Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Stable Boy as Editor

My company wrapped up work on a major proposal last week, and the proposal team called me in as a reviewer. Government proposals for engineering work consist of a management volume, a technical volume, and a cost volume. My job was to review the cost volume.

The author of the cost volume is a corporate director, a very able man who previously managed a large NASA program. He is four levels above me in the company hierarchy and is on a first name basis with the CEO. To put this in perspective, in my twenty-eight years with the company I have attained a spot three levels above a junior engineer fresh from college. Therefore, having me review the director's writing is equivalent to having a stable boy review Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "Mister President, on the whole it's a dandy speech. You did yourself proud with all them grand sentiments. And the part that goes 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'—why, that was a real barn burner! But your beginning, that business about 'four score and seven years ago', just doesn't get the job done. The speech needs to get out of the starting gate faster. Why not say '87 years ago' and get on with it?"

When I read through the cost volume, I was impressed with the content. The director was no slouch. He had assembled a comprehensive set of arguments to show that the company was offering excellent value to the government. There is an adage in proposal circles: "Proposals aren't read, they're scored." This refers to the government's practice of giving each section of a proposal to its own evaluator, who compares what he reads against the government's checklist of required topics. If the evaluator checks all of his boxes, the proposal section is deemed fully compliant and is scored a success. By this narrow standard, the cost volume was indeed a success. However, the prose was awkward, murky, and unpleasant to read.

Feeling somewhat like a high school composition teacher, I made redline changes to improve the writing. I added an introductory paragraph to give a summary of the volume. The director's first paragraph had been a tangle of three distinct cost saving methods. I sorted things out to give each method its own paragraph and then supplied transitional phrases to indicate priorities and dependencies among the methods. Parallel syntax was enforced for parallel concepts. I removed some empty, unsubstantiated sales language (e.g. "dramatic savings", "unprecedented value"). When I finished making my changes, the cost volume still contained all of the director's vital content; but now the prose was clean, clear, and easy to read.

When the cost volume went to final publication, none of my suggestions was adopted.

Ah well, back to the stable I go.

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