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Freelancing: Dealing with editorial comments

Back when I wrote software documentation for companies who produced software, we had a style guide and prior versions of manuals to guide us. If a reviewer or reader asked us to write in passive voice or use "they" as a singular pronoun, we had the guide and the canon of existing documentation to back us up.

This morning I'm working on some feedback from a subject matter expert and I'm seeing a lot of suggestions that are stylistic that I'm loathe to accept ("they" as a singular pronoun is one). I'm torn between "He who pays the piper calls the tune" and "You're paying me partially for my expertise, and my expertise says that some of the changes you request aren't in the best interest of the reader."  And yes, part of me is also thinking, "How can I ever include this in my portfolio if I make some of these changes?" (There are other suggested changes besides passive voice and improper pronouns that would make it look like I don't know what I'm doing.)

For those who have worked in places without a style guide, editorial function, or other professional writers, how have you handled it?


  • AMosesAMoses United KingdomPosts: 4

    You can always refer your reviewer to generic style guides, such as the Microsoft Manual of Style. Most writers that I know (whether employed by a company or working freelance) follow it, and Microsoft users (not a small number!) are used to that style.

    You say that the reviewer is a SME. That means to me that this person might have the technical expertise, but possibly not the linguistic knowledge. You could therefore implement any technical changes, but stick to your guns regarding stylistic issues. (And maybe very carefully explain why you do this, with a reference to the MS style guide.)

    However, if your expert advice falls on deaf ears, then I guess in the end there's not much choice but implement what your reviewer suggests (following the "He who pays the piper..." principle).

    Good luck!

  • rinnie1rinnie1 United StatesPosts: 2 ✭✭
    This depends largely on your relationship with the client and whether the client's view toward contractors is dictatorial. I have been known to pop my head into the office of my direct supervisor and ask whether they want me to think about the feedback, or just do whatever feedback says without scrutiny unless and until some SMEs contradict one another. It's kind of a loaded question, but it brings the situation to bear in a way that exposes any flawed assumptions.

    Having worked freelance jobs as a lone writer in several environments, I always made it my practice to survey the extant docs to gather a feel for the tone and style that the client's audience had been seeing. Sometimes I worked in environments where passive voice was used as a way to avoid rather stilted wording, or when obfuscating the actor was necessary to accommodate the upstream involvement of others in the workflow. So on that issue, I would follow the rule of thumb that greatest clarity is the best route, and record notes in response to the feedback about how the suggestion could make things confusing.

    However, I generally regarded stylistic comments as "suggestions" rather than "directives." Whenever I send a document out for review, the review cover letter (or email) always clearly requests "review for technical accuracy" and states that stylistic/semantic comments will be "taken into consideration" but make no promises beyond that.  ;-)  I have only been questioned about that cover letter a couple of times, and my response was, "You're the technical expert; I'm the linguist; let's function in our strengths to maintain efficiency." Only once did I get any guff about that. I did get a substantially rewritten doc review where the SME had literally reworded almost every sentence to a very scientific style (passive voice, third person, sterile, etc.). In that situation, I took it to my direct supervisor and asked if they were willing to either pay me to change all the documents to this style to maintain consistency, or whether the SME's manager might be willing to abrogate some things. Abrogation began. It lasted about 10 pages, at which time the SME's manager handed the whole thing back to me, saying to use my best judgement based on my expertise, and he'd deal with the SME for me.  ;-)

    You could also offer to "capture" the style into a style guide to pay it forward for anyone who joins or follows you; sell it as a branding consistency effort. That can become a portfolio item. ;-)

    A bit anecdotal...but I hope that helps!
  • imable2010imable2010 United StatesPosts: 6
    Update: I explained to the SME that some of the requests were stylistic and why I wrote things the way I did (because I was following best practices for technical writing). She said style was up to me, which was a relief.

    Thanks for your comments. It helped me go into the meeting in a position of strength, which meant I could talk without sounding defensive. Much appreciated!
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