Note: This post is another peek inside our company playbook. We've also published how we choose content topics, how we turn those topics into drafts, and what you should know if you're creating your own playbook.
Overview: Great pieces require collaboration. Once a writer drafts a piece, here's how to edit it so it's more useful to customers and more impactful for the brand.
What's on this page:
- What's the point of editing?
- How to edit: an overview
- Four useful editing frameworks
- When editing hurts more than it helps
- How to ask your writers for feedback
What's the point of editing?
Goals of editing
"Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine." Stephen King, On Writing
"...every bit of content you create should be to please the customer or prospect—not your boss or client." Ann Handley, Everybody Writes
When you edit, you assume two roles: empathizer and coach. This is because the two big goals of editing are:
- Helping the reader. Great content serves your audience. Your primary goal as an editor is to step into the readers' shoes and make sure each piece serves them. Note: When you help the reader, you help the brand.
- Helping the writer. This is especially important if the writer is working with you regularly instead of producing a one-off piece. But in any case, you want to encourage and equip the writer to produce even better work in the future. This helps you, the brand, readers, and of course the writer. It's also the kind and human thing to do.
Here's how to accomplish these two goals.
A quick guide to editing
"In our world, quality content means content that is packed with clear utility and is brimming with inspiration, and it has relentless empathy for the audience..." Ann Handley, Everybody Writes
When you edit a piece, you pay attention to both the big picture (structure, flow, clarity, relevance) as well as the nitty-gritty (grammar, spelling, phrasing). Think of it this way:
- The first thing you look at is the overall route the writer chose (big picture):
- Does the route end at a worthy destination? Did they choose an effective way to get from point A to point B? Do they take any unnecessary detours or toll roads along the way?
- Then, you zoom in and look at the turn-by-turn steps they took along the way (nitty-gritty):
- Does the scenic bypass make more sense than the commercial highway here? How is the quality of each road? Could they have chosen a better playlist to listen to along the way?
Great pieces take the reader on a journey. The overview below is a basic process for noticing and improving every part of that journey.
How to edit, a brief how-to
Read the whole thing, look at the big picture, zoom in on the details, and double-check your comments:
1. Read the whole thing
- First, sit on your hands and read the ENTIRE PIECE before you comment. This saves you from making embarrassing comments, and it helps you get the lay of the land.
2. Look at the big picture
- Next, look at high-level, structural elements:
- Article purpose: Identify the purpose of the piece and whether that purpose is clear.
- Article outline and structure. Ensure headings are clear, compelling, and work together to build the article's purpose or argument. (See the MECE framework below.)
- Argument strength. Look at whether the body creates one cohesive, compelling argument. Does it have any holes or obvious flaws? Does it need additional support or research in any area?
- 🚧 Note: If any of the three items above need big adjustments, it's best to go ahead and have that conversation with the writer before you proceed with the steps below. A good outline or creative brief will usually (but not always) prevent this.
- Intro. A good intro should quickly and clearly establish who the piece is for and why that audience should care. See the BLUF framework below.
- Closing/CTA. No one reads an article and purchases a 100k product; more likely, they book a call or sign up for a newsletter. Is the selected call to action appropriate (fits the article) and reasonable? And does the reader have a compelling reason to take this action?
3. Look at the nitty-gritty
- Then, zoom in and review the nitty-gritty details:
- Data and statistics. Is the data relevant, recent, contextual, and from a credible source? Is the link to the original source, not a Forbes article citing a secondary source?
- Imagery and screenshots. Do existing images add helpful context to the piece or are they filler? Is there anywhere an additional image would clarify a point?
- Analogies and metaphors. Analogies and metaphors are only useful if they make a complex idea more simple or relatable. Do all analogies or metaphors in the piece do this?
- Style. Do the voice, tone, and style fit the brand?
- Transitions. Does the writing move easily between paragraphs? Or does moving between certain sections induce whiplash?
- Grammar. Are there any obvious errors? (Remember, the goal isn't perfect grammar. The goal is a seamless reading experience.)
- Spelling. Make sure the writer spelled key names and any technical terms properly. Also, look out for common errors such as "motherload" vs. "motherlode."
- Link treatment:
- Internal linking. Link to other articles on our blog wherever appropriate. This helps search performance. (Animalz found the median number of internal links per SaaS article is zero. ZERO! )
- Formatting text links. Link to descriptive text vs. generic "he said" or "in an article"
Review your edits
- Scan back through your comments and make sure they're clear and don't conflict.
- Finally, notify the writer you've completed your review.
To take these steps, you may want to use a few handy frameworks.
Four useful editing frameworks and how to use them
- Useful for: evaluating intros
- What it is: BLUF stands for "Bottom Line Up Front." It more-or-less means put the most important details first. Does the reader immediately know what value they're getting out of the article and why they should read it?
- Useful for: evaluating article structure
- What it is: MECE stands for Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. It was invented by McKinsey consultant Barbara Minto and, applied to content, it's a good way to assess an article's organization. Mutually exclusive means the information is grouped into sets that don't overlap. Collectively exhaustive means there are no obvious gaps in the information.
- Use this framework to assess the article's structure: Does it progress in a logical way without big gaps or leaps? Does it cover the essential/core points in distinct sections that don't repeat other sections? Do the sections add up to a comprehensive take on the subject?
