Six rules from editing the future

Insight

Sometimes we get to work on something quite difficult, and you have to get it right.

Over the past year or so, I’ve had the honour of editing three major pieces of work on Australia’s future: CSIRO’s Australian National Outlook, then Australia’s Automation Opportunity from McKinsey & Company, and most recently AEMO’s Integrated [Energy] System Plan.

Each takes a look at our social, economic and environmental future over the next 20 years, and what’s needed to make it positive. In the National Outlook, business and research leaders pieced together the potential future of our industries, cities, energy and landscapes. The global consultancy McKinsey reminds us that “While some jobs will be lost, and others created, all jobs will change.” (With the benefit of COVID-sight, few would doubt that). AEMO’s piece is a confidence-building plan for Australia’s electricity system, written by the people who run that system, after a year’s consultation with everyone who invests in it.

Hopefully, these are clear and interesting reads for any who choose to open them up, and will influence policy makers on some of our greatest national challenges. Like all such reports, they disguise the huge effort made by its authors to get it to that point, including some of the most rigorous efforts to model the future that have ever been made in this country.

Working with them, I had to keep reminding myself of some rules. Hopefully they’ll strike a chord with you and your clients.

  1. Respect the authors. They are highly intelligent, highly respected by their peers, and deservedly hold very senior positions. It’s their piece, with their names on it, so they’ve got to be happy with every word.
  2. But not their every word. Experts can talk to other experts just fine. But if they want to talk to other people – investors, governments, employees say – they will often need our help. So, it is our duty to turn their thoughts into something the non-expert can follow. Back yourself and rewrite anything you don’t understand. If you don’t get it, it’s likely to miss the very people who need it, too.
  3. Earn their trust. For most experts, this is a confronting process. Many have never had their work edited, let alone re-written. Many are fine with that and indeed welcome it; some are not, and that’s fine too. But you may have to invest time early, to explain what you’re trying to do, what you’ve done and why.
  4. Learn when to step up. Every piece of work will have things that should be fixed, but may not seem so to the authors. A simple example is the use of charts ‒ when the text says “see Figure X” but only the person who drafted Figure X knows what it says, you may have to re-do both the chart and the text so they tell one integrated story. (When the author says, “but I present that chart all the time!”, politely ask them whether they’ll be in the room with the person reading the report.) A trickier example is when the authors want us to believe something, but don’t quite make the case. Subject to the next rule, do all you can to make that solid, if it can be, or to remove it if it can’t.
  5. Learn when to back down. You can always edit or write something and submit it to the author. But if they come back with something else, you can’t go back to what you thought was better. Most likely you can go to a third and much better option that takes the author’s concerns into account. Or, you can do a simple sub-edit to remove repetition or correct the grammar. But if you’ve flown a kite and it’s been shot down, don’t fly it again.
  6. Don’t charge for everything. Sometimes things take longer than you think, in getting it right or getting it accepted or both. Sometimes you can charge for that time, sometimes not. Sometimes you have a crack at adding value, with nothing to really show at the end. If you’re working on a big project for a team you like, take a few for the team.

Each of these rules takes effort, but if the last thirty years are a guide to the future, they’re worth it.