Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.
Industry-wide, one metric that is seeing a downward trend is editing or quality assurance. Many organizations have eliminated editors as a separate role, at best turning to peer edits, and at worst simply holding the individual contributors responsible for the quality of their own work and relying on automation to catch glaring spelling and grammar mistakes. Even those organizations that maintain an editing staff put tremendous pressure on that staff to “keep it light” and find themselves shrinking or eliminating the editing cycle when the project starts to fall behind.
Certainly, individuals must be held accountable, but without an editor, who determines whether an individual has done something for which they must be accountable? Even the best and most experienced authors still rely on their editors–you can bet that the latest Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks novel went through a rigorous, multi-pass editing cycle with professional editors. The editing process helps ensure that information is complete, consistent, and readable. It needs to be planned for in your budget and schedule and tracked to ensure it stays within scope and expectations.
What to Include
An information product might pass through a variety of edits and quality assurance checks throughout its development life cycle. The following sections suggest best practices for the types of editing to include in your project, but unfortunately, there is no definitive agreement on how many editing passes are required nor even what each pass should include. The lack of agreement makes metrics tracking and trending all the more challenging, even without trying to compare your organization with industry trends. For best results, clearly define each of your editing cycles with checklists showing what to include, and track the metrics for each pass separately.
As its name implies, developmental editing occurs during development. It is not line-by-line editing of a finished product, but collaborative, big-picture editing with the writer as the writing occurs. In a developmental edit, editors examine the structural integrity of the product. They look at how well information flows throughout the content and ensure that it is well supported. Developmental editors pay particular attention to readability and consistency. They flag awkward and unclear writing, query apparent breaks in logic, ensure content is appropriate for the audience, and look for opportunities to use figures and graphics instead of text. Although this type of editing brings the most substantial changes to the information product, it is the one that is first abandoned in cutbacks.
Developmental editors are also frequently tasked to coach new writers–introducing them to the style standards of the company or project and taking extra time to review edits with the individual to train them on expectations so such edits can be avoided in the future. Such activities might be charged outside the project (to training), or they might be planned for in the project budget.
A technical edit ensures that content is accurate and complete. A subject matter expert, rather than a professional editor, typically conducts it. As a result, many organizations do not track these metrics because the experts are not employed by the same department. In some cases, that means the cost of this process is “free” so tracking seems irrelevant; in other cases, gathering actual costs from another department can be problematic. Unfortunately, the technical review is frequently a barrier to project completion. Subject-matter experts are busy developing the product and don’t have time to review information products, especially if you can’t tell them how long the work might take. Good metrics enable you to set expectations and plan your schedule appropriately.
In some organizations, technical experts are used as writers, and a technical edit is deemed unnecessary. However, because technical accuracy is one of the highest ranked user expectations for information products, the use of experts as writers, or even the expectation that writers become experts, should not eliminate a technical edit pass. In fact, when using experts who are not trained writers, you should plan for higher percentages of editing overall, because developmental and copy editing time typically increase when writing is not the primary job or interest of these experts.
Copyediting is the traditional role that most people imagine when they hear the word “edit.” In a copy edit, editors conduct a line-by-line check of style, grammar, language, spelling, and punctuation for correctness and conformance with any applicable style guides. It’s typically the final step before content is put into its final form, after all developmental and technical edits have been completed and addressed.
As automation tools become more and more sophisticated, the possibility of reducing (but not eliminating) this editing cycle and freeing editors to concentrate on developmental editing becomes greater. In fact, anticipated reduction in this editing cycle can help build the business case for the purchase of such tools–if you have the “before” metrics.
Product documentation might also require functional or validation testing, that is, ensuring that the steps and screen captures in the document accurately reflect the behavior of the product. While this might be grouped with technical editing, concurrent development of product and documentation frequently means that this step can’t happen until late in the development life cycle when the product is stable, while technical editing occurs earlier.
