October 2007

Investing in Quality

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

When I first became engaged in technical communication work, most publications organizations large and small employed editors. The editors were responsible for quality assurance, including the development of corporate style guides. They reviewed much, if not all, of the information produced. They were responsible for ensuring that style guides were followed and the basics of grammar and punctuation were respected. Then, in the early 1990s, during a period of layoffs and cutbacks, editors became dispensable. Corporate pundits argued that spelling- and grammar-checking software was sufficient to ensure the quality of the writing.

In my view, the absence of editors has contributed to a general decline in basic writing quality in many organizations, especially those with no professional writers. The only reviews done of most technical communication are technical, and even those reviews are often cursory. Many writers don’t have the time to reread and revise their own work. Little time is available for reviews by individuals expert in style, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Even less time is devoted to overall readability.

Happily, as you’ll read in articles by Kent Taylor and Berry Braster in this issue of Best Practices, help is available for the beleaguered publications manager and the legions of technical communicators who would love to have someone review their drafts. The current versions of quality language software produced by a handful of international companies promise to help us improve writing quality. This software is developed by skilled professional linguists who apply analytical tools to define the sources of error and provide us with ways to ferret them out of our documents.

I’ve been experimenting over the past few months with one of these software systems, and I’m impressed. It is especially tuned to uncover stylistic problems in technical and procedural content. It catches spelling errors, to be sure. But it also points to sentences that are too long, in passive rather than active voice, contractions, missing nouns after “this, that, these, and those,” and so on. The program complained about the contractions in this article. As you already recognize, I’m writing personally and informally. No compulsion to adhere to the style guidelines for technical documentation in my Director’s Column. In fact, if I wanted to insist on using contractions, I could adjust the underlying rules.

As a former publications manager, I’ve also been surprised by the lack of training in basic writing and the standard styles of technical communication. As we’ve all heard, few students today are taught grammar, spelling, and punctuation past elementary school. I used to give my graduate Editing students a basic grammar test at the beginning of the semester. I doubt that’s done any longer.

With few editors and little time to review drafts, publications managers should look seriously at the quality language software that is described in this issue and in the Buyer’s Guide that appeared in the December 2006 issue of the CIDM monthly e-newsletter, Information Management News.

More on the importance of editing

Suzanne Sowinska, Advisory Council member from Microsoft, pointed out an interesting article recently. Gary Kamiya writes in “Let us now praise editors,” that “they may be invisible and their art unsung. But in the age of blogging, editors are needed more than ever.” Go to <> for the original article.

Kamiya discusses some of the characteristics of good editors:

  • They know when to leave something alone.
  • They work with the writer and for the reader.
  • They are tactful about their comments.
  • They recognize that writers can be very defensive about their work, which means they set up a partnering rather than an adversarial relationship.

We might conclude that good editors make good writers better and help poor writers from making fools of themselves. Of course, these are human editors with time enough to work with writers who want to improve their work. Software-based editing will never completely take their place. But—in the absence of other assistance, the software does an excellent job. It is especially helpful when many of our writers are not native English speakers. It’s much less threatening for people writing English as a second language to work first with an anonymous software program before a real person reviews their work. Through repetition of the same instructions, writers, whether native or non-native English speakers, learn the rules they should follow.

More than one CIDM member organization has instituted some form of software-based quality language reviews. One member explains how the writers have used the evaluation tool in a friendly competition to see who in the group could get the best scores. This manager has witnessed significant improvements in writing quality among his staff. Another member organization uses software to enforce terminology and other language standards, enabling a highly successful move to machine translation.

Punctuation Popularity is Surprise

I was quite surprised to witness the popularity of Lynne Truss’s, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. The book, which treats punctuation errors with seriousness and humor, quickly became a best seller. The author was even featured on most of the early morning news shows.

The people who regularly correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling on Wikipedia articles perhaps attests to the feeling that many of us get when we see errors everywhere. The editors among us (that is everyone in publications management) itch to pick up the red pens.

With the emphasis today on content management and the reuse of content among multiple deliverables, we need editing expertise more than ever. We need to add quality management software to our tools suite, and we need to campaign for more editors. Making topics consistent increases their reusability. Making topics consistent in terminology and sentence structure decreases the costs of translation and produces more readable target languages.

Editing is not a frivolous indulgence. It is an essential part of producing quality technical writing.

Three cheers for the editors!




Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance
Approach to Punctuation
Lynne Truss
New York, New York: Gotham 2004
ISBN: 1592402038