Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Future of Editing in Web 2.0: Wikipedia and the Role of the Editor (Part 1)

Lara Tellis

As a student in the Professional Communication program at Clemson University and a member of the technical editing SIG in STC, I wanted my master’s thesis to explore the challenges editors face in today’s world of rapidly changing technology.

I was particularly interested in Web 2.0 as a vehicle for writers and editors to collaborate. In an article for IEEE Spectrum, Paul McFedries defined Web 2.0 “as a second phase in the development of the World Wide Web in which developers create Web sites that look and act like desktop programs and encourage collaboration and communication between users.” Formerly the domain of an elite circle of programmers, the World Wide Web can now be modified by just about anybody.

The Wikipedia Focus

Among the vast number of Web 2.0 platforms currently available to the general public (WordPress, PBWorks, and Scribd, to name a few), Wikipedia is arguably the most famous. While some applaud its accessibility and the rapidity with which it is updated, others deplore what they see as its lack of standards. If anybody can write or edit articles, how do we know which information can be trusted? The open process by which the Wikipedia editors socially construct the site’s content makes some doubt the encyclopedia’s validity.1 Looking at the discussion page of an article with multiple editors reveals debates about everything from how to avoid libel to the name of the article itself. Nothing is set in stone, so today’s decisions may be overturned tomorrow, and since it is impossible to please everybody, there will always be disgruntled editors who feel that an article is in some way “wrong.”

Choosing Articles

Given the vastness of my source material, I had to narrow my examination to three Wikipedia articles. The articles I chose were diverse both in topic and in quality. The Wikipedia editors have developed a quality scale with various ranks and the criteria an article must meet to obtain a certain rank.

1. Feature Article

According to Wikipedia’s own definition, “featured articles are considered to be the best articles in Wikipedia, as determined by its editors.” Before achieving the coveted feature designation, indicated by a bronze star in its top right corner, an article must undergo a rigorous nomination and review process to ensure that it meets the criteria of accuracy,neutrality, completeness, and style.

For my study, I chose an article that had achieved featured article status back in 2005: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”2

2. Stub Article

On the other end of the quality scale are stub articles. The Wikipedia definition of a stub is: “an article containing only a few sentences of text which is too short to provide encyclopedic coverage of a subject, but not so short as to provide no useful information, and it should be capable of expansion.” Any editor who sees an article meeting stub criteria can attach a stub tag to it. The stub tag indicates that the article is a stub and encourages editors to expand upon it.

The stub I chose to study is “2009 Northwestern Wildcats football team.” At the time of my study (September, 2009), this article was a stub. It had been created from a template and had a table to list information about each football game Northwestern University was scheduled to play in 2009; however, its lack of prose descriptions of the games led to its stub classification.

3. C Class Article

The third article I chose was in the middle of the quality scale, rated C class. This C class ranking is the equivalent of an average grade (an academic “C”). I chose the C class article, “Murder of Annie Le,” not because of its rank, but because it was created in response to a sensational event and expanded rapidly to include new information as it was discovered. In September, 2009, the investigation into the murder of Annie Le, a Yale graduate student who was found strangled to death in the campus lab where she worked, was heavily reported by the news media. This article illustrated one of the main strengths of Wikipedia: the capability to update information soon after it becomes available to the general public. I observed the article’s creation, rapid expansion, and settlement into a more stable rate of growth all within two weeks. Most of the information I discovered about how Wikipedia works was gleaned from my observations about “Murder of Annie Le.”

Insights Relevant to the Role of Editors in the Web 2.0 Environment

For this case study, I analyzed the revisions made to these three articles during the month of September, 2009. Thanks to Wikipedia’s revision history feature, which saves all previous versions of each article and gives users the option of comparing them, I didn’t have to do this study in real time. My coding scheme was a combination of categories developed by Dragga and Gong and Faigley and Witte.3

While the results of the data gleaned from my coding scheme were inconclusive, this process allowed me to make several insights relevant to the role of the editor in the Web 2.0 environment. Look for these results in the next issue of the Corrigo!

