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Aaron Dalton

Editing Face to Face

Illustration of two hands, one passing a pen to the other.
Illustration of two hands, one passing a pen to the other.
Bohdan Skrypnyk © 123RF.com

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

How do you manage face-to-face editorial meetings? Share your tips below!

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Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Wildcards and Regular Expressions

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3 Comments on “Editing Face to Face”

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    A terrific post, Aaron. It touches on so many important aspects of editing in the corporate or government world: writing by committee, establishing what the editor does and does not do and holding your ground only when necessary (picking your battles). All of what you say is exactly right, to the best of my knowledge.

    As you say, face-to-face meetings are invaluable. I decided I needed to retire when files started to come to my inbox with directions to edit without ever meeting the writer, or in this case the committee.

  • Frances Peck

    says:

    Excellent post, Aaron—as always. Your point #5, the part about being able to precisely articulate why you made each change, ought to appear in every chat forum frequented by every aspiring editor. It neatly explains the difference between careful editing and heedless rewriting. As you say, if you’ve made changes you can’t convincingly explain, you probably shouldn’t have made them.

  • Thank you, both. Face-to-face meetings make you accountable. And nothing will focus the mind quicker than real-time accountability 🙂

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