When I started work on the Global Strategic Trends Programme back in 2007, we spent most of our time and energy producing compelling narratives about the future.  Back then, we prioritized this as the best way to go – in our defence, this was because we knew no different.  We genuinely thought it was of primary importance to keep our audience engaged and make our product relevant.

Open, honest and clear editing. 

Today, we know more about the ‘futures’ as a discipline and that telling a good story, is not the most important thing for a forecast to do; it is far better for a forecast to open and honest with its logic and assumptions clearly articulated.  This means, rather than being ‘compelling’ it has to be ‘clear’.  To do this, we spent a lot of time honing editorial techniques that helped us gather and aggregate trend data.

As well as developing techniques for grouping and clustering large datasets we developed editorial practices that also followed the principles of being open, honest and clear.  It should be a reasonably easy thing to do to develop an editorial process that is open and unbiased but in reality it is very difficult to implement.  There are a number of factors that can influence the editing process.

The Editor/Author relationship

At its most basic the editorial hierarchy is short.  For a lot of fictional works and journalistic pieces, there is often one link.

Writer – Editor

This short link can be highly effective and for many areas of production and often such simple writer/editor relationships are crucial, perhaps sacrosanct to a good product.  When it works its symbiotic; with both parties working to make the product as good, or as clear, as it can possibly be.

But, if the relationship doesn’t work then it can quickly become toxic to all components; writer, editor and the final product. Often, for creative projects, – if the relationship doesn’t work things tend to break down way before the product is finished.  The project is shelved, generally because, ‘creative differences’ are cited.  Other times, provided editor and writer can have some sort of functioning relationship, something will generally be made.

The relationship between an editor and an author is important.  Key in fact, if it isn’t treated as such then the relationship will probably struggle and so will the outputs.  This is where openness is key, both parties – the editor and author need to be honest with each other for the relationship to work to its fullest potential.  Weak editing, can lead to the editor not protecting the ideas or the vision of the writer.  Weak writers, can be too sensitive to receive or act on the criticism of the Editor.  Either way, there is a degree of protection and trust that each party needs to invest, when this fails, the product suffers, but worse, so do relations. The worst case of this is when a biased editor elicits feedback on a writers work and doesn’t pass this on to the writer, that is when protection is failing.

Feedback and bias.

In most cases to improve a product creative endeavours or ideas need feedback. Independent people, or groups could be asked for their opinions on the early product and this process generally managed by the editor who looks for groups to provide comment.  Such feedback can be seductive, and the responses from those asked for reviews can be subjected to personality politics and bias from each party. For example, a bad editor could simply go to a group of trusted friends who are known to give good feedback or reviews, similarly the writer may only court people who like them or their ideas and from whom they know they’ll get get good feedback.  People who don’t give the feedback they want are ignored.  And that’s bad editing and will probably lead to a weaker draft; at such a time its crucial that the acts as an honest advocate of opinion and criticism.

A hierarchy of gatekeepers – editing consensus.

Issues with the author or the editor will both cause significant problems for making a clear, honest product.  Another thing that can cause problems is when things rather than having a short, simple editorial chain, there is a large chain of decision makers that a product has to go through.  Things are tricky when everyone is a gatekeeper who needs to be coaxed, or convinced on the path to production.  And the question is, is the final product improved if it is simply reflecting the consensus of a crowded platform of concerned decisions makers?

For most projects, a short editing hierarchy is desireable and is attainable for certain projects like a blog, a magazine article or perhaps a novel.  In this post, a lot of what I’ve written applies to creative projects, but there are some fundamentals that, I believe, be applied to most areas of production that involve forming and communicating an idea, especially in areas that we can get lost in the wheels-within-wheels of a hierarchy.

The challenges for open editing in policy production.

The lessons learned in observing editorial practices can be applied to the production of all outputs, perhaps most significantly – policy.  The development ofopen governance has the potential to impact on how we make and produce government outputs and policy.

For a government policy isn’t fiction, it’s real.  And what’s real about it is the power it conveys – both for the change it can cause but also for the person wielding the capacity to deliver that change.  But often the manner through which policy is generated is no different to how we produce reports or even fictional works.  Policy generation relies on data gathering, idea generation, aggregation, assessment, written production and critiques/peer review.

Whatever the exact means of generation, when a policy product is formed it is usually in the form of a written report.  Such whitepapers, think pieces or assessments are generally drafted by people who take the ideas and evidence from analysts, scientists and specialists.  Such people are policymakers and they take these ideas, draft them using some of the techniques above and then produce a version of policy which they can then share.

The policy maker as an editor and an author.

This is where things are again, different with policy.  The policy maker starts to take on a role, similar to both editor and author.  To get a policy ‘published’ it has to go on a journey through a complex and unpredictable range of decision makers and influencers.  Such a journey tests not only the policymaker’s drafting skills but also their political aptitude.

This is one of the key challenges open policy making faces and its caused by the very nature of what power is.  With policy, ideas and words equate to change and, while they are being generated, they can be influenced.  The things required to product both the quality and integrity of the first version, are tested in a myriad of ways, by a range of people, all of whom probably have an interest in shaping what goes into the final product.

Being open.  Sharing ideas from start to finish, letting daylight show the cracks, is the ideal.  But the ability to  illuminate the shadows that power casts is the perhaps one of the greatest challenges the open ideal faces.  But, by being mindful of good editorial practices and clear on what the roles of all producing parties are – be they, the editor, the author or the policy maker, we could perhaps be better able to make products that are both clearer to read and genuinely open – not only on what they contain, but on how they are made.

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