For more information on the theory of social construction, see Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. /}

Technical Creativity

Juliette Cannata

When I first entered the English Writing and Rhetoric program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, I never imagined I would develop such a passion for technical writing and editing. However, after being exposed to real-world technical editing at an early stage in my academic career and getting hands-on technical writing experience, I discovered a new facet to my writing personality.
In my second year at St. Edward’s, I was given the opportunity to apply for a job as a student intern for IBM/Tivoli Software as a technical editor (thanks to my wonderful professor, Dr. Anna Skinner). I got the job and immediately started editing Tivoli Field Guides (TFGs), which are technical documents created by Tivoli employees and customers to address complex technical issues such as installation, troubleshooting, implementation, and monitoring. At the beginning, I relied on my limited revising and editing skills, but I learned more and more with each passing day about the demands and “rules” for the field of technical editing.

The only problem was while I was learning how to be a more effective technical editor, I was also trying to figure out how to do other tasks that my job required, such as maintaining databases, updating expiration dates for TFGs, and interacting with authors. I was given a few sheets of instructions from the previous student intern, but, for the most part, I was left to ask my boss a million questions and figure things out by trial- and-error. As I became more comfortable in my job, this was no longer a problem.

Project Description

It was not until I enrolled in the Technical and Business Writing class my junior year that the problem of transitioning into a new job without any guide or instructions became an issue again. However, this time, it was an issue I was determined to solve.

My professor (Beth Eakman Re) assigned a semester-long project in which each student had to develop, write, design, and create an original handbook. We could choose our own topic, but the handbook had to be useful for a specific community or population. So, during the grueling process of trying to decide what topic I would be interested in enough to spend an entire semester writing about, the memory of trying to learn a job with limited resources popped into my head. I decided that a handbook for the Global Response Team Intern position at Tivoli was necessary to make the transition for future interns more efficient and less overwhelming. So began my first dive into the world of technical writing.

Challenges

The most challenging aspect of this project was learning how to take all the information about writing and designing I learned in class and apply it to this single document. At times I felt overwhelmed by the significance of each decision I made, from the over-all organization of the handbook to the colors I used on each page to the type of binding I chose. I have learned first-hand, in the technical writing world, everything must be intentional. There must be a reason for every word choice and design decision; otherwise, the audience will get lost or lose interest. Using that knowledge, I keep one statement in mind at all times when creating or editing technical documents: To be a technical writer is to be an excellent communicator with a heightened awareness and anticipation of audience needs and expectations.

Positive Outcomes

The most enjoyable aspect of this project was when I realized that technical writing is not devoid of creativity. I will admit that I believed this field to be dry and soul-deadening when I first entered it. However, after completing this project – and working for two years as a technical editor – I have learned that “creative genius” is part of the process of creating effective documents. One of the first questions any technical writer asks him/herself when sitting down to write is: “How am I going to get people to read this?” Answering that question is where the “creative genius” comes in. There are thousands of ways to craft a document in theory but only a few ways to make an effective document in reality. Knowing how to anticipate an audience’s expectations and figuring out all the little ways to keep people engaged while reading (and maybe even manipulating them to read things they would not normally read) takes a certain level of creativity that most people outside this field do not acknowledge.

By the end of the semester, I had produced my first official piece of technical writing: “A Guide for the Global Response Team Intern.” It is a 20-page document that is divided into five sections based on frequency of reference and importance of information: editing/publishing/updating TFGs, TFG locations, DCF submissions; time sheets; and frequently asked questions. All design elements of this handbook conform to IBM design standards, and all elements of content conform to Tivoli documentation standards. I had the opportunity to present this handbook to my supervisor and her manager, and it is officially part of the Tivoli Library.

Having the opportunity to create this handbook and gain experience as a hands-on technical writer, in conjunction with gaining experience as a technical editor, has shown me that this is a dynamic field that is constantly evolving. Although I stumbled into this field almost by accident, I have embraced technical writing as a passion that I will continue to pursue throughout my life.

Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge all the professors who have been my inspiration and pillars of encouragement throughout my college career. These professors have taught by example and had more patience with me than I have ever had with myself. They are some of the most intelligent people I know, not just because of their impressive degrees, but because they have real-world experience that they are so generous to share with their students. They are also some of the most inspiring people in my life because they are fountains of passion and love for writing and teaching.

I would also like to thank STC for awarding me the STC Technical Editing SIG Scholarship. I am truly grateful, and I am excited to continue exploring my passion for technical writing and editing!

Juliette Cannata has won the 2010 Diane Feldman Technical Editing SIG Undergraduate Scholarship.

Interviewing the Subject Matter Expert

Daniel Hart

When you interview the subject matter expert, you witness that most vulnerable act—thought sorted on the fly. For a productive and humane exchange, offer a sympathetic ear attuned to clarity and rapport.

Attend, and Listen

Acoustic space is in a way a vast interior in the center of which the listener finds himself together with his interlocutors. The oral-aural individual thus does not find himself simply situated somewhere in neutral, visual-tactile, Copernican space. Rather, he finds himself in a vast kind of interiority. (Walter J. Ong, S.J., The Presence of the Word [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967], 164)

The subject matter expert—indeed, any oral communicator—manages Walter J. Ong’s “vast … interiority,” a resource even more unwieldy than the written word. The successful interviewer is both chief prompter and sympathetic ear. Regardless of your foreknowledge, show deference. Listen to learn, mentor shared understanding.

Establish Rapport

“I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
(Alan Greenspan quoted by Daniel Kadlec. “Summing Up Greenspan,” Time, Friday, December 15, 2000. http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,91998,00.html(external link))

The subject matter expert—including the writer—knows more than you do, or at least knows what you would. For example, the software developer famously commands intimidating esoterica that tongue-tie even the confident layperson.

Be well researched and therefore, unafraid. Understand the lingua franca before you use it. Record this moment, not the one for which you fastidiously prepared. Remember your ally, the end user, who needs clear, correct, and concise prose.

Set the Pace

Take time to understand the non sequitur. Do not fear silence. Consider author Sinclair Lewis’s “test of quietness,” the unspoken understandings shared by friends. (Sinclair Lewis, Babbit [New York: Penguin Books, 1996], 209)

A deliberative pause during the interview need be no less rich. It begs reiteration (that commits the subject matter expert further) and buys time for a follow-up question based in pertinence, not panic.

Question

Communication scholars have come to recognize that culture is a primary determinant of all communication behaviors – including listening – because one’s culture essentially serves to define who one is and how one will communicate through one’s perceptual filter. (A.D. Wolvin and C.G. Coakley, Listening [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996],125)

Our perceptual filters root stubbornly in task necessities, personal history, and corporate culture. Contest your assumptions. Welcome surprise. Corroborate for fact and fluency.

However, sincere engagement is not naïve. Let implication guide query. Brave contradiction. Elucidate the opaque and catalogue nuance, for either this document or the next.

Remember: the unasked question haunts.

Self-efface

Years ago, I tried to top everybody, but I don’t anymore. I realized it was killing conversation. When you’re always trying for a topper you aren’t really listening. It ruins communication. (“Groucho Marx,” Wikipedia: The Free Encylopedia, http://www. en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Groucho Marx(external link) (accessed September 19, 2010))

OK, you are smarter than this so-called subject matter expert. (Your goldfish could beat him at marbles.) Nevertheless, want more, like an apprentice. Be insatiable.

Map from Ear to There

Finally, furnish thoughtful inquiry—not the fillip of good manners, but protocols for cooperation. Successfully map “vast … interiority” to the written word, and the reader will see what you heard.

Transferring Presentations to Publication: A New Challenge

Carie Lambert

Frequently, when authors present at a conference, they organize their ideas, draft their notes, submit an abstract, and then present from the notes at the conference. After which, they may write a full paper and publish an article using information from a presentation and attendees’ feedback.

However, my role as an editor has recently added a new element to my tasks: to take another professional’s presentation and adapt the presentation into a format for publication in a journal. This is a new task for me as an editor but one that I believe is very valuable, particularly for professionals who present well but do not have the time or the skill to organize or write a document into a format acceptable for a journal article.

