A Better Approach to Group Editing

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Track Changes and similar group-editing programs have revolutionized the editing process, and we can all be thankful for such advances in technology. But these programs don’t begin to address the dark side of group edits: rounds and rounds of disagreement, competing levels of expertise and authority, and excessive nitpicking that leave project managers ready to approve anything so long as it successfully moves the document out of review. So how do you keep a massive editorial review from degenerating into a quagmire of inefficiency and frustration? This article covers 13 suggestions for making group edits more efficient and productive.

If your job involves writing, editing, reviewing, or approving documents, you’re probably very familiar with the painful process of group editing — when a large committee attempts to edit a single communication simultaneously. Acting with the noblest of intentions, the participants in a group edit — writers, editors, project managers, subject matter experts, and executives — traditionally use the “Track Changes” tool in Microsoft Word, often producing a document so bloodied with cross-outs, critiques, and new copy that it’s not only unrecognizable from the original draft, but virtually unreadable.

As one of my cat-loving colleagues likes to say, “Everybody has to pee on it.”

Track Changes and similar group-editing programs have revolutionized the editing process, and we should be thankful for those advances. But these programs don’t begin to address the dark side of group edits: rounds and rounds of disagreement, competing levels of expertise and authority, and excessive nitpicking that leave project managers ready to approve anything so long as it successfully moves the document out of review.

With so many stakeholders in the cattery, what can a project manager do to keep a massive editorial review from degenerating into a quagmire of inefficiency and frustration? See my 13 suggestions below to make group edits more efficient and productive — not to mention less nightmarish.

Get Everyone on the Same Page

Confusion and inefficiencies are inevitable during the review process unless all editors understand the point of the communication. Talk to whoever conceived the idea and write down their point. Not just their topic, but their point — what that person is arguing for, proposing, or contending. Once that point is clear, share it with all review participants so they know and support the editorial objective with their edits.

If the topic is detailed or specialized, check in early with a subject matter expert on the document’s overall point and approach before asking them to review a completed manuscript. This preemptive approach may save you a lot of trouble down the road if someone disagrees with the principles, not just the paragraphs.

Limit Participants

Simplifying an editorial review starts with limiting the number of people working directly on the document, because smaller groups act more efficiently than larger ones. Too many voices can also slow down or stall a project, even when they agree.

Try to pick review participants with efficiency in mind, and remember that effective review is about editing, not brainstorming — which means focusing on corrections, not reactions. In a brainstorm, two heads are better than one. But in a document review process, the fewer heads, the better.

Give Adequate Time for Review

Few things in a review process create more frustration than feeling rushed, so make sure to give your reviewers and approvers plenty of time to do their work. My suggestion: three business days for reviewing or proofreading less than a page, and five business days for a more extensive review. Even more time than that may be necessary if hard data needs to be pulled, updated, or reconciled.

If circumstances prevent providing a reasonable timeline, share those circumstances with your review team so they know why they’ve been given a compressed timeline.

One colleague wisely advised that I let her know when a review assignment might be coming — even if the draft isn’t ready then and there — enabling her to book that review time in advance.

Finally, make your deadlines as specific as you can — meaning hour and day. “Early next week” may mean “by Monday COB” to some and “by Wednesday a.m.” to others. And use the phrase “by [date]” not “on [date]” to make clear you’d be happy to receive it early.

Clarify Roles

Group edit participants primarily fall into one of four categories, which help determine who does what and at what point in the process:

The project manager has overall responsibility for the project, suggesting compromises and producing clean drafts when changes are approved to keep the process moving.

The writer specializes in using language correctly and strategically to engage the audience and oversees the document’s structure, tone, phrasing, and voice. Other participants may also be competent writers, but it’s important to see writing ability as a distinct skill — like graphic design and data visualization — to leverage the writer’s talents effectively.

Reviewers are subject matter experts who review the document for information accuracy. They may represent other teams with stakes in the project, in which case they should serve as ambassadors to those teams to avoid multiple reviewers with the same subject matter expertise.

Approvers are executives authorized to give approval given their roles in the organization and because their name might be in the byline. They will be making final edits for accuracy and tone and providing ultimate approval, so their role should come last in the process. Try not to mix reviewers and approvers; those are separate stages, and approvers typically have the authority to overrule reviewers.

People won’t know their roles in the process very often, so it’s up to the project manager to make that clear with lines like “Please REVIEW this for accuracy” or “For your APPROVAL, please see the attached document.”

Start with a Clean Baseline Draft

The initial review team should also be the smallest: one strong writer and one subject matter expert to ensure the document reflects a baseline of accuracy and good writing. Starting without a baseline of good writing and accurate information can introduce fatal flaws from the get-go that will be painful and challenging to correct later.

Through discussion, editing, and compromise, this small group should produce a clean (not with tracked changes) version that will be passed to the reviewers. A clean version of the document — what I sometimes call a “Visine version” because it “gets the red out” — is always easier to read and edit than a version awash in red cross-outs.

