Something came to me in a conversation I was having the other day about some of the documents I edit — these documents are like plane trips! Bear with me here… I haven’t gone crazy ;-)
A bit of background… I edit hundreds of documents a year for two teams on a big oil and gas project. While many documents come from the same group of authors (usually reports and plans from environmental scientists), I also get documents that have come via third parties (e.g environmental consultants) or from other members of the team who don’t write reports very often. As a result, I get all sorts of documents to edit, from 12-page quickies to 500-page behemoths.
I’ve also flown on many long plane trips and have seen my fair share of the inside of planes (it takes at least 3 hours flying time to get from my state’s capital to our closest state’s capital, and about 20 hours flying time for me to get to the US west coast from the west coast of Australia).
So how is editing a document like a plane trip?
All documents I edit have the same basics no matter what size they are — they’re based on a corporate template (or should be!) and have the same front matter (title page, document control information, table of contents, headers/footers, usually a terms list and often a references list).
All planes have the same basics no matter whether they are an A380 or a small Bombardier or Embraer commuter plane (‘puddle jumper’) — wings, fuselage, cockpit, engine(s), steering mechanism, etc.
So no matter what document comes to me, I have to deal with those basics every time. Just like a pilot has to deal with the aircraft basics, no matter what the aircraft’s size is.
This is analogous to author quality. Some authors (pilots) are just more experienced with certain types of documents (planes) than others. And it shows in the smooth writing (smooth flight). Some authors have a good understanding of Microsoft Word (our authoring environment) and can make it do what they want it to do; others have to rely on me (their co-pilot) to help them get control of their document when Word goes awry for them.
By the time some flights take off, they are ready to land again — these are the puddle jumpers. I liken these to the 12-page Word documents I get, which I can usually edit in a short time period. Conversely, the long-haul Qantas flight between Sydney and Dallas (the longest non-stop flight in the world?) is like editing a 500-page Word document. It takes an awfully long time to get there, you might fall asleep along the way, you need sustenance to get you through it, you need to get up and walk around every hour or so, and you may need to change activities every so often to keep your brain fresh. And when you get off that flight (finish that document), you are ragged around the edges — your mind is numb, and you’re not thinking clearly.
Some documents are just first class. The author knows what they are doing, they know how to write, and the quality just shines through. These documents are a pleasure to edit. Business class is nearly as good, followed by premium economy. And then there are the economy (cattle-class) documents… The ones that take forever to edit, even if they are only short. The ones that are crammed full of unnecessary words and sentences that aren’t coherent, and that have a lot of overhead baggage.
Documents that are hard to comprehend are like really strong headwinds — you spend an awful lot of time not making much progress and you are buffeted around by the process. Conversely, a well-written document (no matter what its size) is like surfing the jet stream — you can fly through that baby and complete it in a time that’s often quicker than it takes to edit a much shorter document that’s hard to comprehend. For example, it has taken me two days to edit some 40-page documents, whereas I can normally edit a well-written 150+ page document in two days.
The documents I edit go through several rounds of internal and external reviews before they are released. I think of these as long-term holding patterns, as it may be several months between when I first edit the draft document and when I edit it for the final time prior to release (landing). Some documents go through more of these review cycles than others, just like some planes are kept in a holding pattern longer than others.
Those documents with drop-dead deadlines for submission to government regulators by a particular date are like aircraft that have flown across the Pacific and are low on fuel — they get priority, while the others remain in a holding pattern until the deadline ones have cleared the runway.
If you’ve ever taken a long-haul flight, you may recall the state of the cabin when you finally disembarked the plane — it’s pretty awful. And you may have felt for the cleaning crew who have a limited time to turn it around before the plane takes off again. Some documents are like that. When I open a document for the first time, I may be confronted with an absolute mess of styles, document automation that’s gone wrong, formatting that’s all over the place, cross-references and captioning that aren’t automated, tracked changes from months ago that have still not been dealt with, etc. Like the cabin cleaning crew, I can’t make the document ready for editing until I sort out the mess and clean it up. So my first task when I get a new document from an author is to run my long list of formatting passes over it — apply the correct template, sort out the document automation, apply the correct styles, accept all field update track changes etc. Only when it’s ‘clean’ can I get on to the reading stage of the editing. Just like the cabin maintenance crew can’t refurbish the supplies (pillows, blankets, headphones, catering, etc.) for the next flight until the cleaning has been done.
Take off and landing
I’ve flown on the A380 several times. It’s a huge lumbering beast and it seems to defy all laws of physics to take off. When you’re taxiing down the runway, you don’t think it will ever get off the ground — and it seem to take an age to do so. Some documents are like that. The formatting stage takes far longer than I expect on first glance, so it’s half a day (or more) before I can ‘take off’ and get started on the editing (the formatting stage typically takes between 15 minutes and two hours, so half a day is long for me).
The final stages of my editing involve finalizing the terms list and the references list. And here the final approach and landing can get very bumpy if the author has not followed our guidelines for citing and referencing documents in their document. What should take only a few minutes can take several hours, thus delaying the delivery of the document (late arrival).
The A380 has a LOT of bells and whistles, especially when compared to a little puddle jumper. While all the documents I work on have the basics, some documents — like the A380 — are full of bells and whistles, incorporating not only a table of contents, but also lists of tables, figures, and plates, multilevel outline numbering, several bullet list levels, many appendices, portrait/landscape orientation, complex tables, many figures, various page sizes (A4 and A3 mostly), track changes, comments, different highlighting colors for different things the author still needs to address, many section breaks, etc. Like the A380, these are lumbering beasts.
Since that conversation, I’ve started to think about my documents as plane flights — it makes for some interesting insights!
I’m sure there are other ways that editing is like flying — feel free to add your comments.