Sit down at a content development meeting for a publication or large website, and you might wonder how writing could be so complicated. Look at all the people: editor, writer, researcher, copyeditor, proofreader—and who or what is a subject matter expert, anyway? And don’t forget about the project manager, who has responsibility for schedules and budgets. If this “roll call” sounds like overkill to you, then you probably haven’t been responsible for a high-profile or expensive mistake that was published. Ouch!
In reality, most published documents go through a series of reviews. Each professional on the team has a specific role to play, and the shared goal of producing an error-free document. The following description of workplace responsibilities for content development may change your opinion about how easy it is to produce quality written content for business.
An editor is responsible for the “big picture” view of the project’s content, as well as helping the team move forward cooperatively and efficiently. Editors need conceptual thinking skills along with writing and editing abilities, and they must be good managers. Tasks might include:
- Understanding readers, how they learn, and what learning constraints they might have
- Imagining usability for a document; defining purpose and scope
- Conceptualizing the visual and written formats that best communicate with the reader
- Reviewing the document for completeness, organization, visual design, and overall effectiveness.
For example, editors might consider questions like these: Will the modular question and answer format in the troubleshooting section effectively help the reader find the right answer? Is the three-ring binder format a good choice from a financial standpoint? Are the page numbers too small for the audience or the reading environment?
A writer (also known as information designer in some workplaces) is responsible for the finished text document, and usually has the most comprehensive knowledge about the content. The writer may collaborate with specialists such as indexers (makers of indexes), photographers, and graphic designers who create graphs and diagrams. Tasks may include:
- Gathering information and developing technical expertise on the topic through research and interviews
- Writing and rewriting as needed to produce readable and useable content
- Specifying graphic content for photography, diagrams, charts and tables, etc.
- Formatting in print or as a Web layout tool
Writers may consider questions like these: Is meaning conveyed clearly by appropriate choice of words and imagery? Does the document include all written and graphic information that readers may need? Are all document parts included, such as front page, table of contents, copyright, contact information, etc.?
A researcher is responsible for supplying information to the team so that the document is factually correct. On smaller projects, the writer performs this role with assistance from the subject matter expert. Tasks may include:
- Studying the topic in depth to provide information to the writer
- Checking the accuracy of information against established references
Researchers look at factual information: Is the composition of the material correctly described and listed in the correct order? Do the export figures from the last decade align with the Customs Office figures? Is the correct Congresswoman credited with passing that law 30 years ago? Researchers delve deeply to ensure that all information is factual and current.
The Copy Editor
A copy editor is responsible for making a document accessible for the reader, so that grammatical or formatting errors don’t interrupt reading flow or negatively affect comprehension. For international projects, the copy editor might enlist assistance from internationalization or localization copy editors. These professionals edit English text so that it translates into target languages more effectively. Tasks might include:
- Editing written and graphic content so that it is grammatically correct and readable
- Editing to conform to established organizational standards
Copy editors might perform several reviews of the document, looking at questions like these: Do the ideas presented in the content flow logically and comfortably? Do the numbers in the last column add up to the total sum? Does the active voice prevail throughout the document? Are the bullet points parallel? Is the correct version of the company name used everywhere?
Proofreaders are responsible for checking production proofs for fidelity to the approved final content. Tasks might include:
- Comparing proofed text to original supplied document for correctness
- Comparing visuals to supplied files
- Checking formatting for consistency and design integrity
Proofreaders look at details of the production proof, considering questions like these: Do the bullets change shape in the slide graphics, altering the meaning? Does part of the last sentence disappear on the back cover? Does a photograph suddenly change directions? Does a word in the headline become misspelled? Trained proofreaders will catch these and other tricky errors that can creep into a project during production. Often proofreaders will make separate passes for written and graphical checks.
The Subject Matter Expert
Subject matter experts (SME) can include experts in any field, such as engineers, product designers, and attorneys. They are responsible for the accuracy of the document within their area of expertise. Tasks might include:
- Providing a rough draft of certain text parts
- Supplying information and resources to the researcher and/or writer
- Reviewing drafts of written and graphic content to assess technical accuracy
Subject matter experts consider important factual information: Does Step 4 in the instructions convey the correct idea exactly, so that the user doesn’t get a shock from turning on a switch? Does the legal disclaimer include the proper words to protect the company from wrongful use? Does the appropriate telephone number appear in the correct location? Errors like these, if missed, might be very costly.
In addition to these roles, content development team members support each other to produce usable content.
The roles of many disciplines, including writing, have been blurred by the computer revolution and increased pressures on profitability. In some companies, the vice president’s administrative assistant might function as the editor, the graphic designer might function as the writer, and the copy editor and proofreader might be nonexistent. To support businesspeople like these who must wear multiple hats, provide them with tools, references, information, and time for learning as well.
Quality content development can be complicated. Producing accurate, complete, well-designed, and effective text requires a variety of skills and knowledge, and an advanced understanding of reader needs. Approach content development projects knowing that you need knowledgeable resources to fill a variety of roles.