When I first started editing pieces for HubSpot's Marketing blog, I was really, really scared.
I had spent the previous months as a full-time writer, soaking up as much feedback as I could to write the best pieces possible. Then, the tables were turned. Suddenly, I had to be the expert on what we should be publishing, how to fix incoming pieces, and how to give feedback to people who had decades more experience than I in marketing.
I was terrified.
Two years later, I realize that I was right to be scared. Editing is one of the hardest parts of creating quality content and scaling that across your organization. You're in charge of establishing and maintaining The Quality Bar -- an oft-lauded but squishy, intangible concept that no one can actually define for you. And you better do that while growing your audience, training new writers to meet The Quality Bar, and getting buy-in for your content across your organization.
The good news is your fear goes away after a while. After editing hundreds of pieces, training two full-time writers, and making plenty of mistakes, I've uncovered a few tips that I'd recommend to any editor looking to up their game. And I want to share some of these hard-learned lessons with you, too.
How to Be a Better Editor: 11 Tips From the Trenches
1) Question every fact, stat, name, and example.
As The Defender of The Quality Bar, your job is to be the ultimate devil's advocate. You need to wonder whether Oscar Wilde really said that quote ... or it's just another platitude someone stamped his name on. You need to see whether that stat you're using to back up the crux of your piece really means what the writer said it means ... or whether the original study said something different entirely. You need to second-guess whether your main source's name is spelled properly ... or you need an extra 'n' at the end.
The only way you're going to uncover these mistakes is to question everything. So make it a habit.
2) Zoom in and zoom out to uncover adjacent ideas.
Even the best editors get stuck when thinking of new ideas. You block off time to fill out your editorial calendar for the next month, and then ... nothing.
I've picked up a really handy trick that'll help unlock lots of new ideas -- I call it The Zoom In, Zoom Out Method. Here's how it works:
- Think of one idea. Yes, just one. It doesn't have to be good -- it just has to be something concrete. I'll use this as my idea for this example: "10 Tips for Writing Blog Posts Faster."
- Then, zoom in on your idea. Are there sub-sections of your idea that you could turn into a whole post? Can you narrow your topic to make it more appealing to certain audiences? If I want to zoom in on "10 Tips for Writing Blog Posts Faster," I can uncover lots of other topics, such as "10 Tips for Writing Titles Faster" or "10 Tips for Writing List Posts Faster." In each of those titles, I'm just taking my first topic ... and making my world a little smaller.
- Then you go the opposite way -- zoom out from your topic. In this step, you're increasing the scope of your post and focusing less on the very small details. For example, when I zoom out on "10 Tips for Writing Blog Posts Faster," I could uncover "10 Tips for Writing and Designing Content Faster," or "The Science of Being More Efficient." Both of these latter titles are related to the initial idea, but they're broader in scope.
- You can continue this process over and over and over until you build out a huge backlog of ideas.
So next time you think you can't think of any new ideas, think again. Little tweaks can uncover a plethora of successful ideas.
3) Recognize your own boredom.
This advice is something I recently learned from an episode of the podcast Startup -- but it's probably one of the most important lessons I've learned in the past two years. In this episode, Alex Blumberg shares their entire process for creating some of the most compelling podcasts on the market today.
His biggest tip when working with producers to edit episodes? Recognize when you're getting bored -- it's your brain telling you that some serious editing needs to happen.
So when you're assessing a piece, keep part of your mind on the task at hand and part of your mind on your own emotions. If you find yourself pulling up your Facebook feed for the tenth time to escape from reading the piece, stop.
Look inward. Why are you bored? Is it the topic? Is it the way the argument is presented? Is it the way the piece is designed?
Then, think about ways to solve those problems. Add formatting? Rewrite the intro? Design a supporting visual? Rework the thesis? Abandon the piece altogether?
Being more attuned to your emotions -- especially once you've had a few months of editing under your belt -- will help you better assess pieces and give feedback.
4) If you're not sure what's wrong with a piece, zoom into the details, and then zoom out to uncover larger themes.
I know what you're thinking. What if you're bored and you can't figure out what the heck is wrong with the piece? I've got a solution for you, my friends.
When this happens to me, I like to dive into the details of the feedback. I'll write up an email with suggestions like, "In this paragraph, add a sentence about XYZ to strengthen your point," or "Can you add an image here?" But before I hit send, I take a second to zoom out of my feedback: Can I pull out any patterns within the specifics to speak to higher-level problems?
This reflection process allows me to get to the crux of the piece's problem, even when there are lots of competing issues.
5) Know when your feedback should be super detailed -- and when it shouldn't.
It can be tempting to send writers feedback that includes line-by-line changes. In fact, it's absolutely needed when a writer is brand new to your team and is learning the ropes about your brand's voice, style, and Quality Bar.