For online content, functional testing takes on another meaning. This type of content frequently needs a quality assurance pass to ensure that links behave correctly, that media plays, and that interactions work as intended.
Although neither type of functional test requires a professional editor, frequently these tasks fall to the editor due to availability. Regardless of who performs it, this type of editing should be planned for and tracked separately, especially since it might not be required for all projects.
When proofreading, editors take a final look at an information product before it’s released, looking for anything that might have slipped through the earlier editing processes or been inadvertently changed during final production. Proofreading ensures that the final product has been assembled and rendered as intended. For example, editors check that everything is in the right order, the final layout is free from awkward page breaks, the headers and footers are correct, and so on.
Just as there is no agreement about what to include, there are also a wide variety of metrics in use to estimate editing effort. Metrics range from 1-2 pages/hour for a substantive edit to 20 pages or more per hour for a proofreading, with copyediting in the middle from 5 to 12 pages per hour. Developmental editing is frequently expressed as a percentage of writing time, rather than based on pages because during development the number of pages is not yet known. These percentages trend between 15 and 25% of the writing time.
It is clear from the range of editing metrics that several factors must be taken into account when estimating editing effort:
- The state of the content received. Obviously, well-written content that has been carefully reviewed by its writer before going to the editor will take much less editing time than something carelessly thrown together. Although this issue can be somewhat controlled by giving editors the authority to reject content that is clearly not ready for edit, other factors are simply part of the nature of the content. For example, difficult, dense, unfamiliar content will take longer to edit than simple, straightforward content. When estimating editing time, be sure to take into account your editor’s familiarity with the subject matter, as well as the technical complexity of the content.
- The level of edit required. To a certain extent, the editing phase dictates the level of edit required and is therefore already factored into your metrics. However, you might find that these levels vary from project to project, and you need to adjust your averages accordingly. For example, if you skipped a developmental edit, you might choose to include logic checks in the copyedit.
- Size of the project team. The greater the number of writers, the more difficult it is to maintain the appearance of one voice. Expect that editing time will increase with a larger team as each person brings his or her own approach and interpretation of style. In addition, larger teams are less likely to be able to coordinate among themselves to match writing styles on their own.
- Existence of standards. Having a common set of standards to edit against eliminates much of the potential for arguments and gives writers something to check their work against before turning content over to editing. If no standards exist, your editors will likely take longer as they create a project-specific style guide as they go. The lack of standards frequently results in multiple editing passes as the standards are created during development, so early edited chapters need to be re-edited to ensure they conform to decisions made after they were edited.
- Experience of writers and editors. As with all disciplines, experience must be factored into your metrics. Inexperienced writers will need more editing support as they learn your standards and perfect their writing style. Inexperienced editors will take longer to perform an edit, again as they learn your standards. In addition, inexperienced editors are more likely to overedit, fixing things that aren’t actually broken.
- Number of iterations. There are many approaches to determining when an editing cycle is complete. Some metrics are based on a single pass in the edit cycle, with an assumption that all edits will be accepted without question; others allow for back and forth between the writer and editor, both to discuss edits and to check that they were incorporated correctly.
Interpreting Your Editing Metrics
Once you have determined your expected editing metrics, monitoring your project against that average can reveal much about the overall health of a specific project.
Typically, when editing takes less time than expected, the content reaching the editors is of higher quality than the averages on which your metrics were based. Look at the writers who are providing content to the editor: have they been edited by this editor before? You might find that the writers have gained experience with both the corporate styles and the editor’s preferences so that they clean up the copy before it goes to editing. Ask your editors to provide feedback on the writers they are editing; typically, editors will be brutally honest and will let you know if the quicker editing was a fluke or something you can count on for the specific writers again when planning the next project.
Don’t assume that less editing time is always a good thing; it could also indicate that your editors simply don’t have enough time to dedicate to the content, and they have done only a cursory job of editing, perhaps compromising the level of edit expected. Ask your writers if they are getting the same level of edits that they typically receive from that editor, and consider performing spot checks, reviewing the markup.
