What Kind of Person Would Write That?

In my day job I write technical documentation that explains how to use software. Everything I write goes to an editor, and documents often go back and forth between us several times before both editor and writer are happy with the final product. When we’re done, a document is still not ready for publication, though – the programmers who write the software have to review it to make sure my editor and I got everything right.

The editors and programmers who review my documents naturally address their comments to me since I, after all, am the author. But some of what “I” write doesn’t really come from me, so it isn’t all that unusual that I get credit or blame for things I didn’t do, or even things I did against my better judgment.

A document of mine that went through the edit process recently is a case in point. This document began with directions from marketing about how to write it. The goal was to make it sound less technical and more “friendly” than most of what we produce. To that end, the marketing analyst sent me samples of text the way he wanted it written, and he made it a point to use exclamation marks to drive home how informal and friendly the text should be, as in sentences such as “… works right out of the box!” He also insisted that friendliness for the developer community necessitated using abbreviations such as “app,” in phrases such as “popular open source apps.” Neither of these is my style but I dutifully sprinkled exclamation marks and “app” throughout my text.

After writing the document per marketing specs, I forwarded it to my editor. It came back, as usual, full of revisions and comments. One of the latter pointed at one of my exclamation marks and exclaimed:

Oh, please. As one of my writing managers said about 15 years ago: “Nix. Too exciting.” Seriously, exclamation points in docs are strictly Amateur Hour.

This same editor didn’t think the introduction that I wrote for this document was adequate, so he added a whole paragraph of his own in front of my text. I won’t quote the entire paragraph, but it ended with a sentence announcing that this software product would make programming “easy and fun.”

Because several groups were cooperating to create this product, my document went on to get reviewed by a second editor, from one of the other groups. That editor didn’t like “app”:

Is this abbreviation acceptable jargon? Maybe so? Only for this walkthrough? Certainly non-standard.

And he in no uncertain terms condemned the word “fun”:

This is extremely informal, bordering on condescending. I realize that we want a friendly tone, but is “fun” really an appropriate term? Is that a term used in—for instance—competitors’ docs?

So I dutifully ratcheted down the friendliness level and removed “app,” “fun,” and exclamation marks before forwarding the document to the responsible programmer for review. The first thing, that person saw, of course, was the initial paragraph that my editor had written (from which I had removed “fun” because it provoked such outrage from the second editor).  His comment:

Yikes J remove this para.

So I dutifully removed the paragraph.

Thus, two editors and one programmer may well have assumed that I wrote things I didn’t write, or that I was responsible for features of the text that were actually imposed upon me by others. When this document is finally published it won’t be under my name, but if it were, readers would not only get technical information from it but might also draw conclusions about me personally that would certainly be misleading.

I’ve been on the other side of the writer-editor fence as well: for years I copy-edited books for an author who was comfortable with me making major changes to his text. In places where there were gaps in the provided text, I would not infrequently write sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes whole pages of text. I didn’t even have to change the style of my writing to do that, because everything else the book had been reworked by me anyway. These books were then published, and every reader would then naturally assume the entire text came from the pen or keyboard of the book’s author.

This text-doesn’t-necessarily-come-from-the-author phenomenon does not only apply to technical or scholarly publications; fiction writers go through a similar editorial process. Nor is it unique to the modern world. For as long as there has been writing, there have been editors reworking what a writer wrote and sometimes substantially changing its character.

We have abundant evidence from the ancient world testifying to the fact that people were freely editing material written by others, sometimes without the original author’s knowledge and after the original author was long gone. Sometimes the author did the editing himself to make sure he presented the right image of himself. Any twenty-first-century blogger will understand how that works: if you’ve posted a blog entry, you are well aware that you must be much more careful about what you write than you are in a private letter. If you want to take material from a private letter and put it up on a blog you have to rework it. Well, ancient writers had exactly the same concerns. They might write a private letter expressing themselves freely, and then later rework it to make it presentable for a broader audience.

in Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins David Trobisch finds evidence of the same kind of editorial work in Paul’s epistles. Actually, his thesis (for which he presents a good deal of evidence) is that the epistles of Paul in the New Testament were also heavily edited for publication. What then do we actually know about Paul, the person? Or rather, how certain can we be that any conclusions we draw from Paul’s epistles about Paul the person are accurate? We most likely have no unedited epistles of Paul, so caution is certainly called for, yet one tries with little success to find in the scholarly literature a realistic appreciation for how limited is our knowledge about Paul as a person.

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One Response to What Kind of Person Would Write That?

  1. I enjoyed this one! Interesting point you made… and great comparison at the end. Or pastor is a history buff like you and talks a lot about how the New Testament is written in a specific way for specific audiences and would have been interpreted or understood quite differently than the way we read it now. So I would agree with your statement “…the New Testament is a literary creation that was carefully crafted to produce a certain effect or belief in the reader.”

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