But once they've progressed beyond the point where you need to tell them that yes, your style guide dictates "real-time" when used as an adjective and "real time" when it's a noun, you need to change strategies. You want the writer to be able to uncover weak parts of their pieces without you having to spoon-feed them every time.
In that stage, your feedback should become less detailed. It should still be specific -- i.e. "You tend to use passive voice," not "Your writing sounds weak." -- but you shouldn't be pointing out line-by-line changes. When you're too specific with your feedback after your writers have achieved a certain level of expertise, they'll be psyched that you spent time pointing out mistakes ... but may not generalize those mistakes to other situations.
So don't shy away from detailed feedback, but realize that specific, less-detailed feedback can also be useful when training writers.
6) Decide which mistakes are non-negotiable -- and never make them.
When you're the one upholding The Quality Bar, it can be easy to obsess over every. single. detail. to make sure you're not making any mistakes.
The truth is, that obsession can be unhealthy. It can make you reread a post over and over and over, hoping and praying you haven't missed anything. It can wake you up at 5:45 in the morning wondering if you actually misspelled the title of your morning's blog post. It can paralyze you, make you afraid to hit publish.
And even when you've done everything you can possibly do, you'll still have a commenter point out that you misspelled something in your introduction.
Your goal shouldn't be to avoid making any mistake ever -- it should be to never make mistakes that matter.
So that its/it's mix-up in your sixth section? That's an easily fixable mistake that doesn't really have an impact on your overall piece's success.
The typo in your title, however? That's a non-negotiable mistake.
Figure out what mistakes you absolutely can't make, and make sure every piece you edit and approve doesn't make any of them. This will save you from many sleepless nights while also preserving your Quality Bar.
7) Keep a list of mistakes you make, and then "Find and Replace" them before publishing a piece.
Confession: One of my recent pet peeves when editing is using plural pronouns when referencing groups or companies ... but it's also one of the things I'm most guilty of when writing.
Knowing that, I make sure to do a "Find and Replace" before I publish a piece to make sure I have all of my pronouns straight.
Identify what writing and editing weaknesses you have, and then search for them in each post before you schedule it. It's as simple as hitting Control + F on a PC or Command + F on a Mac, typing in your problem word or phrase, letting your browser take you to the word or phrase in your piece, and then swapping it out with the right thing.
This simple tip will help you polish pieces in just a few minutes.
8) "Find and Replace" HTML snippets to quickly clean up a post's formatting.
This same tip works when you're trying to clean up a post's formatting. Instead of opening up your source code and manually stripping out problem areas, you can simply Find the problem code and leave the Replace box blank. Once you hit "All," the problem code snippets will disappear completely. You can use this trick to swap out tags, too.
This tip really is about using technology to find shortcuts to time-consuming problems. It'll free up your time to focus on more important matters.
9) Lean on Google and Word to prevent spelling and grammatical errors.
Even if you're the most knowledgeable editor, it can be easy to forget if you need a comma in that sentence or if that word should be capitalized or not. When in doubt, don't brush past your concerns -- Google them. You will find an answer from folks who are way more experienced with writing and editing than you are (and learn more in the process).
I also recommend using Word to help you do a final spell and grammar check. While Word won't catch all of your mistakes, it can help you catch any last glaring errors.
So before you schedule a post, make sure to copy all of your text and paste it in a Word document. And give the document a few extra seconds to process your piece once you've pasted it in there -- Word takes a little longer to "read" your piece and uncover any mistakes. You'll know it's done when you see a little red X at the bottom of your document window:
10) Realize each piece shouldn't sound like you wrote it.
There is such a thing as overediting.
If every piece you edit ends up sounding like you wrote it, you've overedited it.
Your job, as an editor, is to preserve the voice of your writer while making sure they are meeting your Quality Bar. So if they crack a joke that's not funny, you have a right to take it out. But if the joke is cute and you're just reworking it to sound like something you'd say, you're taking it too far.
After you edit each section of a piece, make sure you look back and ask yourself the toughest questions of all: Did I really make that section better? Am I just saying what they said, but in my own voice? If so, you should go back and work their voice back in. Re-integrate some phrases they use. Keep that pun. Let one of their interesting word choices stand.
11) Make peace with not knowing everything.
Editing is filled with gray areas -- gray areas you are not always going to know how to deal with.
Is that title really that much better than this title? Is that metaphor really the best way to explain a complex issue? Is this section really going to offend someone?
Even though you are The Defender of The Quality Bar, you don't, can't, and won't know everything. Question everything -- including yourself -- and ask people for help when you need it.
Challenging your own knowledge and assumptions doesn't mean you're bad at your job. It just means you're experienced enough to know you don't know everything.
And when you get to this point, I promise you one thing: You won't be scared of editing anymore.
What are your favorite editing tips? Share them in the comments section below.
Originally published Dec 17, 2015 8:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017