Collaborating with Sally Stickney

If you are a regular viewer of my blog, you probably know that I have a column on MSDN Magazine Online devoted to Kinect for Windows. I usually mention when a new article comes out. What I’ve never told you is how it works behind the scenes. I’d like to share with you what it is like to get an article published. I think it is an excellent example of what it means to collaborate. In all of my years of working, I’ve found that most people really don’t understand what it means to collaborate. I’ve known many people that claimed to be a “team player” that in fact wouldn’t know how to work cooperatively if their lives depended on it. Typically, egos get in the way. Sometimes, the craze for glory and acknowledgement are the motivators. These concepts do not add to a collaborative experience. Let me describe what I experienced the first time I was published in MSDN Magazine (which is typical of every experience since).

Michael Desmond is the Editor in Chief of MSDN Magazine. I contacted Michael with an idea for an article (How to submit an article to MSDN Magazine). Once we agreed on the article, Michael assigned a deadline to me. I worked and submitted the article prior to the deadline. At this point, Michael handed the article over to an Editor to work with me. Every article that I have done so far has been assigned to Sally Stickney. More on that in a bit. First, let me share something about myself (it is relevant to the story).

I have a odd characteristic compared to most technical folk: I love to write. I always have. Every English and Composition teacher (and I have been fortunate enough to have some excellent teachers) that I have ever had complimented my writing and said that I should invest in it as a career. I take great pride in my writing and written works. Opening a thesaurus to find the perfect word, crafting a meaningful and revealing analogy; these are a few of my favorite things. Most of my technical colleagues would rather shut they hands in a car door than have to write something!

That being said, you can imagine my horror when I received an email from Sally and her mark up on my article! Why, it was at least half red!! How could this be?! The article was based on a paper I had submitted in my last class at George Mason University in my pursuit of higher learning. And I had gotten an A on it, for crying out loud! Who shall I complain to?!

I found myself very defensive and altogether wretched. So, I did what my years of training and experience told me to do: I closed the email and walked away from the computer. Any time that an email makes me feel defensive, I stop in my tracks. This is advice that I happily pass on to any that are wise enough to take it!  🙂

After a few hours, I came back to the email, opened it while forcefully telling myself (without truly believing it) that Sally was trying to help me and make the article better. While reciting that over and over in my mind, I read the edits that she had made and the comments that she made. I found that in the comments, Sally asked all kinds of questions. She freely admitted to not being a technical person. Her questions indicated that she really wanted to get a better understanding of what I had written. Suddenly, I realized – Sally was right. She had all kinds of edits that made the article better. Some were tiny, grammatical changes. But others were very important. They restructured the content in a way to make it more understandable and convey the real meaning intended.

I was intimate with the application that the article was based upon. After all, I had spend the last few months researching and designing and building. So, when I wrote my article there were glaring holes that I couldn’t see. But Sally could and did. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I needed Sally in order to make my article the best it could be. I had the technical knowledge that needed to be documented, but Sally had the ability to see beyond the 1s and 0s to be able to communicate to other human beings that knowledge. And that is not a small thing.

After reading through Sally’s edits and comments, accepting pretty much all of her changes and answering her questions (making some changes of my own based on the feedback that she had provided) I responded back to Sally. In my email, I explained that I felt bad that I had made her work so hard and that my writing skills were that lacking. I (indirectly showing my own ego) said that I would do better in my next article (my first publication was in two parts). Looking back with 20/20 hindsight vision, I bet Sally laughed when she read my response! She was very kind and responded that it was very natural for me, wrapped up in the work and knowing every detail of it, to need another set of eyes on the article to see these kinds of errors and help bring them to light prior to readers seeing it.

And you know what? Sally was right. No matter how hard I try to make it “perfect” prior to turning it in, Sally spots numerous things every time! And she explains each to me in ways that do not make me feel defensive or unaccomplished (although the amount of red each time does force me to catch my breath!) but instead she makes a better article. By working and collaborating with Sally, by going back and forth a couple of times, the work is far greater and more meaningful. Sally explained it best. “The editor’s job is to be invisible, so a lot of people don’t understand that when an editor and author work in a truly collaborative way, the purpose is to make the writing better, to make the author shine even brighter. My goal is to get into the author’s head, or style, but also to make sure that the reader doesn’t have to stop mid-sentence and ask, What does that mean?” I am so intent on the technical details, I tend to miss that mark too frequently.

So, next time you are collaborating on a work product with a colleague, if you find yourself feeling defensive and “digging in”, if you are thinking that you don’t need the “assistance” and that your work is good enough, maybe you can take a minute, come back and read my tale and follow the pattern.

I bet you will appreciate it in the end. And you will appreciate the effort that your colleague went to on your behalf. I know they will appreciate your working with them.

Thanks Sally for all your unseen effort! You’ve taught me a good deal more than a spot of grammar!! I hope the other authors that you work with also realize the value that you bring to their work.

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About lelandholmquest

After serving in the Navy as a Reactor Operator on fast attack submarines, I earned both a Bachelor's and Masters in Information Technology from American InterContinental University and am currently working on my doctorate. I have a beautiful wife and two of the sweetest daughters a man could ask for. And I work for the greatest company: Microsoft. At Microsoft I work on the knowledge management system for Microsoft Services: Campus on Office 365.
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