I edit a lot. In particular:
- I edit my own blog posts.
- An important part of my consulting practice is editing marketing communications.
- I also edit romance novels,* because:
- Linda Barlow, one of the world’s better romance novelists,* is my partner in all things.
- Linda has turned to self-publishing. (First book out: a revised edition of the great historical romance Fires of Destiny. A series of contemporary romances is coming next.)
- I’m a good enough editor to be helpful.
- Editing high-quality fiction is fun.
Editing and writing of course are based on similar principles, even though the processes are different. So let’s discuss what some of those principles might be.
*Actually, not everything Linda writes fits into the “romance” category. But the first books she’s (re)issuing do. And the biggest awards she’s won — a RITA, some RITA runners-up, and so on — are romance-specific.
My two core principles of writing or editing, almost irrespective of content type, are:
- Only give your readers what they (will) care about. Don’t inflict material on them that will bore them.
- Avoid mistakes.
That first principle breaks down to:
- Make points — or tell stories — that your readers care about. For example:
- (Marcom) The most important thing I do in marcom is point out whether or not a claim is compelling. Then I try to focus press releases, slide decks, etc. on those claims that will actually resonate.
- (Marcom and blogs) Unfortunately, it’s not practical to expect every possible reader to care about every press release you issue, or every blog post you write. But what is practical is to label (e.g. title) them clearly, so that people can ignore the ones they don’t care about.
- Make the points — or tell those stories — efficiently. For example:
- (Blogs) When I write in ordinary paragraphs, I tend to meander through my transitions. Hence the reliance in my posts on bullet points.
- (Novels) Even when compared to other popular novelists, Linda is awesome at keeping her readers turning pages. But occasionally I’ll challenge her “Why are you telling us this yet again?”
- (Anything) In any kind of content, the answer to “Are those 1-6 words necessary?” is commonly “No.”
Note: In a late edit, I reduced the previous two bullet points from 75 words down to 49.
As for avoiding mistakes:
- Each segment of the work — every clause, sentence, or paragraph — should be both clear and pleasant to read. I look in particular at:
- Structure. Whether a clear and correct sentence “reads well” is largely a fraction of length and complexity — but some long sentences also just flow better than others.
- Logic. Do sentences really follow from their predecessors, or are there suitable transitions? Or, as an alternative — especially in bulleted lists — do sub-points really support or exemplify their parents?
- Grammar and spelling. Neatness counts. (That said — in most cases I’m cool with sentence fragments, which often just eliminate unnecessary words.)
- Don’t say anything factually incorrect (unless you really, really have to ). Doing so can get in the way of being believed. For example:
- (Blogs) In my blogs, I am careful not to claim certainty of things I’m not 100% sure about.
- (Marcom) A little bit of exaggeration is expected in marcom, and hence tolerated. But marcom that exaggerates too much has zero value — or, due to credibility loss, even less than that.
- (Novels) Fiction is, of course, fictional. Even so — when characters run through a dense forest on a rainy night, I wonder what light source is helping them see their way.
- Be consistent in what you say, and even in what you imply. This is a huge issue in marcom and business messaging, discussion of which I’ll defer to other posts. In fiction — well, if there’s a gun hanging on the wall in the first act but not in the third, somebody should have had a reason for taking it down. And a character’s eye color should stay constant throughout the book.
I’m not going to say much about the actual writing or editing process — that’s too dependent upon type of content, organizational rules (where applicable), and personal style. But one point is worth making even so. A core rule of software development says that it’s far better to find a bug at design time than after implementation. More generally, you want to find errors as early in the development cycle as possible. The same principle applies to writing — or any other form of “content development” — if we phrase it simply as:
Flaws should be remedied as early as possible.
It’s worth significantly changing your content-creation policies, if the result is earlier detection and correction of messaging snafus.