What is editing? Spelling and grammar and style, for sure. But that’s a narrow way of thinking about editing. Great editors are decision-makers, coaches and strategists who improve everything they touch. Learning how to be a better editor means learning how to craft insightful, informative content that moves people to action.
Content marketing teams need skilled editors more than ever. These editors can see the big picture, and they match content ideas to the brand’s voice and strategy. They understand how to adapt content to the desired format. Great editors help their team learn and grow, and they always deliver value to the end user, whoever that is.
Here’s how you can become a better editor and produce greater value for your audience.
What Do Today’s Editors Do?
Modern editors are much more than copy editors and proofreaders.
Today’s editors are content gatekeepers: It’s their job to curate content that informs audiences and drives their behavior. That starts with the organization’s content strategy, which often is created with the help of editors while aligning with high-level goals.
Editors then shift to executing that content strategy and managing operations. From planning the content calendar to ensuring the final product succeeds, editors wield tremendous power in the content production process.
With that power comes many responsibilities. They might be recruiting and hiring staff, freelancers or outside experts. They review submissions and pitches from external contributors. Editors assign work, shape it throughout production and approve it for publication. They are stewards of the brand’s tone, voice, style and factual accuracy.
Editors are also managers. They make sure everyone is aligned with the strategy and that schedules and processes are being followed. And, of course, they must lead people, giving them the resources and guidance they need to produce great work.
What underpins all this work? Editors are constantly making important decisions. Let’s look at some ways that editing decisions can improve content.
Refine the Writer’s Voice
The editor’s gift is to help writers articulate ideas in their own voice. “A good editor understands what you’re trying to say and helps you say it better,” says Wayne Hoffman, executive editor at Tablet Magazine. Editors help writers present these ideas in ways that make sense and are compelling to the audience.
That said, editors should be clear about what they’re looking for. “I tell writers what I do and don’t want. Sometimes I’ll even lay out the article for them — the beginning, middle and end,” Hoffman says.
This might sound strict, but great editors don’t make writers guess. Clear parameters free up writers to focus on the work, which helps unlock their voice.
Another way to set expectations for writers without stifling their voice is to share your brand guidelines. “It’s a useful aid for both internal teams and external consultants, providing consistency across content regardless of who is writing,” says Lucy Mowatt, founder of Method Marketing.
From the pitch through to publication, editors must help writers unlock their insights and convey them to the target audience.
Guarantee Value to the Reader
Editors are the backbone of the writing process. They serve as the first and last set of eyes on a piece of content. In this vital capacity, editors must guarantee that the content provides value to the reader, not just the content producer.
Good content serves the reader first. It provides value beyond a pitch for a product or service. Editors for brand magazines, for example, are responsible for putting out content that offers helpful insights or thought-provoking ideas. That’s a different focus than primarily trying to sell products and services.
You may receive pushback from leaders in the business who want to prioritize selling to the audience. Editors must consider these concerns carefully without making the disagreement personal. Ultimately, editors must successfully make the case for content that puts the reader first and protects the brand’s reputation as a trusted source.
More Than Proofreading
Writing and editing are companion crafts: You can’t produce good writing without an effective editing process. Combine that process with effective coaching, and editors can help writers grow and improve their skills for the long haul.
That growth and development requires tough conversations, like when editors send back pitches or early drafts. For example, some articles may require global revision before they’re ready for publication. “I’ll get a pitch where the story is shaped wrong, but there’s a kernel of something interesting in it,” Hoffman says. It’s your role as an editor to reshape those ideas to provide the most value to the audience.
Editors are well-versed in leaving feedback, but don’t forget that feedback is a delicate dance between two humans that sometimes requires difficult or sensitive conversations. “Getting editorial feedback is a vulnerable experience,” says Lindsey Donner, Vice President of Member Benefits at Community.co. “Be aware of that.”
Process helps here. Many times, for example, writers can benefit from seeing the changes you’ve made and learning why. That “why” might cite the style guide. The explanation might be more big picture, such as showing how revisions enhance the brand voice or strengthen the content’s key points.
Focus on getting everyone to the best outcome even when you’re making significant changes to the text. Use the editing process as an opportunity for constructive feedback from which the writer can learn and grow. Offer feedback in a way that accounts for strengths and gives clear recommendations for improvement.
