Monday, November 15, 2010

My 3-Prong Approach to Editing

The best editing is seamless.

I've written a lot here about writing and social media over the years, but relatively little about editing. Since the last several projects I've completed for clients have all had to do with editing, and I was inspired by our leggy "visitor" on this morning, I thought I would discuss some key points on editing and my approach. Looking at our spider visitor for a few minutes today, I was impressed (as I always am -- we have very industrious spiders around here), how seamless they make everything look. One day, you don't see them, and the next, there they are, suspended in their intricate web, a truly architectural feat if you really look closely. A deceptively simple accomplishment, and a perfect metaphor for editing!

Say you have a new writing project you've recently completed, or written a rough draft on. Maybe it's a new e-book, or white paper, or even a batch of new blog posts. You've read it over and you think it's probably OK, but then you start to think about it, and you feel a little unsure. Maybe it doesn't read as well the next day, or for some reason, you're not as excited about it as you were. Are you ready to publish or post it? Maybe not. Here are some issues you might be concerned about:

*clarity: just because a concept or series of events is clear to you, doesn't mean it will translate clearly to the reader. One of the main tenets of writing and editing is to objectify an experience or idea, so that the reader has all the information they need to process and understand the concept. I've seen writing that, despite numbering, bullets, asterisks, and every kind of demarcation you can think of, still doesn't make sense. This is either due to a lack of logical progression, a vocabulary that doesn't suit the audience, or simply jumping around too quickly from one idea to the next. A lack of clarity can also stem from the writer's uncertainty as to the real objective or outcome they want from the project, or being too close to a topic, or merely an overlooking the obvious. For example, I have many times seen people write:
"For more information, Contact Me." That's all well and good, but typically there is no information on how to contact them. 
Simply adding a phone number, e-mail, or website, solves the problem! Yay.

*grammar, punctuation, sentence structure: a lot of writing suffers from similar kinds of problems, repeated over and over again until someone (like your editor) helps to stop the madness. Common writing errors I have stopped in their tracks include grammatical errors, such as "its" vs. "it's." Its is possessive, it's is a contraction for it is. Other problems I see concern, for example, use of passive vs. active voice. Passive voice means that something was done to something else, rather than directly engaging the reader that the action was done directly. For example: The letter was mailed by Joe in the mailbox, instead of: Joe mailed the letter in the mailbox. It's a simple fix to correct the problem, and yet I see it emerge repeatedly in all kinds of writing projects. Another common grammatical culprit is a lack of parallel construction, meaning that the second part of the sentence does not agree with the first part. For example: 
The two sisters walked on the beach, followed by eating a picnic lunch. The sentence needs to be corrected so the two parts agree. "...and then ate a picnic lunch..." solves the problem, by using the same past tense form of "walked" and "ate," rather than the gerund, "eating."

*Voice and Audience:  with any writing project, you must have a clear understanding of who your audience is, and you must envision your reader. As tempting as it may be to write for yourself, the purpose of most writing, particularly business writing, is to communicate with your audience, so if you lose people, you won't be helping yourself or your business. It's the same idea as the design of your web site. The best advice out there is not to design the prettiest site, or the one you like the best, but the one that will resonate with your audience the most. Take the Craigslist web site, for example. When was the last time you referred someone to Craigslist because it was such a great looking site? It's the functionality and relevance that are key. I once went to a marketing workshop where the speaker discussed social media personalities. He pointed out that there was nothing wrong with having a controversial or even a smug persona (think Old Spice) as your brand, as long as you were authentic about who you were.

So, back to editing. When I edit a project, I focus on these 3 considerations first and foremost: Clarity, Grammar and Punctuation, and Voice and Audience. Why? Because they form the foundation for all good writing, and when you have a good base to work from you can embellish from there, using graphics, headlines, subheads, etc.

Other steps I take each time I have an editing project are to:

  • Read through the entire document first. This is important, as I need to know the entire shape and flow of the document so that the edits I make in the beginning will be consistent throughout. If your main point for example, is hidden on your last page, clearly that needs to be highlighted earlier on.
  • Consider what type of document it is, and edit accordingly. An e-book is different from a white paper, just as a blog post is not the same as a press release. A longer document might need to be expanded, for example, while a shorter document needs to be consolidated and concise.
  • Review any notes I might have about the project from a consultation with the client, so I can make sure that the document is consistent with their goals and objectives.
  • Read passages or the entire edited document out loud, so I can be sure the final product is, in fact, seamless.  
  • Check for accuracy. If you are including facts, figures, percentages, and statistics, I need to know that you have researched them and that they can be substantiated. Online or offline resources, publications, web sites, and other articles, or all good background resources to substantiate your case as needed, particularly if you are writing a white paper.
  • Check the clients other publications. I like to keep the big picture in mind even if I'm editing a smaller document that relates to a client's business. In this way, I can get a feel for their voice and their audience. So, I will take a look at their web site, any other promotional copy they have published, and even videos if they have recorded any, as these provide insight into their personalities and style.
So, there you have it: my approach to editing, with a few embellishments thrown in!

So now it's your turn. What do you look for in a good editor? Have you ever written something you loved one moment, but didn't like later on? How did you fix the problem? Please comment here, we've all been through it!

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