Entropy and burden-shifting in the workflow

In thermodynamics, entropy is energy in a system unavailable for conversion into mechanical work. Popularly, it’s understood as the degree of disorder in a system. At one end of a continuum, everything in a system can be in disorder, in chaos. At the other end, every molecule can be held in precise order, but to do so requires the adding of a large amount of energy. Entropy is the lack of sufficient energy in a system to hold all the parts in order.

Entropy is an ever-present phenomenon in the process to get an author’s idea into printed form.

At the initiation of a publication, the content is in a very weak state of order. The different topics and subtopics are often not well related, not sequential (if sequence is an important quality), not all the external facts are present or verified, and the language and syntax are not in their final states. When the publication is finally produced, everything has been ordered: the facts and phraseology have been checked and refined, the content has been reduced to some definitive visual form (viz., typeface and pictures), and all of those elements have been given physical form.

Somewhere between beginning and end, large quanta of order have been infused into the disordered, chaotic entity called the publication. If there is an efficient production flow in which all undecideds are decided and all errors are rectified, then the amount of energy put into the process should remain consistent (unless there is a high degree of redundant work, i.e.,”digging a hole and filling it up again”).

The big issue is where to put the energy into the system: Is it advisable to give the knowledge-rich but computer-unsavvy workers a high-end editing or production tool—InCopy—which adds an energy demand on them (and probably adds more to you later, when you clean up their errors)? Should you give the author RTF files, which preserve a lot of the text styling and reduce some of the energy demand on them, but which only increase your own energy-work to clean up and reflow their revisions? Is it advisable to let the authors just correct the text by hand on a paper proof (low total energy output for them, thus preserving their energy only for the content) and then type all of the corrections by youself (high energy and slow procedure)? Or should you hire a typist or other text inputter to do that work for you so you can concentrate with the layout?

I have always emphasized that in a workflow with several clearly-defined areas and groups of workers, do not shift burdens unnecessarily. Let the authors write the text (and, in this case, write the revisions or corrections); let the editors handle the manuscript preparation, from language and usage to production markup (which would include specialists, such as word-processor typists entering written corrections); let the graphics and production staff handle the tasks of the design and layout of the publication. This minimizes redundant work—extra energy—which is not needed to maintain the total order of the final product.

© 2008 by Michael Brady

Copyright 1988–2018 by Michael Brady or the publishers