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Everyone needs an editor. No matter how talented a writer or content creator is, there’s virtually no instance in which their work won’t benefit from a second set of eyes, some objective questioning and, ultimately, some improvements.
Why a robust content editing process is important
Anyone can publish content online with just a few clicks, and the editing process is often overlooked, forgotten, ignored or simply deemed unnecessary. As a result, the internet is flooded with poorly written, confusing and inconsistent content that’s falling short of its potential.
The good news is that this presents a growing opportunity for well-edited content to shine. As competition for online attention continues to intensify, “good enough” is no longer good enough. Audiences increasingly demand high-quality, concise and engaging content from the sites they visit, and if they don’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll simply move on to the next search result to get what they need. Robust editing can go a long way in ensuring high-quality output.
Good editing is fast becoming an important search engine optimization (SEO) consideration, too. Search engines have become far more sophisticated in their understanding of user behavior in recent years, meaning poorly-edited content now presents a significant risk of negatively impacting its discoverability.
Some writers and content types benefit from editing more than others. Some of the best journalists, storytellers and creative minds in the world struggle with writing and lean on developmental editors to help them synthesize and organize their ideas effectively, while others are great at expressing and structuring their ideas, but benefit from copy editors to add extra clarity and punch to their work. Even veteran writers and editors who have mastered their craft have blind spots that should be checked with a quick edit, especially after spending hours working closely on a project.
How to ensure a successful editing process is instituted
Brand publishing operations should think about the following facets of editing:
- Different types of editing are required. Content editing relates specifically to the content of a piece of writing. It evaluates the information included in a written piece of work, and the way it’s structured and presented to the reader, at a high level. Structural and stylistic editing goes a level deeper than content editing to examine and improve the organization, clarity and “flow” of the piece. This can also be where brand-related elements can be checked, added or enhanced. The final step of the editing process is copy editing and proofreading.
- Structuring an editing process effectively can mean mixing and matching various editing types depending on the content itself as well as the resources available. This includes setting the right expectations for writers.
- Giving feedback to writers effectively and efficiently is perhaps the most overlooked part of the editing process. How feedback is given can affect the end product as well as relationships between team members.
This Guide will walk through the various types of editing above, as well as how to structure an editing process in a way that keeps momentum and clarifies expectations, ensuring a healthy relationship between editors and writers, while also creating the best work possible.
Types of editing
Editing is often thought of as a single discipline, but in actuality, it encompasses a range of practices and procedures, each serving their own purpose and striving toward a different intended outcome.
For the purposes of most brand publishing operations, there are three key types of editing that can be easily defined, built into publishing workflows and, ultimately, used to greatly improve the quality and consistency of their output: (1) content editing, (2) structural and stylistic editing and (3) proofreading and copy editing.
To many people, the practice of editing means correcting typos and grammatical mistakes, and perhaps checking for factual inaccuracies. While these elements are important parts of the editing process and should not be overlooked, the most critical edit any piece of writing should go through is a rigorous content edit.
Content editing — as its name suggests — relates specifically to the content of a piece of writing. It should evaluate the information included in a piece of writing and the way it’s presented to the reader, rather than stylistic or technical elements such as tone, structure and grammar (which will be examined later in this Guide).
A content edit should step back and evaluate a piece of content as a whole, ensuring it’s effectively and cohesively conveying information and value to the reader, while identifying any gaps, errors and potential areas for improvement.
Content editing should typically ask:
- Is the information being presented interesting or valuable? Content editors should critically examine why a piece of content exists, and whether it serves a clear purpose and provides evident value to the reader. If a piece of content fundamentally fails to deliver value, an editor should be able to coach the writer and ask questions about the project’s goals and audience, providing an opportunity to better connect with the reader, prior to publishing.
- Does the content deliver on its promise? As a reader, there are few things more frustrating than being promised specific value or payoff, only to be met with low-quality information, vagaries or padding. Writers don’t always deliver the content they aim to, and that’s OK. Content editors must decide if more work is needed to get a piece of writing up to standard, if it should be reworked and adjusted to deliver on a slightly different promise to the reader, or if the piece is ultimately beyond the capabilities of the writer attempting to produce it and should be reconsidered entirely or given to another writer. Content editors should always be cognizant of what’s being promised to the reader, compared with what’s delivered.