Conversely, when editing goes over budget, it likely indicates that content was not ready for editing when it was submitted – the writer ran out of time and didn’t read the content before turning it in, for example. It can be very helpful from a training perspective to track editing effort per individual deliverable (for example, a chapter or lesson) rather than at the higher project level to identify which writers need more attention or more training. This approach can also help you in scheduling your project more accurately. Although you estimate using an average editing rate, if you know that certain people will require less editing, you can adjust the hours between the smaller deliverables to reflect which ones will require less calendar time and which ones will have a longer turnaround.
Keep in mind that high editing hours do not always point fingers at the writers. High editing hours can also indicate a trend on your editor’s part to rewrite or put in personal preferences. Editing time must be based on the mantra, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” and high editing numbers might indicate that someone has abandoned this principle.
When editing goes over budget in later editing cycles, you might have issues with the earlier editing cycles, not the one that is going over. The later editing cycle is finding issues that should have been caught earlier on. You might want to look at whether the mistakes being marked were present in the earlier drafts, and if so, dig deeper to find why they were missed. Sometimes, early drafts are so riddled with mistakes that editors can only address the most egregious errors in the early passes. Also, look at whether later edits are reversing previous edits. If you use different editors for each editing pass, you might find situations that not only increase editing time, but also frustrate your writers.
It’s important to look at your editing metrics together with writing time as well. Frequently, editing time is based on the amount of time a writer takes. If writing time is higher, but editing time as a result is lower, the project as a whole remains on budget. The converse is also true. Your consideration in cases in which the project remains on budget should be whether the individuals can afford the extra time in the schedule. For example, can your editor take on a heavier editing role than planned, or does work pile up in the editing queue?
Remember also, when editing trends high or low, to check the scope—if you have based editing time on a certain number of pages, how do the actual number of pages compare? Editing time is very sensitive to the number of pages and could be one of your first indications of changing scope.
Editing Tracking Pitfalls
When tracking editing hours and percentages, misleading numbers might arise from a number of areas:
- A common mistake made when scheduling the workflow of a documentation or training project is to not set aside time for writers to incorporate edits. The writing task uses all available hours and is closed when the content is turned over to edit. This approach leaves the question of where to record the hours that it takes to discuss and incorporate edits. Frequently, writers will charge time to editing rather than writing, artificially inflating the editing time.
- Most organizations have an expectation that editing revision projects should take less time than editing a “from scratch” project and are surprised when that turns out not to be the case. Expectations need to be clearly set on revision projects for what is expected in editing—are the editors only supposed to edit the changes or read the entire document again for flow and consistency? Is the document grandfathered in under a different set of standards, or will it be updated to conform to your latest practices? Expect that you cannot lower editing time by the same proportion that you lower writing time on a revision because editors have, at a minimum, to read the context of the change, if not the whole document.
- If graphics will be complete prior to an editing cycle, editing numbers may skew higher as the editors review graphics as well as text, especially if those graphics include callouts or other “editable” text.
- In more than many other disciplines, editing time tends to be adjusted on the fly based on variables such as the current status of the project and the workload of the editors at that moment. For example, editors are often called on to “make up the difference” when a project is running behind. This demand results not only in differences from the predicted metrics, but marked differences in the quality of editing within a project. Content turned in early in the project has the luxury of a comprehensive edit, while content late in the development cycle might be rushed.
Although editing metrics might not be skewed, you should also keep in mind that if you give editors the authority to reject documents that do not meet certain entry requirements to the editing cycle, you’ll need to watch the writing metrics. Writers tend to take the entire budget they’ve been given prior to editing, and if the editor decides that the content isn’t acceptable, no budget may exist for rewriting.
Dawn Stevens is a Senior Consultant at Comtech Services, Inc.