“Do your magic…”

Written by Sally White

Magic-doc-from-a-hatAs tech writers, we’re often expected to also be magicians: making documents appear out of thin air. But we do it; it’s all in a day’s work. The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the clueless. Based on an actual email exchange:

Monday, 8:15 a.m.
Mr. Engineer: Can you edit a document for me this week?

Monday, 8:17 a.m.
Me: Yes. How long is it? When will you be sending me the file? When do you need it back?

Monday, 3:12 p.m.
Me: Hello, when will you be sending me your document? I’d like to plan my schedule.

Tuesday, 8:04 a.m.
Me: Hello, checking in to see what the needs are for your document that is due this week.

Tuesday, 4:15 p.m.
Me: Hello? Has the schedule changed? Do you still need me to edit your document this week?

Wednesday, 7:45 a.m.
Me: Good morning. Please let me know what you need.

Wednesday, 5:12 p.m.
Mr. Engineer: Attached is the document I need you to edit. It’s due first thing Friday morning, so don’t read it. Just make it look good. You know, do your magic.

Wednesday, 5:35 p.m.
Ack!

The file is taking forever to open. The first few pages are beginning to appear. Wait. Wait. Wait. File has finally downloaded. It’s a 1,046-page technical report due to the client day after tomorrow. Instructions are to not read it and to make it look good. “Do your magic.”

Wednesday, 6:15 p.m.
What to do next?

First, here’s what not to do. Do not contact Mr. Engineer to give him a piece of your mind and explain exactly what an editor does (that is, read documents). Get up, take a walk around building, think pleasant thoughts, return to desk, and plan to hunker down for the next day and a half. Do not, under any circumstances, pick up magic wand, barnstorm Mr. Engineer’s office, and break wand over his thick, unsuspecting head.

Next, lay out a plan of action. With only a little more than a day to scour more than 1,000 pages of text, figures, and tables, it is crucial to devise a plan that will allow as much territory to be covered in as little time as possible.

Viewing the document online (no time to print this monster), carefully scroll through each page, making sure document elements are in order; that is, order of document components (cover page, title page, executive summary, table of contents, acronym list, etc.), headers, footers, pagination, page breaks, text order heading numbering, and figure/table placement are correct.

While scrolling and scanning each page, make note of inconsistences from page to page (that is, storm water, stormwater, storm-water, and Storm Water or email, e-mail, and Email). Keep a running list of inconsistent terms noted. Finally, choose one term and stick with it (that is, stormwater and email throughout) during a global search and replace. These may not be their first choices, but at least terms will be consistent.

Note placement and format of all tables and figures while doing the fast-track scrolling boogie. Attempt to format everything so it appears consistent.

Keep a running list of acronyms and references on paper while going through the document so that lists can be created at the end. No time to go back and scour for all in-text uses.

Glance at all text order headings to attempt to obtain parallel structure throughout the document.

Strive to catch, and fix, the most egregious grammatical errors.

Run spell check. And then run it again. And run it one more time.

Cheerfully return file to Mr. Engineer on due date.

Head home to break open large box of wine.

Exotic-Borneo-travel-mapFour months later…

Monday, 8:15 a.m.
Mr. Engineer: Can you edit a document for me this week?

Monday, 9:45 a.m.
Me: I’m terribly sorry. I’ll be in Borneo the rest of the year.

Sally White. 2013.

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