One of the toughest parts of my job is editing my team’s content. It’s one of my least-favorite work responsibilities.
Why? What makes editing such a drag?
- It’s time-consuming. A good editing job is methodical. You have to make corrections, rewrite sentences or even entire sections, look up AP style notes (I’ve never committed it to memory, unfortunately), double-check SEO goals and keyword usage and leave a series of comments for the original writer. Even a “quick” editing job can take an hour or more.
- It’s uncomfortable. Changing someone else’s work, no matter how valid your intentions, is a tricky thing. Writers are often sensitive about their work and take edits personally.And why not? If we’re not editing something that is verifiably wrong — a style mistake, a misspelling, a punctuation issue (and, to be honest, there should not be many of these mistakes by the time a writer is drawing a paycheck) — the process is subjective. You’re telling someone their choices, based on either art or expertise, are wrong. A lot of writers have a tough time handling that kind of feedback.
- It never ends. I am a content marketing director at a relatively small agency (25 people) with a relatively small content team (there are four of us) and we’re cranking out new work at a breakneck pace for our clients. Blog posts, scripts, ad copy, social media updates, proposals, lists, reports — every day is a veritable Johnstown flood of words.Our edits go to the client, who inevitably wants to make more edits. Sometimes we need to edit the client’s edits. The cycle continues.Eventually, we find ourselves squeezed against a tight deadline that seemed like a speck on the horizon when the first draft was ready for that first quick once-over.
Why learning how to edit is so damn important
Sometimes, a dirty thought crosses my mind. I’m busy, I’m stressed and I get a draft from one of my team members to edit before sending it along to a client for review. I start editing, realize it’s going to be a slightly bigger job than I’d hoped, and then, all of the sudden, there’s a little devil whispering in my ear.
“Just send it along,” Devil Ben says. “The client will make changes, anyway. Why waste your time? Now let’s look at Facebook for a few minutes. Just a few, I promise.”
In life, it’s generally good advice to ignore the devil. The same goes for editing — you can’t shirk the process.
Honest, authentic editing is not just your job. It is your obligation.
Knowing how to edit efficiently prevents humiliating mistakes from ending up in front of a client, who then wonders what the hell you’re being paid to do.
Understanding how to edit forces you to review the strategy behind each piece of content and determine if you and your team are, in fact, on point.
Taking the time to edit allows you to turn OK work into legitimate content wins.
“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of your house in your underwear,” author Patricia Fuller once noted, and in the advertising and marketing world, that statement is doubly true: you never want the people paying you to be the expert to see you with your pants down.
How to Edit Copy With Grace and Aplomb
With that in mind, here are some ways you can improve how you edit and make the experience more rewarding for the people you are editing:
Explain why. Tools like Google Docs and ClearVoice offer editing with clear commentary and easy-to-view changes. Make sure your content creators can see exactly what you edited and take the time to explain why you made those changes.
Remember the importance of transparency: communication is key to improvements over time. Plus, you’ll seem like less of a jerk when they understand why you are marking up their work.
Be consistent. Where is your AP Style Guide? Your Strunk and White? Your Merriam-Webster? Your internal and client-side style manuals? Are you using SEO and keyword tools to guide your decision-making?
Ever check out BuzzSumo to see what’s getting social traction? Do you run headlines through CoSchedule’s analyzer? Do you have an editorial calendar? Are you looking at your own content analytics, and are you using tools to see what kinds of content in your field are performing well?
Don’t have the answers? You have a problem.
“Bloggers and editors work extremely hard,” notes freelance writer Kenneth Waldman. “They have to be meticulous, knowledgeable, and detail-oriented. But they also have to be creative, engaging writers. They have to be efficient researchers, as well as extremely organized.”
Hey, editor: if you’re not doing your homework and using transparent methodology in your work, there’s a good chance that your team members actually know what they’re doing better than you do.
Arbitrary editorial decisions and changes based on what you think is best is a great way to infuriate your content creators because they can never be right. They’re just trying to make you happy. Don’t you hate it when clients do that to you? Don’t be a bad client to your own staffers.
Be open to debate. Your content creator may feel strongly that her way is better. As a professional, though, she deserves the chance to speak her mind.
Ask her to give you reasons, grounded in grammatical or stylistic evidence, why her way is right. Are there tools, rules or examples she used that led her to her specific decisions?
The same goes for you, too. If you’re making changes, simply saying “It sounds better my way” is a little condescending and is not a great way to earn your team’s trust and respect.
“I find it really stimulating to have to interrogate the assumptions that you have as an editor about what’s interesting, what’s not interesting, what’s a good story, what’s a bad story, what’s the story that’s been done a million times already,” Jonathan Shainan of The Guardian says. “I feel like when you get out of a place that is your place — which, for me and you, is America or New York — you have to kind of think through some things in a fresh way. And I think that can be really productive.”
Let them fix it. You can handle quick edits to iron out a slightly rugged sentence, so long as your content creator can see where (and why) you made the changes.
If a piece of content needs wholesale changes, though, don’t do it yourself — it’s not your job, and your team members will never learn if you don’t give them the chance to redeem themselves.
Carefully and privately explain why you feel the content missed its mark.
“Some copy editors come across as school marms, with rigid sets of rules and an urgent need to rap knuckles every time they are broken,” writes Pat McNees. “So many authors have violated their linguistic pet peeves over the years that a kind of biliousness leaks through in their margin notes. Nothing makes a writer want to stop writing for a publication more than a hand-slapping copy editor, who sees his or her work not only as ‘correcting’ the writing but as training the writer not to make the same mistake again.”
Make suggestions for improvements and set a deadline for the new draft. It may be hot — that’s fine, it gives your content creator a chance to work under deadline pressure, too.
Remember that content often goes astray when instructions are unclear, so make sure that you and your writer are comfortably on the same page before heading into Round Two.
Allow yourself to be edited. Every content creator needs an editor, and that includes you, boss. You can ask your team to edit your work, although this can be a tricky situation: do you have an open enough relationship with your staffers to trust that they’ll be completely ruthless?
If not, look in the mirror and figure out why you have such crummy communication with the people who look at you as a leader. While you try to solve that problem, ask a trusted peer or — if you have to pay for it — a freelancer to clean up your copy.
Be kind. I’m not recommending the sugar-with-the-salt method, because it’s easy to see through the BS — “Oh, I loved your work! I just changed everything, here you go.”
Professional content creators don’t need to be patted on the head like good little schoolchildren. They do, however, deserve legitimate recognition — I’ll go so far as to say praise — when they do an excellent job.
These accolades can run the gamut from a quick email to a few words at a team meeting to an awards submission. Everyone likes to win a trophy, and nothing shows your confidence and respect for a content creator’s work like putting up company time and money to submit outstanding projects for industry awards.
“It’s amazing how well ‘nice job’ can grease the wheels — better yet, pick out something more specific: maybe the writer’s knack for catchy subheads or an overall strong structure,” writes Bill O’Sullivan. “I’ve received heartfelt thank-you notes for something as simple as that.”
Now, edit me.
Do you have any editing tips that have worked particularly well for your own team? Do you think that my tips are soft and asinine? Let me have it on Twitter @quinlancompany or @bk77. Just make sure you use proper punctuation.
Much love to Unsplash for the great images.