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Don’t Split the Document Publishing Process

White hand drawing a flow chart with gears in the background by Gerd Altmann

Remember when maintaining version control for a document was easy because there was only one copy and whoever had it had the latest version? Two people couldn’t work on a document at once, potentially making contradictory changes.

Digital files, cloud storage, and collaboration tools have made document creation and publication easier in some ways, speeding up the process and reducing manual labor.

But the potential for multiple versions of your report or white paper, with conflicting changes, is high without a well-structured publishing process.

One of my editing clients publishes industry papers, and we use project-collaboration software to track the process among the five team members. Because the software is designed for collaboration rather than publishing, more than one person at a time can own the file. All five of us could simultaneously download the file and upload new versions.

Sir Topham Hatt looking angry and pointing at viewer with text: "You have caused confusion and delay."

Can you see the problem here?

It’s tempting to task several people to work on the document at once, especially when you’re under a tight deadline. But, as Sir Topham Hatt might say, that just causes confusion and delay.

I’m as guilty as anyone. On one occasion, I had a question for the editorial director. Instead of assigning just the director the task of answering the question, I also assigned the designer the task of making corrections. It would be more efficient and help us meet our deadline, I thought.

From this point, several scenarios could have happened:

  • The director picks up the file first. He answers my question and then uploads the updated file to the system for the designer to work on.
  • The designer picks up the file first, and one of three things happens:
    • He makes my changes and then waits for the director’s input before finishing the project—an inefficient use of time, at the least.
    • He doesn’t see the query. He makes my changes and passes the file back to me. The query means wasting time as I reroute the file to the editorial director for input and then to design for more changes.
    • The director and designer pick up the file at the same time and work on it simultaneously. Whichever file is uploaded second is missing something, and the designer is going to have to make another round of corrections. Another waste of time.

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In this case, the director picked the file up first and we ducked a hairy situation. But it made me think: what if the designer had picked it up first?

With modern technology and teams working in different locations, we can easily forget the importance of allowing only one person to work on a file at a time.

The notable exception to this is a review or comment stage in which several people comment on the document and hand their comments to one person, whose job it is to merge all the comments and rectify any opposing comments. The key to making this work is that all comments funnel through one person.

The lesson here is don’t split the document publishing process. It may seem more efficient at the time, but in reality it costs time and risks errors making it into the published document.

A version of this article ran on Copyediting.com on March 26, 2013.

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