Too many cooks spoil the broth

Background

Last week, I attended the monthly update presentation for our project, in which two developers – who had prepared write-ups for their form-based reporting scenario – were asked to merge and edit both their versions. Later, we (tech writers) would use that paragraph of information to create the required write-up for the user manual. Sadly, the developers could not finalize the paragraph, because they kept correcting (at least they thought so) each other’s versions.

Question in purview

I think such a disagreement is common, and can happen in any organization. Also, it isn’t difficult to assume that this happens more often than we think it does. This reminded me of the phrase: Too many cooks spoil the broth. For this post though, I would use its rather rephrased version: too many writers spoil the write-up.

So, what happens when too many writers work on the same write-up? Unlike the conventional wisdom – which says that if writers are what they write, editors are how they edit – the reality is quite the opposite – which says that writers and editors are how much they edit.

In one of my previous stints, we followed an eight-stage documentation process. Obviously, the first pass was prepared by the technical writers, and the remaining by the technical editors. But, each had to be reviewed, verified, and approved by the respective technical writer, before it was incorporated into the final document. That way, the writer owned (or became accountable for) the write-up, but the responsibility was shared equally amongst all the writers and editors. The following is also common:

  • Every writer writes the same piece of information differently. And, no style is right (or wrong).
  • Every writer thinks their version is perfect.
  • Not all writers rephrase and rewrite.
  • Documentation is more likely a “support feature” than a serious effort. Hence, at times, even writers tend to undervalue their work.
  • SMEs do not always have the correct information. Or, most likely have it with different outcomes, which are based on their interpretations.

The big picture

In that monthly update presentation, I realized that just like the broth that gets spoiled when it is prepared by more than one cook, the write-up too ends in a soup, if its ownership is distributed (or is perceived distributed) amongst writers. This contrasts to the eight-stage documentation process we just discussed, where even when the ownership is fixed, the responsibility remains equally distributed.

But, besides mere assignment of accountability and responsibility, there is more to this discussion. Some key questions, such as the following, still remain unanswered:

  • Exactly who should you assign the ownership to – writers or editors?
  • I have seen the approaches and answers differ based on the need, person, project, and time. Therefore, are these the only factors that will drive the differences in approach?
  • Should you apply the same policy every time?
  • What kind of ownership does a company/publications manager adopt: a project-wise, document-wise, feature-based, topic-based, or skill-based ownership?

Key points

In my current stint, we follow a two-stage documentation process, and mostly apply a document-level ownership. But, we also pass each document through multiple writers, when needed. And, the following check points help keep us from spoiling the broth:

  • Do not try to find mistakes or change writers’ work. Edit to improve, enhance the quality of the write-ups.
  • Exceptions and deviation from standards should be (a) avoided as far as possible, and (b) recorded in the standards for future reference.
  • If possible, track progress daily.
  • It is important to edit clearly. But, it is more important to write clearly.
  • It is important to rewrite, edit, and cross check the written material. But, it is equally important to preserve the original sense (soul) of the write-up.
  • Make not all, but only one writer accountable for each write-up.
  • Make not one, but all the writers and editors responsible for the quality of content (and its importance for the readers) of the write-ups.
  • Serve to the readers’ concerns, and not to your editors’ ego.
  • Set appropriate guidelines for writing, editing.
  • Speed and accuracy do not go together. But, you can always attempt that they do.
  • Sticking to the basics helps keep you from issues.
  • Writers do not graduate to become editors. And, editors did not start as writers. Writing and editing are only functional jobs, which should be governed and assigned based on the need and skill, and not the experience. Switching roles between writers and editors will therefore let the team understand the requirements in a better, more accurate manner.

These are only some of the quick reference points. Also, my knowledge is limited. But, some amongst you would’ve worked in different, bigger team sizes. Tell me what you think about this. Do you see issues when handling documentation in large teams? Do you agree that too many writers spoil the write-ups? Does having too many writers affect the quality of your documents? How do you tackle the pressure? I am eager to read your responses.

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