- Does the content map directly to an editorial mission? Even if a piece of content is interesting, valuable and delivers on its promise, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for a specific publication or audience. Content editors should be prepared to “police” writers and their content, to some degree, to ensure it consistently maps back to the broader goals laid out in the editorial mission and brand publishing strategy.
- Is the information being presented effectively? While there are, technically, no wrong ways to present information or tell stories, there are certainly some methods that are much more effective than others. Content editors should be prepared to rework a project to ensure value is being delivered to readers as effectively and efficiently as possible. That includes reordering copy to ensure pertinent and valuable information is placed at the beginning of content and editing for brevity, where necessary. Content editors should also be mindful of whether a specific content format is the most effective vehicle through which to deliver optimum value to the audience. A news story might better serve the reader when repackaged as an explainer piece, for example, while a news analysis might make for a better trend piece. [LINK]
- Are there glaring inaccuracies or missed opportunities? A good content editor should, ideally, be familiar enough with the subject matter they’re covering to identify inaccuracies or misinterpretations, but also to help uncover and tease-out additional insight and value. Perhaps they’re able to connect dots or draw parallels between topics and events in a way that the writer had missed or overlooked, or perhaps they have previous knowledge or context they can apply to a piece of content to add value and insight for the reader. Editors might return questions or suggestions to the writer to explore and unpack further, or add themselves, where appropriate.
Structural and stylistic editing and optimization
While content editing concerns itself largely with the underlying information, ideas and value included in a piece of writing, structural and stylistic editing goes a level deeper to examine and improve its organization, clarity and “flow.”
For brand publishing operations, this editing step is also where important stylistic and brand-related elements can be checked, added and enhanced to ensure a piece of content is as effective as possible in reaching and engaging a target audience.
Structural and stylistic editing should aim to inquire:
- Is the writing clear and understandable? At this point, an editor should dig into the specific language being used in each and every sentence. This style of editing helps them identify opportunities to add clarity and specificity, remove superfluous language and, where possible, cut down on length. Unnecessary flourishes and b-material should be removed in the interest of giving the reader the cleanest, most concise and efficient reading experience possible.
- Can the piece be structured more effectively? Editors should examine how well the content flows overall, and how easy and enjoyable it is for the reader to consume. Do arguments and ideas follow a logical or linear progression? Are transitions between ideas and points elegant or cumbersome? Is the writing structured in a way that makes it easy to follow? Editors should feel encouraged to rearrange and rework sentences and paragraphs to ensure the best possible experience for the reader.
- Is there jargon that can be eradicated or better explained? Jargon comes part and parcel with writing for any highly specific audience or group, particularly when related to fields such as business, technology and strategy. In many cases, executives have been trained for years to speak in ways that are unintelligible to “regular” people, and in ways they, themselves, would otherwise never speak. Use of terminology, specific to a certain subject matter or industry, is often unavoidable, but editors should ensure acronyms and unique language are not being used as crutches to prop up lazy writing, or in an attempt to confuse readers. Editors should ensure that, wherever possible, copy is accessible to industry newcomers and does not require detailed knowledge to derive value from the piece. Writing for a specific audience is not an excuse to leave potential readers behind with inaccessible and unapproachable writing.
- Are the language and tone consistent with brand guidelines? Adapting writing styles to match a specific tone and sensibility comes easier to some writers than others, which is why the stylistic editing step is particularly important. Any publication should strive to create both an identity and voice that become synonymous with its brand, particularly if it’s created by a brand whose primary business lies outside of publishing. A key role for any editor in a brand publishing operation is ensuring that all content — regardless of whom it’s created by — carries a voice, tone and sentiment that’s consistent with the goals laid out in the brand publishing mission statement and broader strategy. [LINK] For brands with complicated and nuanced style guides and requirements, this process may require multiple layers of editing to ensure alignment with overarching company values, goals, and in some cases, legal requirements and considerations. Experienced editors come into their own here, offering the ability to stick to and work around strict guidelines and rules, and using their judgment on whether those rules can be bent or broken.
