In my consulting work, one question I always ask my clients is, “Do you have a central repository for your editorial information?”
If not, I say, get one. (And by posting this, I’m pretty much giving away the farm here.) If all of the editing is done in house, this repository could be as simple as a folder on a shared server. If you do any work with freelancers, this resource must be online.
Most clients I edit for understand the importance of regularly reviewing and adjusting house style guidelines for relevance. But how those changes are communicated to editors—and freelancers in particular—can make the difference between a seamless transition to the new style and a confused mess that someone in house is left to clean up. Having a single online editorial resource means that you’re making changes in one place: all of your editors, including your freelancers, learn to look there, every time, to check for updates; you’re not having to email everyone each time the guidelines are modified; and editors aren’t left with numerous copies of a style guide on their computers, wondering which is the most up-to-date.
There are probably a number of feasible forms such an online resource could take, given the flexibility and accessibility of content management systems out there today, but the one I’ve found easiest and most effective is the wiki. Wiki pages are extremely intuitive to create and update, the entire wiki is searchable, and, best of all, wikis are structurally flexible—internal links are a snap to make, and there is no inherent hierarchy, which allows you to arrange your content for one group of users and do it completely differently for another group, all the while not having to change the underlying content. Wikis are designed for collaboration, so they are ideal for resources that require contribution from several sources (for example, if the editorial director wants to update style guidelines while the managing editor clarifies invoicing procedures and the art director wishes to give a list of specifications for digital images). What’s more, thanks to Wikipedia and the like, most Internet users are already comfortable using wikis to seek out information.
One of my most well-received projects while I was editorial coordinator at D&M was the editorial wiki, which turned out to be so useful for in-house editors and freelancers alike that I expanded the model to a wiki for authors. Before the editorial wiki, every time a template was tweaked or the house style updated, the managing editor had to send a note to all editors alerting them to the changes. And each time she had to decide who should receive it. That freelancer she hasn’t used in a few seasons but might use again when things get busy? And the relatively new contractor—does he have all of the guidelines and templates he needs? It’s easy to see how time-consuming and fallible this system can be—and with a central editorial wiki, it’s completely unnecessary. Send all of your editors to the same place, and they can access the up-to-date resources as they need them.
When I initially put the editorial wiki together, I used a free but proprietary WYSIWYG wiki program, but eventually I migrated all of the content to MediaWiki. It’s the open-source wiki software behind Wikipedia, so it’s certainly been well tested, and its default look is something most people are familiar with. Because it’s so widely used, it has a vast support community, and learning how to solve a problem or customizing a feature on MediaWiki is usually just a Google search away. MediaWiki has its own search feature, it has the ability to show users the full history of page edits, all pages can be tagged with categories for easy organization and navigation, files like Word documents, PDFs, and JPEGs can be made available to users, and templates can be used for multipurposing content. And if you don’t want your style guidelines broadcast to the public? No problem—MediaWiki can be customized with password protection.
So what should go on an editorial wiki? At minimum, include your house style, any specific editing and formatting guidelines, editorial checklists (more on these later), templates, and, perhaps most importantly, a description of the steps in your editorial process. After I transferred this bare-bones content to MediaWiki, I found that the latter’s ease of use and extensibility made it a breeze to create new content specifically for fiction editors or cookbook editors or art book editors. The editorial wiki became an extremely powerful tool that, all at once, improved communication with our freelancers, empowered them to find their own information, and freed in-house staff from having to answer recurring editorial questions.