Monday, January 4, 2010

The Four Types of Content and Who Owns What

In publishing there are four main types of content—clinical, editorial, graphical, and administrative. If you're thinking about writing or authoring, you should make yourself familiar with them, because they all need to work together to make the finished product successful. Let's take them one at a time.


I call this content clinical because I work in healthcare publishing, but it exists in all areas of publishing. Clinical content is the meaning you want the reader to take away from a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph. In a pharmacology textbook, for instance, you might want the reader to understand that nausea and vomiting are typical side effects of a particular drug. In a how-to manual about kitchen remodeling you might want the reader to understand the importance of a proper foundation for obtaining a perfect seal between slabs of granite. In a magazine article about avoiding the January doldrums you might want the reader to understand the role of sunlight in sleep disturbances. Clinical content (or technical content or whatever else you'd like to call it) is the meat and meaning of what is written.

The author is the sole arbiter of clinical content. If you're a cardiologist writing about coronary artery disease (CAD), you're held responsible for making sure your description of CAD is fully accurate. Your editors certainly aren't going to know whether it's accurate, and even if they do, they're not going to take responsibility for the final description. That's your job.


Editorial content is largely embedded within clinical content. It's punctuation, grammar, and spelling. It's consistency in the treatment of numbers, dates, names, and places. It's the making sure that clinical content is prepared for the reader in the clearest and most meaningful way.

It is here in editorial content that differences arise among publishers. Does a book follow the Chicago Manual of Style or the AMA Style Guide? Are numbers over ten spelled out (eleven) or written as numerals (11)? Is the first letter of a bulleted list uppercased or lowercased? These and other specifics vary widely from publisher to publisher, and in most cases, authors have little or no say in their execution, and rightly so. Those kinds of decisions are best made by the experts in that field: the editors, a term I use here in the widest possible meaning and including publishers, acquisition editors, content editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, and the like.


Graphical content refers to everything involved in presenting the content on the page to the reader. It's photographs, icons, and illustrations. It's the choice of font, font size, leading (basically the vertical space between lines), and kerning (horizontal spacing between letters and words on a line). It's the color of headings, the width of a rule around the box, the size of a bullet in a list. These and other elements can vary widely from book to book or article to article, depending on the intent of the work, and in most cases, authors have little or no say here either.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that the cardiologist author doesn't have any say in how the heart illustrations in her book look. Not at all. But she will "own" only the clinical aspect of an illustration, not the editorial or design elements. For instance, the author must determine whether the leaflets of the mitral valve are shaped properly in a drawing. She does not, however, have a say over what shade of beige, say, is used, unless that particular color is clinically important.

A clearer example: An author prepares a graph of data. An illustrator draws the graph using colors that fit the overall design of the book. The author has control and decision-making authority, certainly, over any data point or label on the graph, but none whatsoever on which color, say, is used for which column. The designers know best about colors, shapes, and how graphical items work visually together. We authors and editors ought to stay out of it as much as possible.


Administrative content refers to all the other non-clinical, non-editorial, and non-graphical content necessary for to make book (or blog, article, or newsletter). It's the folio, running heads, and sequence of elements in the front of the book (front matter). It's the copyright page, the table of contents, the indices. Easy, peasy.

The most successful books, I believe, are published by houses that grant wide latitude to authors in developing clinical content, editors in helping authors prepare effective manuscripts, and designers in presenting visually appealing manuscript to the reader. Publishing should be, and usually is, a team effort in which no single person holds decision-making power over all four types of content. Rather, each member of the team manages their own type of content and works with other team members to create the final product.