Editing by committee -
how it can undermine
good business writing

In my previous article I recommended a good business writing tip that seems to defy the laws of mathematics.

If you’d like to check it out before reading on, you’ll find my article here.

Essentially my tip was this. In business writing you should vary the length of your sentences but generally try to avoid writing more than 25 words per sentence.

Word count
Occasionally the word count can rise above that, without too much harm being done. However, as a general rule, you should stick to the ‘no more than 25’ rule.

Now I’d like to look at a situation in which my tip is often ignored.

And if you work as a business writer, I’m sure you’ll recognise this scenario.

Draft business report
Let’s suppose you’ve drafted a business report and you’ve tried hard to make it as clear and readable as you possibly can.

Having completed it, you now pass it to your boss and perhaps a number of interested colleagues, for them to check and edit, as necessary.

This is typically where problems start to arise.

Many of the people checking your words may not be skilful writers.

However, they are likely to be aware of the principles of mathematics, not to mention accounting and economics. And that can be dangerous.

In their world one plus one always equals two and more is almost always better than less. They sincerely believe that by squeezing extra words and phrases into your sentences they will be adding value.

Good business writing
But as I explained in my earlier article, good business writing doesn’t work like that.

Adding extra words to an already long sentence rarely enhances it. Instead, the writing is likely to flow less smoothly and be less readable.

OK, let’s get back to our committee of editors.

Picture the scene
One by one they open your document and set about “improving it”. If you close your eyes at this point, I’m sure you can picture them.

Acting out of the best of intentions, they’ll get to work, inserting a clarification here, a technical point there and a political consideration somewhere else. Each addition, they feel, will be enhancing your document.

Sadly, they are almost certainly misguided.

Weakening your document
What they are doing is slowly but surely weakening your document.

Apart from breaking the smooth flow of the text, they will in all likelihood have rendered some of your carefully crafted sentences unreadable.

And so the document eventually comes back to you with all their amendments attached.

Restoring readability
If you’re lucky, you might have got off lightly, but I wouldn’t want to give you false hope.

The chances are that their amendments have harmed your prose and now comes the hardest job of all – restoring readability while still accommodating their changes.

It’s not always bad
Now, don’t get me wrong. Not every committee of editors is quite so heavy handed.

Some might even show a degree of sensitivity, and an understanding of what good business writing is all about.

Nor is it fair to say that every change they make will be worthless. In fact, between them I am sure they will come up with a few helpful suggestions that will strengthen your text.

Constructive criticism
And that’s something to bear in mind, because part of your role as a professional writer is to take constructive criticism in good spirit.

In business writing, you see, there are always lessons to be learned and you should never be too proud to accept good advice, when it comes your way.

In most cases, however, when a large number of people are involved in editing your work, you need to be on your guard. By changing your text, they may have made your words less readable.

How to deal with committee changes
A good way to handle this potential problem is to issue, at the very start, some strict ground rules to the committee of people editing your work.

Let them know that you are asking them to edit the text for factual accuracy and not for style.

Furthermore, you should inform them that if they make a factual change, you reserve the right to reword it to make it more in keeping with the style of your original text.

Style guide
In addition, before any editing is done, you might want to hand each member of the committee a one-page style guide that sets out the most important rules to which the final text must conform.

At the very least, it’s a good idea to tell them that there is a maximum length for sentences and paragraphs. And any text that breaks these rules will be edited.

Most important person
In this way, you should help to minimise the potential for arguments.

Ultimately, you may have to remind members of the committee that the most important person in this exercise is neither you nor any individual committee member, but the reader.

And, in business writing, the needs of the reader must always be paramount.

Our business writing courses
At Strawberry Training we run a number of tailored workshops that teach the principles of good business writing. These courses will help you write more effectively and enable you to work with even the most challenging editor.

They include:

Contact details
To learn more about our courses in good business writing, or to make a booking, call: 020 8773 4718.

Or email: margaret@strawberrytraining.co.uk

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