Perfection and Other Fantasies

One of the most agonizing parts of producing any kind of print communication is the part where your work is out there for everyone to see. And critique. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of writers and editors are pretty darn self-critical already.

Consider the rather famous comments—well, rather famous among editors of University publications anyway—of Jeff Hagan, editor of Oberlin Alumni Magazine in a Umagazinology blog last spring.  He responded to the question “what part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?”

The magazine part. The part that isn’t even in mailboxes when I start hearing about errors or omissions. The part that you realize only later could have been better illustrated or better written. The part you have to look at long after you’ve lost interest or grown openly hostile to it. The part where you get criticized for something and know they’re right. When the press run is done and I hear it’s on its way to the post office, I feel no sense of relief. I just think, “Now comes hell.”

Not every moment, but there are moments when “hell” sounds about right to me. I think that resonates to some degree with all communicators. But it really hits a tender spot for those of us still in print. How I envy the online engagement and web teams in my department with their luxury of correcting mistakes with a few taps on a keyboard! When something is in print, it’s forever. Typos, errors and missteps included.

In my unit, we have several hawk-eyed proofreaders. But we also—like nearly every communications unit I have ever heard about—have a vetting process whereby major communications get approved by various executives and contributors.

Making any semblance of a deadline while still ensuring some degree of timeliness to the content leads to a certain blending of the proofing process with the vetting process. And, that leads to last minute changes, additions and swaps. All of which leads to a great big potential for errors.

One thing all communicators learn. You can’t effectively proofread your own stuff. And no editorial team can effectively proofread stuff they’ve already seen too many times. Eyes cross, vision blurs, mistakes happen.

Considering all this, can large scale print publications ever be perfect? I doubt it.

Here’s where we landed in my shop. At least one eagle-eyed proofreader-type on word files plus the principles in leadership, then at least two different eagle-eyed proofreader-types on the designed version, plus all principles again.

If only, that were all it took.

Throughout, the editor works at 200 miles an hour interpreting, negotiating like mad, sorting out conflicting input, dancing with the equally hardworking design, proofing and photography teams; all while attempting to use good communication judgment and trying to prevent the whole thing from becoming a depersonalized institutional mouthpiece. By about round six of the so-called “final” layout—which sometimes goes back in front of some principles—everyone starts to feel the strain of juggling too many details.

Finally, one fine editorial type—and in a perfect rainbows, butterflies and bunnies world, this would NEVER fall to the now fairly beleaguered editor—goes over all one final time. Regardless, it always falls to the editor to call it: “good to go” which firmly puts him or her right on the front line.

Now, I suppose some places—like those with double and triple our staff—can spread the duties around a lot more. Yet, does any of this sound familiar?

I wish I could say our process works perfectly. I suspect it is fairly easy to see the pitfalls. But, as our fearless leader has often pointed out: the amount of resources to get us 95 to 99 percent of the way there is what we’ve got. The amount of resources it would require to get us to 100 percent is not reality.

So bring on the hell. It’s all part of the job. Perfection is not. We strive for it and we may even come close, but this is not a rainbow, butterflies and bunnies world. At the end of the day, I have to admit, it is still a pretty good ride and a great deal of fun.

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