Try to Keep Reviewers in Their Lanes

Often, reviewers will see themselves as general copyeditors in addition to subject matter experts. Of course, take their suggestions related to subject matter accuracy, but recognize that the writer and the final approver make all final decisions pertaining to words, style, voice, and editorial structure.

To keep reviewers in their lanes as much as possible, try to show them only the sections related to their expert review, not the entire document. If, for some reason, they need to re-review material, keep showing them only the relevant sections containing that content.

Form Committees

A group review train stalls when “everybody is reviewing everything,” so keep trying to create smaller committees to either work on specific sections or to provide primary edits that will be reviewed later by others higher up in the food chain. Committees can be grouped by subject matter expertise or by hierarchy — for example, the first group is directors, and the second group is vice presidents. It’s worth repeating: the smaller the review group is, the more efficiently it will operate.

Where I work, a senior executive invited to a group edit will often say to her team, “everyone, please work on this and share with me only the final draft.” This process approach is an effective way to avoid micro-management and excessive commentary, so feel free to suggest that process yourself if your committee includes both senior executives and mid-level managers.

Let the Project Manager Arbitrate Disputes

Ideally, review participants aren’t negotiating — much less arguing — with each other. It’s the project manager’s job to spot problems and recommend suggestions and compromises to address them. Often, I’ll say to a small group of reviewers, “feel free to send me your edits separately, and I’ll reconcile them in a clean draft.”

While plenty of conversation may be going on in the comments, the project manager has the ultimate responsibility of addressing conflicts, communicating fixes to relevant stakeholders, and sharing updated, clean versions.

Share Clean Versions When You Can

It’s easiest to read and review a document when it’s not obscured by what seems like a thousand edits, so try to produce new, clean versions as often as you can to keep the process moving in the right direction.

Instead of always using Track Changes to indicate edits, consider highlighting changes in yellow or calling them out in comments. This way, the text is still relatively clean and readable. And if a reviewer wants to see a previous edit, it’s easy enough to pull it from an earlier version.

Know that you can also “resolve” comments — which only greys them out — if you think comments may provide helpful insight to the next reviewer or approver but still want to indicate that the concern was addressed.

Remember: Clean documents move forward; red-lined documents stay put.

Whoever the final approver is — often the person with the byline — that person is entitled to a spotless version for their review. So, remove all signs of the battles and compromises that produced that pristine version when presenting it to the final approver.

Maintain Version Control

If you can, always try to share documents as they exist in your cloud-based filing systems such as Apple iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, or Box. Sending cloud-based file links will maintain version control, make previous versions easily accessible, and enable you to make changes and adjustments as they come in or as you spot them without having to constantly send around new drafts.

If you don’t have a cloud-based file storing and sharing system (and even if you do), construct document names that indicate key information — especially a date stamp — that can be easily updated. Example: “HRpolicy_JSedit_7_4_21_3pm”

Engage in Productive Listening

As edits come in, employ active listening tactics that ensure you’re avoiding miscommunications. This includes taking detailed notes, mirroring suggestions back to the reviewers (“So I’m clear on your comment, you want to see more examples of X, right?”), and generally doing more responding (“This is what I can do”) than reacting (“There’s no way that will work”).

It also helps to frequently show appreciation for everyone’s contributions, which reinforces positive dynamics of mutual respect, collaboration, and shared goals, and can often grease the wheels of both compromise and progress.

Explain the Why

As the project manager, your job is not to deliver mandates but to build consensus, and you can’t successfully build consensus if the other participants don’t understand your perspective. So use your emails and the “comments” in Track Changes to explain your rationale for changes and compromises, and encourage others to do the same.

If people understand why you’re proposing a solution, it may hasten acceptance or spark other ways to address the problem.

Indicate Your Intentions with Each Version

In your communications with the review team, always indicate your intention, especially in the latter stages of a project. This approach will cut down on confusion and unnecessary work. For example, I like to write “For Review” in an email’s subject line to indicate I’m requesting a review. But if I’m only providing a version as a courtesy, I’ll write “FYI” in the subject line or “For your files…” in the email body.

Transparency in communications also improves process efficiency. It’s appropriate for a project manager to write, “This has gone through several rounds of review, so please only call out urgent concerns” or “Given the deadline on Thursday, I need your final review today.” I’ve even seen reviewers helpfully write, “Here are my suggestions, but defer to you on accepting each,” to indicate their suggestions are preferences, not urgent corrections.

Will this transparency stop someone hell-bent on nitpicking? No. But most participants will take the cue that it’s the “last call” for edits, pending any urgent concerns.

Simplifying a complicated process elevates not only the quality of the work but also team morale and enthusiasm. Conversely, the more red, the more dread, so keep talking with your colleagues and supervisors about ways to make your review processes more efficient and productive.

And if you succeed in creating a better process, others in your organization will want to know, so please… track your changes.

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