? Yes; Impossible? No.

    Great post, Sue!

    • Sue Archer

      says:

      Hi Anna, I’m glad you liked the post. (It’s also good to know I’m not alone!) Thanks for pointing out the need for a single voice. I agree that this is the ideal situation. It seems that the degree of focus on a consistent style depends on the organization and how the communications discipline is applied. It’s great that you’re working in an environment that supports top-notch writing. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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