Preserving the Writer’s Ownership


Preserving the writer’s ownership

As an editor of technical documentation, I often aim for consistency in language and tone, ruthlessly cutting out any sign of the writer’s personality.

I want each help topic, for example, to feel as though it was created by the same person. Whatever tone we choose for the help is the one I want every page to have.

So I’m usually not interested in preserving the writer’s voice, the way editors of less technical writing might be. (Though some tech writing does call for an individual voice, it often doesn’t.)

But there is still room to allow the writer to feel ownership of the document.

And why does that matter? Because people work harder, and care more, when they feel ownership. They feel more proud when they recognize a document as their own. And, not least, because the writer might actually know best in some cases how the audience will read the piece.

Editors love to edit

By definition, an editor is critical of writing. If I didn’t think I could improve the written word, then I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place.

And of course, that ability to improve things doesn’t restrict itself to essential problems with a document. It also includes lots of little things that amount to my saying, “I think this sounds better than that.”

But, I have to remind myself that my way isn’t the only way, and isn’t even the best way every time.

If a phrase is unclear, or awkward, or difficult, or illogical (or uses the word “or” too many times), then I jump in. If it’s obviously a different tone from what we’re going for, then I let the writer know.

On the other hand, if the phrase is otherwise ok, but isn’t quite how I would put it, then I try to hold back. I try my best to ask whether this “improvement” would actually make things better for the reader, or if it’s a tweak that would annoy the writer without much benefit to the reader.


In the end, it’s worth weighing. How much benefit to the reader will this change bring, vs. how much of the writer’s ownership are you taking away? It’s worth remember the human writer behind the document, and allowing that writer to write.

Note: Depending on your relationship with the writer, you can have tiers of edits. “Do this,” vs. “What do you think about this,” etc. The key is to let the writer know. I’ll link below to an earlier post of mine that has some interesting suggestions in the comments.

EDIT: Larry Kunz was kind enough to put the same suggestion in the comments to this post, saving you time!

Do you ever have trouble preserving the writer’s ownership? Do you have any tips to share?

Related: How to give proper feedback to a writer

2 Responses to “Preserving the Writer’s Ownership”

  1. Larry Kunz
    January 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    Early in my career, a longtime editor introduced me to his Three Pen approach. (This was back when editors edited by marking up printed copy.)

    Red pen meant “This is wrong. You have to change it.”

    Blue pen meant “You should seriously consider this.” These were usually matters of clarity and consistency.

    Green pen meant “Just a suggestion. Use your own best judgment.”

    This approach mirrors the one you describe here. The green-pen edits especially helped instill a sense of ownership in me, the writer. The editor was trusting me — a wet-behind-the-ears kid — to take responsibility for how the piece would be written.

  2. admin-Robert
    January 30, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Larry, it was your comment in another post (the one I linked to above) that made me add that note. I’ll go back and name you explicitly.

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