For the last eight months, I have been coordinating the edits on five work documents. They are basic upgrade instructions for a pre-installed assembly. While I am the lead author and wrote 80% of the document, many people have a hand in its content, format and approval. My epic journey to finish these documents has led to some interesting observations, which I thought it would be fun to share. Wait. Perhaps the word “fun” is not the best choice. Amusing? No. Painful? Perhaps. Therapeutic? Yup, that’s the word.
Group editing differs vastly from group creating. The effort lacks spirit and focus because each team member did not have a hand in the initial development. Participating editors desire to make the document their own, and the results lack pride.
People who contribute to a section protect that section. When they are asked to review the document, they lightly review their own work and pick apart the other sections.
Engineers do a lot of writing. One could categorize the result as dry, complex, terse, and explanation heavy.
The legal community has spread its bureaucratic tentacles everywhere. For example, I am forced to use the term “shall” and follow all the rules associated with that legal directive. Girrr. I hate that word.
Engineers like to spice up our documents wherever possible. I have come across Dilbert references, jokes, and silly sentences.
As a group, individuals have an innate desire to contribute. They cannot say, “This document is good enough.” This desire leads to endless revisions, awkward sections, strong opinions and hurt feelings. People are often unwilling to concede that their approach is not the best.
Group editing is not a team-building exercise. Because of all the compromises and mistakes, this activity forces people and groups apart.
Group editing over email is inefficient and introduces errors. The problem is that they do not synchronize the changes. Two people can work on the same sentence and come to different conclusions. Or five people can discover the same error. Another problem is that a mistake is corrected and then reintroduced from a prior copy. I often see changes unofficially made, unapproved, undone, discussed, re-approved, redone, and then re-discussed.
Change tracking helps, but it also can be an enormous obstacle. The problem is that it records a change, but it does not register the change's intent. This feature also forces the document to remain in the past. This is because the prior information is still present. I have witnessed many looping conversations over a good change.
An enormous problem with change tracking occurs when people view the edits rather than the final document. This practice introduces apparent errors, such as extra spaces. This editing method seems like an easy pitfall to avoid, but most people prefer to edit this way.
The more people involved in a group edit, the more inconsistency, and bad compromises are introduced. Good ideas are not appreciated, and strong opinions rule. The result is side negations, which get unpopular changes approved. Does this sound like an election?
For my particular document, after hundreds of hours spent on each document, the resulting changes affected less than 10% of the original content. This is because group editing rarely makes wide-sweeping changes. Instead, group edits result in small specific changes that are sometimes important. Of course, that was because my original document was excellent:)
The best approach to group editing across several departments occurs when three knowledgeable people work closely towards a clearly defined goal. Discussing/editing the document in a conference room with minimal external oversite saves a lot of heartaches. One person in the group needs to be the leader with ultimate authority. Hmm. What form of government does this remind us of?
You’re the best -Bill
October 28, 2020
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