- Are facts and numbers accurate? It’s the responsibility of the writer to ensure facts, data points and other claims in their writing are accurate, but these elements should always be confirmed by an editor. In most instances, facts and numbers should be clearly sourced and attributed, and therefore, easy to check with a simple search. In instances where new facts or data points are being published, editors should scrutinize writers’ sources and test their conviction in the accuracy of their work. If, when questioned, a writer begins to backtrack or display doubts about the accuracy of what they’ve written — and the accuracy cannot be confirmed easily — editors should carefully consider whether they’re confident enough to publish it.
- Is there a kicker or a clear next step? Ineffective writing often ends flatly, with a conclusion or summary that reads like a lazy term paper. An emphatic statement or quote that captures an emotional part of the piece can often be used as a “kicker” to send the reader away with a firm sense of conclusion and/or something to think about. Where applicable, a clear next step or call to action can also be included, inviting the reader to learn more about a given topic or leading them to related content.
Copy editing and proofreading
The final step of the editing process is copy editing and proofreading. Unlike content editing or stylistic editing, copy editing and proofreading operate on a more granular level, focusing on the use of individual words, sentence structure, punctuation and grammar.
Copy editors and proofreaders should have a firm grasp of the basics of grammar and punctuation, in addition to an understanding of the voice and tone of the brand producing the content. Publications should typically adhere to a specific style — Associated Press (AP) style, for example — to eliminate confusion when it comes to how sentences are structured, what things are called and certain mechanics of writing.
Copyediting and proofreading should aim to examine:
- Are there typos? The most important part of copyediting and proofreading is quality control, specifically for spelling mistakes or other inadvertent errors.
- Is this grammatically correct? The use of correct possessives, punctuation, pronouns and adverbs are foundationally important for any piece of writing. Copy editors should seek to ensure that basic rules of grammar are being followed, including adhering to the appropriate tense and voice and ensuring agreement between subjects and verbs.
- Is there consistency? Are topics referred to in a similar way throughout, or are new ideas introduced without explanation? Consistency of places, ideas and even styles of writing, such as third-person versus first-person, or passive voice versus active voice, is important to keep readability in a piece of writing.
- Are sentences too long or too short? Are key ideas broken up into multiple sentences where commas should take the place of a full stop? Or do too many ideas exist in run-on sentences where writing is confusing or tangled. A key part of copyediting any piece of work is ensuring readability so confusion is eliminated and avoided.
- Are there syntax errors? Writers may be using the wrong words to denote certain ideas or thoughts. Copyeditors are masters of wordcraft and should be able to find errors in syntax or replace words with more appropriate verbiage to improve comprehension.
- Are there needless, unnecessary or difficult words where simpler text will do? Writing should be interesting to read without being bogged down with unnecessary verbiage or words; using simple language without losing voice is equally important.
- Has this piece been overwritten? Piggybacking off of the last point, overwriting and overstating are common issues that are frequently seen in writing related to more technical ideas and concepts. Overstating turns readers off. Copyediting should strategically cut down to the necessary basics, avoiding and eliminating wordiness and staying away from unnecessary superlatives that diminish writing.
Structuring the editing process
Every piece of content should go through an established and consistent editing process. This process should be clearly documented and widely understood by editors, writers, content creators, managers and anyone else involved with the project. Documentation can also be shared with freelancers and contractors to ensure they know what to expect and what each step is intended to achieve.
The specifics of editing processes will vary from one publication to the next, based on personnel, team size, bandwidth and other variables. Depending on the operation, there may be one set of editors for content and style and another set for copyediting. Ideally, each piece of content should be reviewed by at least two editors, but for smaller operations that’s not always an option.
Many brand publishing operations find success with the following six step editing process:
- Writer submits content
- Editor 1 reviews for content
- Writer addresses questions and edits
- Editor 2 conducts structural and stylistic edits
- Editor 2 completes copy edit
- Writer conducts final read and raises any concerns with editors prior to publishing
For smaller and more resource-constrained brand publishing operations, the process above is often truncated to a shorter, five-step process to minimize back and forth between writers/content creators and editors:
- Writer submits content
- Editor reviews for content
- Editor conducts structural and stylistic edits
- Editor completes copy edit
- Writer conducts final read
The above five-step process can effectively be boiled down even further if the same editor is made responsible for each step of the editing process. In that instance, the process is extremely simple:
- Writer submits content
- Editor conducts a content, stylistic and copy edit
- Writer conducts final read
Setting expectations for writers
In addition to being made aware of the editing steps their work will undergo, writers and content creators should also be told, clearly, what’s expected of them when it comes to filing content.
