Working with Writers: Educating, Not Just Editing

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?

About the Author

The Marketing Trenches blog provides thought leadership from actual marketing practitioners, not from professional thought leaders. Designed to help business leaders make more educated marketing decisions, our insights come directly from our experience in the trenches. You can find more from Right Source on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

  • Great post, Tracy. You took the idea that you need to work WITH writers, in order to develop a productive relationship with them, and gave it a very practical and thoughtful treatment here. As an editor myself, I know how hard it can be to give feedback rather than just changing things, but I firmly believe that if you take the time and commit yourself to building the relationship, it will pay off, as you say, in less work and better content.

    Thanks for writing and sharing this! – Matt

    • Thanks for stopping by to read and comment, Matt, and of course, for the inspiration. Your webinar was a much needed wakeup call, or else I’d just be chugging along redlining like usual causing all sorts of needless frustration.

  • Big kudos to Tracy for being the diligent, behind-the-scenes editor of Angel’s newly re-launched blog ( as a case study!) As Marketing Director in charge of everything that goes up, I can certainly attest to: a) how much pride Tracy has in making sure she paints us in the best light; and b) how many comments and shear help she puts into a redline so the original author understands all edits and can learn tips for future writing. Right Source has been absolutely wonderful to work with, and Tracy (even against my will sometimes!) pushes me and our entire authoring team to learn, grow, and be better.

    • Dave, if you’re just trying to flatter me so I ease up on the next piece of yours I edit, it’s not going to work. Really, though, thanks so much for the compliments, it’s a pleasure to work with your team as well! The best is yet to come.

  • Hey Tracy,
    I am a writer and I wish my editor reads your post, especially “You are making this mistake as an editor if you find yourself” and to be more specific 1,2,3,4 and seven. She keeps doing this all the time, though she is a very nice person!
    I wish I could flatter her, like Dave 😉
    Jane Ashwells.

    • Jane,

      Thanks for reading and commenting–glad it resonates. Have you tried kindly pushing for an explanation? I bet she’d have on if you asked!

      Good luck,

  • BradCO

    Tracy, after 12 years as a freelance copywriter I’ve come to believe that the best clients are the ones who give me constructive, specific feedback–both good and bad.

    And lot’s of it.

    Yes, they can be demanding. And yes, sometimes it’s frustrating. But they are doing me a HUGE favor that I value and appreciate. My skills get better, and they get copy that they find valuable (the reason I put pen to paper). Ultimately, it’s a win-win situation.

    And if you think that YOU hate to receive copy that you know you’re going to have to rewrite, edit, change and spend your precious time on, just imagine how much we, as writers HATE to deliver copy that doesn’t meet your needs.

    For my part, I encourage constructive feedback. And when it’s delivered, I ruthlessly screen out any words or tone of voice that may be construed as being defensive. That’s the last thing I think my clients need in their lives. Instead I focus on fleshing out specifically what they feel isn’t working, and then suggest alternatives to solve the problem. Finally, I put in the time necessary to deliver what they expect to read.

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