- Useful for: getting into the nitty-gritty
- CRIBS stands for Confusing, Repeated, Interesting, Boring, Surprising. It's most useful for combing through the body of a piece to figure out what's working and what isn't.
- Here's how to use it:
- Confusing: Highlight words, phrases, acronyms, or points that are confusing. These pieces either need to be removed (they're not useful), simplified (they're too complex), or clarified (they're too winding) so the reader can coast through the article.
- Repeated: Good writing is concise. While repetition is helpful in the conclusion (i.e. summarizing your main point), the article shouldn't read like a broken record. Highlight or suggest deleting repetitive statements.
- Boring: This is the fastest way to lose a reader. Highlight areas you wanted to skip or lost interest. These need additional work or may need to be removed altogether.
- Surprising: The article should deliver something unexpected to the writer, preferably in a delightful way. Highlight where a writer does this well (provide positive feedback) and suggest areas where they can do this better and build suspense.
- Useful for: getting into the nitty-gritty
- What it is: An alternative (or good companion) to CRIBS is EASY. This one comes via Fio, former senior editor at Hotjar, and stands for Expert, Actionable, Simple, and Yours—as in, make it sound Yours.
- Expert: The reader should not have to Google, "what does this actually mean" or "how do I do..." when they read this piece—that information should already be in the article. Information should also be specific, thorough, and tailored to what the audience does/doesn't know. (It's generally wise to assume the audience knows less than you.)
- Actionable: Equip the reader to make progress in their business or jobs. Clearly lead people to value (from intro to closing) and give them what they need along the way to do something (via screenshots, steps, videos, etc). "What next?" should be clear and approachable.
- Simple: Get straight to the point and communicate in a clear, easy-to-follow way. No jargons, idioms, or repetitions. Use formatting (emojis, headlines, lists) to make the text more approachable.
- Yours: Use a unique voice and experience to connect with the reader. Strike a balance between professional and personal. Remember, people relate to people.
Making it "expert." via https://contentfolks.substack.com/p/the-easy-framework-for-content
BLUF, MECE, CRIBS, and EASY will all help you identify where an article needs more work and where it can be improved. But keep in mind not all editing is helpful. Here's where you want to be careful.
Here there be dragons: when editing hurts
A comment isn't helpful by default. Especially if you're new to editing, you want to watch out for some common editing pitfalls. Here's when editing does more harm than good:
- When most of your edits are opinions. Unless you have extensive experience as a marketer and/or editor, keep opinion-based edits minimal. Wherever possible, ground your comments in:
- Audience: How would the target reader interpret or feel about this piece, paragraph, or point? e.g. "The target reader is [x] and they have low-awareness of [y]. So, they're probably not familiar with this term. Let's make it more approachable with an analogy like..."
- Strategy: Does the piece accomplish what it set out to do? e.g. "This piece aims to do x, but this section builds toward y. Let's revise or remove this."; "At the end of the article we want the reader to take z action, but right now they don't have a compelling reason."
- Readability: Readers skim. Is this piece easy to digest and understand? If not, how can you make it easier to digest? e.g. "These three long sentences back to back slowed down my pace of reading. Let's simplify at least two of them. "
- Promotion: Where will this piece be distributed, and is it optimized for that channel? e.g. "For greater visibility on [planned promotion channel], let's pull in this resource"
- Brand guidelines: Is it consistent with the brand voice and tone? Does it match how we speak in similar pieces? e.g. "This piece sounds more formal than we usually speak. Since this isn't a serious or touchy topic, let's make these adjustments..."
- Best practices: Is the piece interesting? Does it make use of storytelling and effective copywriting tactics? e.g. "Adding in a testimonial near a call to action usually drives higher conversions. Let's use this one in the closing..."
- When you have too many reviewers in the google doc. In most cases, only one person should review a piece. Or, only one person should gather team feedback and relay this to the writer (creating a single point of contact). Otherwise, comments may conflict and confuse the writer. This slows down revisions and can even render them ineffective.
- Note: On some occasions, e.g. case studies, multiple reviewers may make sense. If you are one of several reviewers in a scenario like this, take time to read other editors' comments. Few things will irritate a writer faster than flippant, conflicting feedback that doesn't reach a conclusion.
- When your feedback is aimed at the writer, not the piece. As an editor, your goals are to improve how the piece serves the reader and encourage the writer to produce better work. Attacking the writer is NOT how you do either. Attacks will instigate bitterness, resentment, and discouragement. So, comment on the piece ("this was engaging in these ways, but repetitive in these ways") vs. on the writer ("you're not good at this type of writing, are you?").
- If you happen to have a conflict with the writer, address it in a 1:1 conversation outside of a piece.
- When you're uncompromising. Do not view every comment as a hill you'll die on; make some concessions. In Nicely Said, Nicole Fenton and Kate Lee point out "Style decisions are not a matter of right and wrong. There will be times when you need to make exceptions to your homegrown rules. Be willing to talk about what makes sense for a particular article, piece, or situation."
Not sure if your editing helps?
I mentioned the two goals of editing are improving the piece for the reader and equipping the writer.
If you're not sure whether your edits are helpful to the writer, there's an easy way to find out—ask them!
Senior writers, in particular, are usually good at explaining what they need from you.
So, set up a time to chat with the writer and ask them:
- How did they feel about the edits overall?
- Which type of edits were most/least helpful?
- Were they looking for any feedback you didn't provide?
- What can you do or provide in the future that will help them deliver their best work?
Remember, it's a team effort.