Excellent Writing Advice from a Longtime Editor

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Elizabeth Razzi gave me the best content marketing advice I’ve ever heard.

Ready for it?

Whether you’re writing an article for your company’s blog, helping an internal expert clarify their ideas or even composing a tweet, this advice applies.

“The reader should get more from it than you do.”

It’s so obvious, but so helpful. How many puffed-up “thought leadership” pieces have you read that share what seems like interesting advice at first but quickly turn into a straight-up sales pitch?

As an editor who works with marketers, I always find myself explaining this simple concept. Your goal is to help the audience first — not to push the idea, product or service you’re selling. It’s all of that selling that makes people turn up their nose at content marketing in the first place. If you’re not helping the reader more than you’re helping yourself, you’re actually not doing yourself any favors at all.

But back to Elizabeth, the source of that golden advice. She’s the editor-in-chief of Urban Land magazine at the Urban Land Institute, an international nonprofit that promotes responsible land use and the creation of thriving communities around the world. She has decades of experience turning complicated ideas into interesting stories. She’s a former real estate editor and columnist at The Washington Post, and earned her chops writing about real estate and personal finance for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and the National Association of Realtors.

I asked Elizabeth about how she edits a print magazine, the challenges of working with experts who aren’t professional writers and how to serve a sophisticated audience that demands an in-depth look at emerging stories.

As editor-in-chief of Urban Land Magazine, how do you pull each issue together?

We have a very, very small staff. Basically I'm the only full-time editorial person doing this magazine. We have two copy editors who are excellent and work on all of the organization's other publications as well, and we have one designer.

Many of our colleagues here who are subject experts or leading projects are also excellent writers. Sometimes they'll write things for us about the projects or the areas they're working in.

We’ve cultivated a roster of close to a dozen freelance writers who really get what we're doing, and their expertise in our subject builds with every story.

What are some of the challenges of your job?

The Urban Land Institute has 40,000 members around the world that work across the spectrum of fields related to land use. We have developers, financiers, architects, landscape architects, public officials, planners, lawyers. It’s really fun to be the editor of a magazine that's trying to be something useful for all those people, but it's also a challenge.

One of the challenges is to write articles that get over the “gee-whiz” factor. For example, “wow, there are autonomous vehicles coming.” That's the “gee-whiz” story. Our readers know all about that, and they're trying to figure out how to build cities that can accommodate them, and figure out what it means for the buildings they’re going to build. What will we do with the parking that we don't need? That's the big challenge and the fun of this position.

You work with experts who aren’t professional writers. What is your approach to editing non-writers?

It can be a challenge. Here’s an example: A lawyer always puts their big idea in the last paragraph, because that's how they're taught to write. They'll build their case over hundreds of words and then say, "And therefore, this is the important thing." When you get a decision from a judge, everybody flips to the end to find out who was winning in this argument. So when I’m working with lawyers, I’ve learned to go take the end and put it at the beginning. Then I go through and see what we can trim out so it's not a master's thesis or a Ph.D. thesis and instead an article that people can flip through on the train.

Have you learned any other tips for transforming non-writers' writing into approachable, easy-to-read articles?

When people don't do a lot of writing, they sometimes use the writing process to try to figure out what they want to say. And they struggle. You can tell. When they're not coming in by deadline, it's, "I'm working on it, I'm working on it." They don't know what they want to say, and they think somehow in writing they're going to learn that. One of the best tips for that was from another editor at Kiplinger's, who would have me write the table of contents blurb before I wrote the story. If the writer can't do that then they really don't know what they want to say.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I love this tip. If you’re writing content online, you could try writing the meta description first. If you can’t sum up your idea in 160 characters, you probably won’t be able to write it in 500 words.]

I also advise writers, especially non-professionals, to set up a scrap file when they’re re-editing their work. If you come across something that’s great but you don't know how it fits into the story, you don't have to delete it. Just take it out and save it in the scrap file. You can always go back to it. That allows you to be a little more ruthless in trimming your story.

If you ask someone to contribute a piece, what advance guidelines do you give them to make sure you get what you're looking for?

One of the things that we really insist on here is to be non-promotional — and being a membership organization, members want to promote their own work and projects. I have to explain to them that the other people who are reading this article need to get more from it than you are, so find other examples and point to other work.

The whole point of the Urban Land Institute is to promote best practices and create urban environments that are livable and sustainable, so they really are living in the future and building the future. It's very idealistic when you think about it. So I ask them “How is your article going to help other members build better places and become better at their careers?” If you can get people thinking that way, it puts them in the mindset of the magazine and mindset of the organization rather than just their project.

What lessons have you learned to get more interesting information out of people you interview?

Don't be embarrassed to ask professionals to explain things more. Sometimes that leads to a really great question. Also, maybe the biggest advice I have for interviewing is to just be quiet. Just let them talk sometimes.

What are you most proud of that you've done in your career?

Two things. The first book that I wrote was called the “The Fearless Home Buyer,” and it came out during the real estate bubble, but it was good solid advice — very conservative financially. The premise was that if you know what you're getting into when you buy a house, and all the details of your mortgage, then you're all right. The second one was at the Post. I was able to write about a Ponzi scheme that caused a lot of people to lose homes to foreclosure. It was in progress and it eventually got prosecuted, but I was the first to call attention to it and so that probably caused some people to not lose their homes.

 

Thanks, Elizabeth, for your sage advice! I’m going to borrow it and share it with every content marketer I know.

Lee Price is managing editor of Managing Editor and content marketing consultant at Rep Cap. She's a proud University of Virginia fan, Twizzler enthusiast and feminist. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her on Twitter @leevprice.

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