Content managers, let me ask you a question. Are you ignoring a stack of submitted drafts in your inbox? You know, all those articles you solicited from colleagues and freelance writers after last month’s strategy meeting? Each piece is supposedly ready for “editing,” but you’ve peeked at enough to know there’s a lot more work awaiting you than just correcting a few typos.
Maybe some of these descriptions of incomplete content sound painfully relevant?
A highly polished piece from a freelancer that says everything on the subject your customers already know.
Another freelancer’s piece that tells your readers something new but has no connection to what your company does.
A copy of your company’s investor slide deck with a note from the CEO saying, “There should be enough here for you to ghost write an opinion piece for me.”
A piece written by your summer intern that is thoughtful and comprehensive but that fundamentally misunderstands your company’s technology.
The piece you begged from the engineering lead that does describe the technology correctly . . . you assume. You can’t really understand it.
A piece that is great in almost every way except for not using the brand voice you’re going for, which you can patch up with a spare half hour. (Which is no problem, because you have so many spare half hours, right?)
The whitepaper you’ve been drafting yourself that will be great. You just need to get up early some Saturday morning to find time to finish it.
I’ve noticed often with my clients that they are rarely struggling with “bad writing” so much as they are struggling with a “last mile” problem. Most of it is probably passable or even excellent but is misaligned or incomplete in some way.
The content manager described above is bogged down in an editorial process they didn’t anticipate. This happens a lot in content marketing. Understaffed marketing departments are overseeing campaigns, setting up the email automation, churning out sales collateral and meeting with the web developer about the site design. When they are able to build strong content marketing plans and start hiring writers, the editing process gets overlooked.
Executing on a sound content marketing strategy is a lot easier if you understand and plan for all the stages of editing that precede proofreading.
Experienced editors know that the editing process really begins at the planning stage — at the moment where strategy turns into content development and production.
Your content plan needs a few basic documents like a creative brief and an editorial calendar. I use a creative brief template that translates my client’s business objectives into a detailed vision of what individual pieces of content will look like and gives clear guidance to writers.
Turning concepts or headlines into directions for writers can make all the difference to what material gets turned in later. Many of the problems described above stem from overlooking this stage of the editing process. Even an excellent writer won’t give you what you want without the right direction. After the creative brief is in place, we use individual assignment briefs for each content asset that connects the dots between what will be covered here and the larger content strategy.
This too is part of the editing process, since how you communicate here will have a big impact on the final product. Onboarding writers who are suited to good content marketing is an art itself. I like to make sure that freelance writers with a journalism background are involved, because they typically have characteristics that help produce high-quality thought leadership content:
A priority on saying something new.
Interviewing that gets past talking points.
Synthesizing information from multiple sources.
The editor will also account for the fact that some of the people contributing — like the CEO and the head of engineering described above — are unlikely to have time to turn in exactly what is needed. The editor works around that problem. For example, they might establish a process for ghostwriting or for interviewing the internal experts to capture their point of view.
What gives the newspaper editor nightmares? The fear of the presses rolling with blank white pages because the assigned stories didn’t come in. In content development, editors dread that deadline day will come and all their writers will say, “Yeah, I couldn’t find any information on that subject. Can you give me a different assignment?”
So editors put in a lot of energy while work is in progress to give writers a clear path to the goal line. They keep checking in with the writers to ask, “How is it going? Are you getting what you need? How is this story shaping up?” When necessary, they strategize how to steer a project back on course.
Smart content editors will also build in the right amount of duplication without wasting resources so that, even if one article is delayed, the reservoir doesn’t run dry.
As first drafts come in, the content editor decides whether they need the writer to revise heavily. The draft might not be what the assignment called for or it might not effectively tell the story it’s trying to tell. In other words, the editor will assess two primary areas:
Quality of content. An editor reviews the article for ineffective structure, unimaginative openings, poorly developed points, questionable statements or a questionable source.
Strategic alignment. The editor reviews the work for any material that runs contrary to the company’s business objectives and marketing strategy. Is it helpful to the reader while aligning with the overall business goals?
Now we’re getting closer to what most people think of as editing — reworking lines that feel clumsy or a little off somehow. This is where the phrase “in an efficient, well-coordinated manner” becomes just “efficiently.”
Every reader, when they encounter a phrase like “in an efficient, well-coordinated manner,” knows something is bugging them. But not everyone knows how to characterize what’s off about that phrase or how to fix it. Editors have heightened senses to feel that annoyance on behalf of readers, and they know how to solve the problem.
We’re getting close to final approved copy, and coordination with other stakeholders is starting to ramp up. Soon this content may require attention from a designer, the blog manager, the P.R. specialist who is pitching guest posts, the demand gen manager and the social media marketing specialist.
Coordinating this may just sound like project management, but I’m including it as a part of editing work because some of it requires an “editorial sense” or familiarity with the specific pieces of content. A good content editor will speak the same language as the designer and as the social media marketing manager. Likewise, they will anticipate the concerns of editors at outside publications where the content may get pitched, and they will edit accordingly.
At last, we are at the stage many content managers hoped would be the only one required — fixing typos to minimize embarrassing mistakes.
This stage also includes less familiar work to ensure stylistic consistency. For example, there is no “correct” way to capitalize the subheads above. It’s a style choice. But a good copyeditor will have an eye for inconsistency on that style and on a long mental list of other issues. They’ll make sure your copy doesn’t say % when it should say percent. If they have any spare time at this stage, a dedicated editor will start heated Facebook comment threads about the Oxford comma.
Anyone who has copied a perfect final draft from Google docs to their CMS and then hit publish has had this experience: you’re reading along and then suddenly . . . “How’d I miss that error?”
On a blog you can fix the error easily. But in a PDF that you’re running an expensive campaign around, you would much rather be able to say, “Thank goodness we caught that in time!”
So I strongly advise that marketing managers plan to repeat the copyediting stage when the material is in its designed format — whether on the blog or in a white paper layout. It’s a pain, especially since not everyone on the team will have the design software or know how to use it to correct the copy. But trying to save time here can really backfire.
The content manager we imagined at the beginning had a pile of problems on their desk, all stemming from drafts that were incomplete, incompetent, messy or off-base in some way.
They underestimated what the editorial process involves. Most of that content could be salvaged — or could have turned out right the first time — with better editorial direction. The process needs:
A bridge from strategy to operations — a creative brief and editorial calendar that translates business goals into content readers want and need.
Someone developing clear assignments.
Someone sourcing the writers and monitoring their progress.
Someone rolling up their sleeves for multiple stages of editing — developmental work and sentence-level work.
And only then is the proofreading going to go smoothly. Otherwise, a lot of the effort put into writing content is likely to go to waste instead of getting out into the world where it can bring prospective customers into your sales funnel.