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Quibble Me This
1997, May-Jun (June 12, 2008)
by Patricia Tierney

Ten years ago, Dorothy Leeds, president of Organizational Technologies, Inc., published a book she entitled Smart Questions. In it, she stated, "For me, the most valuable use of questions is to clear up fuzzy or ambiguous thinking. Posing a question requires more concentration than making a statement....A smart question organizes the problem...and offers an opportunity to find a solution."

A year or two later, I was given the text of a scientist?s speech about pollution issues and asked to "edit" it. My first thought was, as might be expected, "What level of edit?" My second was, "What difference does it make for this material to be presented orally?" and then I asked the scientist to tell me about the symposium where the speech would be given.

The questions had nothing to do with the content, style, or mechanics of the speech. It turned out that the desired edit was intended to fit the speech into a specified time. Eliciting this key information enabled me to do the work that was really being requested.

Later, I received another speech to edit. Again, I inquired about its presentation, and I learned that it already had been delivered! The edit at this point was not to time the speech or refine it, but only to ensure an appropriate print appearance.

A financial planner I know prepared a promotional brochure recently and gave it to an editor, who observed that the material was attractive and correct but incomplete. The editor asked questions about the product, and the planner incorporated the answers in the brochure. When the brochure was finished, the planner commented that the editing process had improved his understanding of selling as well as his brochure. In this case, an editor "thought beyond the box," looking at what was not present as well as what was. Moreover, she created a collaborative relationship with the author, not by correcting the brochure but by asking questions that invited the author's expertise to shine. The editor became to the writer what many writers are to subject matter experts.

In December, I read a teaching book by professional speakers. It had just been published, and it contained excellent material. It also contained several mishaps such as "flushing out your speech" (do we drive speeches from hiding?) and "customer's hearts" (must be new anatomy). There is a subject served by two verbs, only one of which agrees in number. Some parallel constructions aren't, and some referents don't.

Some questionable constructions that must have been in the manuscript — constructions that might work on stage but not on the page — were not identified and clarified, and consequently the professionalism of the authors was compromised. How might this failure to check manuscript affect the publisher's reputation and future business?

Often it happens that editing is very much a matter of asking an attentive question. Management consultants such as Leeds and members of the legal profession earn their livings based on their ability to devise questions, and so also do many fine technical communicators. "The whole point," said Leeds, "is to ask the right question, at the right time, of the right person... you have disciplined your mind to think clearly and to respond creatively." End of article.

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