Clear expectations should be set related to:
- Quality: For most publishing operations, the existence of robust editing processes is, by no means, viewed as a safety net or excuse for poorly researched content, lazy writing and sloppy typos. Mistakes happen, of course, but the editing process is designed to augment and elevate content, not to rescue it. Allowing writers to take the attitude that “it will be edited anyway” is a slippery slope, and one that quickly diminishes the quality of output. Most publications expect their writers to file copy that’s “ready to publish,” and this requirement should be clearly communicated to them. Some publications may, for tactical reasons, encourage writers to file “rough” copy and have editors do more of the heavy lifting to prepare it for publication. Regardless of the approach, expectations around copy quality and “cleanliness” should be made clear.
- Deadlines: For the avoidance of any doubt, writers and content creators should be made acutely aware, in writing, of what their deadlines are and how firm they are. If certain deadlines are more flexible than others, these should be clearly delineated from those with strict deadlines. Editors should also set deadlines for specific times and account for time zones, as opposed to using vague terms such as “end of day” or “close of business.” Clarity is key.
- Style: Writers and content creators should also be made clearly aware of the style guide being used by a publication. Many publications choose to adopt common style guides such as the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, but others often choose to develop their own guides or make additions and tweaks to common style guides to suit their own brand and needs. Regardless of the style guide used, it should be made readily available to all writers and content creators to refer to, as necessary.
- Mission and audience: All writers — particularly those who work full-time for the company — should have a solid understanding of the publication’s target audience and audience personas in addition to the broader editorial mission the publication is striving toward. If there are clear outcomes and key performance indicators (KPIs) the publication is expected to achieve, these should typically be made clear to writers upfront. (There are, at times, exceptions when working with freelancers.)
- Pitching, assignments and ideas: Every operation works differently. In some cases, editors may expect writers to provide weekly or monthly calendars with solidified ideas for stories, posts or other editorial products. In other cases, assignments will be more common. Management must specify their expectations for idea generation to creators and others. [LINK]
Providing edits and asking questions
A critical part of the editing process is establishing effective and constructive ways for writers and editors to interface. Though it may seem overkill, a formalized and consistent process typically works best for both parties, rather than relying on ad-hoc communication via in-person interaction, phone and video calls or instant messaging exchanges.
Written communication typically offers the most effective medium for providing feedback to — and asking questions of — writers and content creators. Popular approaches include annotated Google Docs and good, old-fashioned email, although other content collaboration tools such as shared Word files or Notion work well, too. Where possible, writers and editors should always avoid exchanging notes and questions within content management systems.
During the editing process, editors shouldn’t feel they need to highlight small copy changes they have made, or other insubstantial tweaks, mostly because smart writers should pick up on those by themselves. But some editors may choose to note major changes, both as a courtesy to the writer, and to ensure those changes haven’t impacted the content in a way the writer feels alters its meaning or accuracy.
It’s a must for editors to be specific with writers. Whether the piece in question requires more information, quotes, a better opening or perhaps a rewrite, edits and feedback should be constructive and outcome-oriented. Vague observations, such as “this doesn’t work,” without offering constructive alternatives or suggestions often slows down the process, and more importantly, frustrates and confuses everyone involved.
Checklist and next steps
Editing is as much art as it is science. Effective editors have a knack for understanding good stories, can spot holes and issues quickly and have an intrinsic sense of why something works or why it doesn’t. But, even if all of that exists, talented editors can still benefit from clear communication, documented editing processes and straightforward expectations with writers.
Ultimately, there should always be a healthy tension between writers/creators and editors. Writers should feel their work is improved by editing, and editors should strive to make the process efficient and as painless as possible, even if it’s rarely pain-free.
Brand publishing teams should ask themselves the following questions:
Types of editing
The writer-editor relationship
The editing process
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