Disney’s 1951 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Who’s 1978 anthem may have turned the age-old question, “Who are you?” into a little bit of an earworm. And though everyone’s likely been asked many times over in some form or fashion, it’s a worthy question nonetheless. So what’s once more, for good measure?

Singular job titles comprise a composite of identities; no one is just one “thing.” How people self-identify not only has a direct effect on how they see themselves and how others see them, but it also drives the various ways they engage with colleagues and stakeholders to achieve common goals. To wit, to help faculty members and instructional designers productively exchange opinions and ideas during course design and development, it can be particularly useful if they consider themselves writers and editors, respectively. 

The Symbiosis of Teaching and Writing 

If you were to define “writer,” you might start by describing it in plain terms: A writer is someone who expresses themselves in words. 

Then, taking that description a step further, you might say,

A writer is a subject matter expert (SME) and an educator who expresses themselves clearly and relatably in words, accounting for a varied audience. 

And further still, 

A writer is a SME and an educator (faculty member) who collaborates with an editor and iterates to ensure accessible, accurate, clear communication of concepts and ideas, across all media, for a varied audience.

Do any or all of these definitions resonate? They certainly should! And you can surely continue drilling down to aptly communicate the depth, breadth, and nuance of faculty as writer. 

The Symbiosis of Instructional Design and Editing

Similarly, if you were to define, “editor,” you might do so by breaking it down as follows:

  • A developmental editor (a.k.a, content editor) is someone who provides substantive writing support by thoroughly attending to the overall conception, structure, form, sequence, and scope of a written work. Through querying, developmental editors are able to guide the writer to bring out their best by helping them reflect, revise, and finalize.
  • A copyeditor (a.k.a, line editor) is someone tasked with fact-checking and rectifying mistakes the writer may have missed with regard to spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, and usage and style. (And a proofreader’s charge is to catch anything else that remains.)
  • A managing editor is someone who administers day-to-day operations for a publication, from strategic planning and budgeting to pitching ideas and prioritizing / delegating assignments; and from determining production schedules to doing some writing and editing of their own.

Instructional designers wear all of these “editor” hats, from a project’s humble beginnings to its happily-ever-after ending. And while it never hurts an ID to have either basic or deep knowledge of a particular subject area, it’s not a requirement. Through careful review and querying of content, along with nose-to-tail management of the development lifecycle, IDs acquire a fundamental understanding of the subject matter and the intent of its expert. They are able to examine material through a learner’s lens, and, bearing in mind principles of pedagogy, coach faculty to eliminate knowledge barriers and maximize comprehension.

The Symbiosis of Faculty-Writers and Instructional Designer-Editors

Collaboration and partnership is the glue that holds course design, development, and delivery together. And reciprocity provides multiple, sustained opportunities to (pragmatically) innovate, build learner confidence and competency, and improve learner outcomes and retention. But it also requires a firm commitment from everyone involved. 

The mainstays of a great article or full-length manuscript are analogous to those of a great course. Just as no one should willingly skydive without a parachute, no one should enter into online (or any) course creation without the proper tool kit, skills set, and mindset. Specifically [1],

  • A strong faculty-ID relationship. A high-quality course and an exceptional learner experience is the outgrowth of its creators’ dedication to the craft and shared experience. 

While you’ll get to know each other along the way, come up with some ground rules at the outset. Talk about things like current and upcoming responsibilities, priorities, availability, and preferred working style to set expectations. You’ll then be well equipped to forge ahead and gracefully handle any and all challenges (nay, opportunities!) that may arise.

  • Firm deadlines. A goal without a deadline is but a dream. Deadlines make large-scale, multistaged projects manageable and real by clarifying who is supposed to deliver what, and by when. To offset a project’s complexity and avoid getting overwhelmed, work cooperatively to set a reasonable pace by parsing or “chunking” its components. Sure, life happens, but as a general rule, be steadfast in your efforts; be transparent with stakeholders, and carve out time to do the work. Schedule milestones and hit them! 
  • The big picture (followed by the salient details). It’s easy to get distracted by details and analysis early on, but there’s time for that. First conceive the course “story”; determine the main pieces, and figure out how they’ll all work in concert. In other words, think backward design.
  • Open-mindedness to feedback. Anyone who says they love criticism, or its sibling, “constructive feedback,” may not be telling you (or themselves) the whole truth (and nothing but…). Accepting feedback on work you’re so invested in can be humbling, and it’s hard; though well worth the effort, it takes practice to incorporate it in a meaningful way, so be patient with yourself and with others. 
  • Revision and compromise. Faculty and IDs will likely have differing opinions on a course story’s critical moments. At one point or another, you may have to reconsider certain aspects of the course, whether for the sake of learning objectives, learning management system constraints, accessibility, scale, resources—you name it—to achieve the desired outcome. Brainstorm. Triangulate. Iterate. And finally, generate!

In short, cultivating and maintaining respective identities as writers and editors allows faculty members and instructional designers to become grounded in and intimately familiar with the design process and the course content, and gain a fresh perspective on both. The give-and-take nature of writing and editing organically creates a safe space for healthy debate, experimentation, problem-solving, and thoughtful approach to the subject matter—not only for faculty and IDs, but also, in turn, for learners. 

Jill Roter is a Senior Instructional Designer at Arizona State University.

[1] MasterClass. (2020, November). Editing essentials: what is developmental editing? MasterClass|Articles. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-developmental-editing#when-to-do-a-developmental-edit