Gonzo editing

Posted 5 May 2010 by


I have twice participated in a project I’m describing as “Gonzo editing.”

I am not being pejorative by using the term “Gonzo.” Hunter Thompson breathed fresh air into journalism with his Gonzo style. Telling the truth of a story (not just the facts) sometimes requires a different touch.

At the same time, I am thankful all journalism is not Gonzo journalism. There is a need for more than one style.

What I am calling Gonzo editing is different from normal editing in that it looks for fixing very specific things in technical documents and then quickly moving on. One of the primary for things I looked for were legal issues and syntax that could lead to multiple meanings. Sometimes you needed to fix syntax was just simply mud.

The lead editor said not to sweat it if we missed an occasional comma or let some passive verbs get by. Speed is the name of the game.

Upon receiving a document, we used a software tool that looked for specific problematic usages. These were words or phrases that needed to be avoided or totally excluded per the lawyers. There were specific usages having to do with branding that needed to be met.

Meanwhile, we had to make sure the latest disclaimer statement was in the document. We needed to make sure references to outside material were noted and accredited. All hyperlinks either needed checking or referral to a triage team using a bug reporting system (not all hyperlinks could be checked outside the corporate firewall, like I was).

We were not to worry (too much) about formatting issues. On the other hand, spelling counts.

Basically, check the legalities and clean up cloudy phrasing. Then, check the file back in and move on to the next one. Do not go back to a file you had already returned as edited.

Not returning to a file bothers me.

Sometimes I would be editing a series of files that were clearly a group dealing with the same thing. Because of the need for promptness, it may be the middle of the second or third related document before I figured out why something is nagging me and how to fix it. But, I could not go back.

The reason why we could not go back is that all returned files were in the hands of the next group, a triage team, within 2 hours. Any changes I might have made to a returned file may not be in the version the triage team used and passed back to the customer.

For my part, I created a large number of unordered, bulleted lists where they did not exist before. Most of the time, when I could quickly rewrite of something in a passive voice, I did it. I shortened sentences, if I could quickly work it out. I updated passages saying “ensure” or “best” so that the legal department could sleep better at night.

Being a detailed oriented technical communicator, this sometimes left me unsettled. While avoiding the dangers of being a perfectionist, you do not want to miss something. This was especially true being the editor.

At the same time, the documents I was editing were not necessarily the end of the line. They were templates for customer-facing documents. A consultant needed modify what left my computer for a specific customer. How much perfection do you need when something is going to be used for a cut-and-past into another document?

When I look at it from the point of view that what I was working on was not the final document, but material for customer presentations, it makes sense. It is not like I am editing the latest edition of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

As they invited me back a second time, I must have found the right level of editing for this project.

I suspect Gonzo editing will be one of the trends of the future.

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