The more you can help writers improve their work, the better their next assignment will go.
4 Best Practices to Improve Your Editing Skills
Editing is a craft, and the more you practice, the better you’ll become. Here are some practices to help you make better decisions and continue developing your editing abilities.
Start With the Big Picture
It’s tempting to dive into edits, but read through the content first. You want to gain an overall understanding while checking for key concerns, such as whether the content delivers what the headline promises. Ensure that the desired ideas are present and communicated in the best order. At this stage, you should also check whether the content aligns with the overall brand.
Once you’ve read through and have a better understanding, decide whether to move forward or kick it back to the writer for revision. Once the bones of the piece are in place, then you can look at sentence structure, word choice and grammar.
Read Content Aloud
This idea seems simplistic, but bear with me: Reading something out loud helps you notice repetition, poor word choice, run-on sentences and many other problems that drag down writing.
There are larger benefits, too. Reading something out loud also shakes you out of your day-to-day editing mindset. It’s easy to become absorbed in the production process and start reading over content without fully grasping it.
Reading content aloud helps us approach content as a consumer would. With that added perspective, you’ll uncover areas where the content needs more work.
David Sedaris uses this simple activity to catch items he wants to perfect before his books go to print.
Edit for Format and Audience
The idea of “content” covers countless formats and locations, including blogs, pillar pages, web copy and more. When assigning and editing content, be aware of the channel where it will be published. Edit for the nuances of that particular channel or medium.
For example, a pillar page shouldn’t be stuffed with long, unbroken paragraphs. The content needs to be organized by smaller sections. As an editor, you also need to make sure the ideas presented justify the big word count.
Who’s your audience? A white paper for specialists in a technical field might require a formal tone and technical language. By contrast, narrative content that’s designed to reach everyday consumers will likely be informal and conversational. Your brand’s reputation and vibe will also affect how content is created and what channels you publish in.
We’re culturally programmed to hustle, but even the busiest people benefit from breaks. Editing too much for too long becomes overwhelming and leads to poor results. Looking at the same piece for too long makes it harder to see from a reader’s perspective.
If the bulk of your job involves editing, then build time for breaks into your workday. If your job involves other tasks, switch to one of those between editing rounds. Take a break from editing to do something else so you can return to the draft with “fresh” eyes.
Ideally, you’ll be able to perform at least two rounds of editing per piece of content. As mentioned above, the first round is for a big-picture understanding; the second is to dig into a fuller line edit.
3 Habits to Keep Your Skills Fresh
Whether you’re a managing editor or a freelance editor, these practices will help you keep your skills up to date.
Read and Write More
Editing is just one part of the production process, and the best way to keep your skills up to date is to engage in other parts of the process — especially writing. The more you read and write, the more perspective and inspiration you’ll have for refining and elevating the content you edit.
Exposure to new ideas sparks creativity and helps you recognize ideas that are stale or too ubiquitous. Reading more will help you become more discriminating in the content you assign and the submissions you accept.
Prepare for the Future of Content Marketing
Content marketing is constantly evolving and coming more into its own each day. As the function expands and improves, the types of content we produce continue to evolve, too.
Stay up to date on innovations in how content is produced and shared. For example, you need to see how new interactive content is designed so you can provide better edits that are suited to new formats and channels. How ideas are communicated on an interactive webpage, for example, is very different from how they’re expressed in a white paper.
When you’re aware of these distinctions as an editor, you can make better decisions about content strategy and help writers perform better at executive that strategy.
Teach Someone Else
Helping someone else learn makes everyone better. Offer to cross-train or upskill a colleague — better yet, develop a formal program where you and other team members share knowledge and best practices.
Teaching someone how to be a better editor also helps you evaluate and refine your own abilities. You must step back and articulate your processes, which helps you understand where you might have gaps. By instructing others, you improve your communication and gain self-awareness.
Become a Better Editor to Facilitate Better Content
Editors play a vital role in overseeing the entire content production process, and their decisions affect outcomes for writers, readers and overall company strategy. Great editors will make content better and help their team grow. By learning how to be a better editor, you can enhance your ability to bring big ideas to life.