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4 Lessons Learned During a Long-term Editing Gig

by Avon J. Murphy
Avon J. Murphy (avonmu@comcast.net) has been a college professor, a technical communication program director, a government technical writer, a freelancer, a contract editor at Microsoft and other firms, and owner of Murphy Editing and Writing Services. An STC Fellow, he was for 17 years Book Review Editor for Technical Communication. His New Perspectives on Technical Editing (Baywood Publishing) appeared in 2010.

During more than 17 years as Book Review Editor for Technical Communication, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn a good deal. Much of this acquired wisdom comes down to four lessons that have made my life easier and might help those of you who decide to work on a journal such as ours.

1. You Need a System.

Especially when the complexity or volume of work is high, you must develop a system for controlling what threatens to be chaos. Over the years I kept tabs on 5,000 books, 450 publishers, and 500 reviewers.

My management tool of choice from day one was Microsoft Access. I built a relational database that made it easy to request review copies, find reviewers with particular technical skills, monitor their progress, generate consistent to-do checklists, meet deadlines set by our general editor, retire aging titles, and much more. You have the choice of many powerful tools, but find something that suits your work methods.

2. You’ll Make Mistakes.

Editors who believe they’ve never erred can’t be learning much to improve their editing. Maintaining humility sharpens your eye to recognize patterns in your errors that you should address. Here are two of many weaknesses in my work that I, hopefully, corrected.

Early in my editorial tenure, I now and then mistakenly assigned the same title to two reviewers. The duplication resulted from my double-entering the book in the database with slight variations of spelling or punctuation. Remedy: Before entering new titles, I began to search current entries by several fields.

My most embarrassing incident might make readers of Corrigo gasp. We published a review of the first edition of Amy Einsohn’s superb The Copyeditor's Handbook. Our next issue contained a letter to the editor in which Ms. Einsohn systematically and rightly pointed out that the review contained several inaccurate quotations. I had carelessly submitted the review without waiting for a review copy to verify the quotations. Remedy: I never again released a piece without checking quotations in a review copy. Never.

Learn from your mistakes and move on.

3. You Need to Keep Communication Flowing.

We technical communicators sometimes don’t communicate all that well. In journal environments, the editors must ensure that this doesn’t happen.

I worked with our reviewers, the publicists who sent review copies, our general editors, production staff, and our readers. Early on, I didn’t always ensure communication with these people, and bad things happened: review copies wandering somewhere, missed deadlines, deserving books left unassigned, reviews that didn’t meet our readers’ needs, unrevised drafts, unpaid invoices—this list could be very long!

Needless to say, these problems largely disappeared once I upgraded our communication practices. Progress alerts built on fields in our master database, full explanations to publicists as to why we couldn’t review certain books, alerts from publishers that desired books had been released, my mentoring of all new reviewers, and nearly automated methods for sending PDFs of the review section to reviewers and publicists are just a few of the many improvements in our communication.

Making such changes reaffirms the importance of what we all do as technical communicators.

4. You’re the Teacher.

Nineteen years as a university professor before I became an editor and writer did much to shape my approach to editing. So it’s no surprise that I see editing largely as the opportunity to teach, with the focus on mentoring. This element becomes especially critical in the book review business, because the genre is foreign to most technical communicators. How many hours did you study book review writing in your coursework? How often do you write such reviews on your job?

Checklists, plentiful examples, and informative sessions at the annual STC conference provided introductory material for reviewers. But I approached most of the teaching from the perspective of a developmental editor. Writers could expect a barrage of commentary about the shape of their documents, the expectations of STC readers, the right balance between generalization and examples, and how to put strong detail into little space. For some reviewers, particularly managers who hadn’t written in the trenches in years, I had to build their confidence to step out of recitation of contents into evaluation of content.

An unspoken goal was always to help our writers develop their own voices. Thus, if you skim a few back issues of the journal, you can identify individual reviewers by voice: learned, super-organized, high-energy, comic, analytical, personable, or rigorous.

To adapt an old adage: once a teacher, always a teaching editor.

And All Those Other Lessons . . .

The above are only some of the major things I learned during one of the most rewarding contracts of my career. I trust that my successor, Jackie Damrau, will continue to learn as well.

Page last modified on Friday, December 16, 2011 01:05:16pm EST
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Corrigo: The newsletter of the STC Technical Editing SIG

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