Many of my physician clients struggle to fulfill their clinical and teaching responsibilities and complete their research; therefore, they are eager to hire an experienced editor who can assist with preparing their data for publication. I believe being able to transpose a presentation transcript to a publishable manuscript is a skill that will help my clients and thus add to my consulting business.

The Background of the Project

In October 2009, an internist from the school of medicine at Northwestern University contacted me with a new project. We had worked together before: I had edited a textbook with him and also helped transpose conference papers into a full issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

For this new project, the physician proposed a new type of editing project. As the president of a medical research organization, he had organized a conference during which approximately 15 speakers—including a senator, several government representatives, the directors of two nonprofit organizations, and a recent oncology patient—participated in panels and talked about the current state of medical research in the United States. The speakers did not submit any written documents before or after their presentations. However, the organization had recorded the entire conference (with the presenters’ knowledge, of course) and then paid to obtain a transcript of the conference proceedings.

My client had an idea: Why not have a technical editor transfer the transcript from a script of the conference panel presentations to manuscripts that could be published in the journal for the medical research organization.

Challenges of the Process

I was fascinated because a project like this would create a new editing challenge for me. Instead of working with written documents from the authors, I would be working with transcripts of their presentations: i.e., oral documents . I would need to work through the documents as I would a traditional manuscript:

  • To eliminate grammar issues;
  • To ensure clear and concise style;
  • To edit for accuracy;
  • To note, add, and check references and citations; and
  • To format the document per the journal’s publication style.

In addition, I would need to transpose these documents from oral to written presentation.

I agreed to take on the project, not knowing what all the job would entail, but excited about a new experience. As I worked, I came across other challenges, such as inconsistencies between manuscripts and the complicated visuals that I needed to integrate into the text as narrative. In addition to editing manuscripts as I had in the past, I

  • Determined where the authors needed to cite references,
  • Adapted slides, handouts, and the visual aids in those documents into the text,
  • Transposed the content to reflect a written tone and eliminated conversational elements and verbal “noise.”

The authors cited statistics to support their arguments but rarely said the source of the statistics. Therefore, as I worked through the document, I marked where the speaker needed to cite a resource. For some statistics, I was able to retrieve the document from my institution’s library’s electronic database and Internet search engines. For others, I noted that the author was missing a reference and noted in-text and end-of-text citation locations.

Several of the authors had slides with detailed visual aids to show the audience as the authors spoke. Frequently, the authors would say (as documented in the transcript), “as you can see here” or “see this?” or gave general references to the slides. While I included some of those visual aids as figures in the manuscripts, I also had to introduce them and explain what the author might have inferred or physically indicated.

In the same way, the authors tended to take a more informal tone in their presentations, using slang and allowing verbal noise—e.g., “like,” “uh,” “So,…,” and other distracters—that created a less formal tone in the presentation and that were inappropriate for a well-written journal article.

I also dealt with incomplete information that resulted from the speaker following his or her thought process rather than the structure that the speaker established at the beginning of the presentation. As I worked through these documents, I learned not only about the state of medical research in the nation but also about new strategies that I could use as a technical editor.

Conclusion

As technical communicators, we may anticipate that we will work from print documents to create new documents or we may interview the source of information and transform our notes into the needed document. However, rarely do we work from an oral document for which we did not witness the presentation. The complications that come from a transcript rather than from a previously written document differ, particularly because most people do not speak as formally as they write.

The skill to work from a transcript—to edit and transpose an oral document to a formal written document—is a service that could benefit me professionally as well as benefit my clients, who may not have the time or energy to write and format a manuscript after fulfilling their clinical, teaching, and research responsibilities. As a technical communicator, I can assist them in preparing presentations for publication. I enjoyed the project because I was able to research while I edited and helped a busy client publish information that was very important.

Personal Note

I appreciate the honor of receiving the Diane Feldman Technical Editing scholarship. The scholarship will help me as I complete my coursework and begin my dissertation research. Thank you very much for supporting me in my education and the profession.

Carie Lambert has won the 2010 Diane Feldman Technical Editing SIG Graduate Scholarship.