From the Trenches

Working with Writers: Educating, Not Just Editing

Right Source | June 30, 2011

Writing is essential to content marketing—and that means content marketers must work with writers.  I recently attended a webinar conducted by Matt Grant that changed the way I think about working with writers. The webinar focused on working with freelance writers, but his advice applies whether you’re a newspaper editor, a CEO with a ghost blogger, or the intern who just can’t help but proofread your boss’s work.

Matt’s biggest point: it’s essential to educate your writers. If you’re not satisfied with their work, explain why so that they can improve, which will result in less work for everyone as time goes on.

As Matt talked, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach: I’ve been doing it wrong. I’ve been focusing on getting writing ready to publish now instead of taking the time to explain problems and give the writer a chance to fix them.

You are making this mistake as an editor if you find yourself:

  1. Deleting massive swaths of content without explaining why
  2. Adding content without explaining why
  3. Restructuring content without explaining why
  4. Changing anything without explaining why—yes, even just a word or a punctuation mark (obvious typos exempted)
  5. Publishing content without first sending it back to the writer for review
  6. Sending content back to the writer for review without a few overall comments
  7. Providing the writer with only positive, or only negative, comments

For both writers and editors, the end result of a failed editing effort is easy to spot: in a Word Doc with changes tracked, it looks like a lot of red lines, and zero comments.

So, how do you fix this? My suggestions:

  1. When you edit, have a comment for the majority of changes. The comments could be as simple as “needed?” or “redundant” or “awk,” or as complicated as “we avoid the word ‘offer’ in all of our marketing materials because the CEO doesn’t like the way it sounds.”
  2. When you’re working with a writer who is bylining a piece, suggest revisions, don’t mandate them. The decision ultimately comes down to the writer. Of course, if your writer is ghost writing for you, or writing for your brand, you can mandate changes, but still, you should always try to explain why.
  3. Provide overall feedback on the post: does it match your overall goals? Does the structure work?
  4. Say something nice! Tell your writer what’s working, both in the comments in the post, and in the overall comments, so they can do more of it.

This is a lot of work. But if you don’t take the time to educate your writers so that they can improve, you’ll have to keep making the same changes, and that’s a lot of work too. Not to mention, as an editor, you’ll probably grow increasingly dissatisfied with your writers, blaming them for bad work even though you never gave them a fighting chance to fix it. And your writers will grow frustrated and confused, feeling like they just can’t get it right, even though they don’t know why it’s wrong. I’ve been a frustrated, confused writer myself, and take it from me—you don’t want to work with one (unless you’re wearing full body armor).

Sure, if you’re up against a tight deadline, you might have to edit without educating to get something out the door. But, as Matt covered in his webinar, you should then slow down and take the time to explain why you’ve made the changes.

Now begins my vow to educate, not just edit. Are you with me?

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