The ‘long’ review: A peek into the content editing process
An extraordinary amount of work goes into making a really good piece of written content.
Not counting putting together a strategy, there’s ideation and getting a detailed brief together. There’s carrying out research and applying critical thinking skills. And, somewhat finally, there’s the all-important writing and editing phase.
The latter, editing – constructive criticism, feedback and proofing is implied – is the subject of this article. We thought it’d be interesting to give you a sort of behind the scenes peek at what editing content can involve. It’s a complex, creative and time-consuming endeavour that very few people understand, much like writing. Which, you may be surprised to learn, is contrary to what many decision-makers within the industry think. Hands up anyone who still hears something along the lines of “if you could just write it out and give it a quick edit that would be great”. Sure.
A couple of things to note before you jump in. One, we’ve used editor to describe what has traditionally been the job of a sub-editor. The reality is that the boundary between writers and editors has blurred and there is an even greater need for exceptionally high levels of competencies in both. And two, we’ve used ‘article’ as an alternative for ‘content’ mainly to reduce repetition but also because it reads better. Enjoy.
Raw copy: The first draft
Any good writer should be revising, editing and proofing their own work meticulously before firing it off to their editor. The truth is that this doesn’t happen as often or as well as it should. In any case, whether it’s been churned out or edited to perceived perfection, we consider that filed piece of work to be the first draft. And we refer to it as ‘raw’ or ‘original’.
In an ideal world we want to come away from an initial review of a first draft without having to make or request any reasonably labour-intensive changes. In fact, we’d rather not have to make any changes at all, whether it’s correcting a spelling mistake or fixing a minor error in punctuation. It just makes everyone’s life easy.
Now, that rarely happens, for a number reasons:
- Good writers are human. They make mistakes
- Average writers are abundant (we often have work with them)
- Briefs are misunderstood, regardless of how clear they are
- Pure laziness and lack of professionalism is rife
The first step in the review process is to read the copy in full, making notes and small corrections as you go along. Some editors might argue that it’s wise to hold back on making any changes at all, which we get, but it’s often hard to ignore small mistakes, especially if that annoying red squiggly line pops up. That said, you don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of editing quite yet. The aim for now is to simply get an overall feel of the quality of the content.
First round of editing
Now it’s time to get into editing proper. At this stage there are usually three likely scenarios that will unfold, three levels of editing.
Minor edits: jackpot
Jackpot. The article is on brief and there are very few issues with grammar, punctuation and spelling. This kind of content is a rare treat, so enjoy it. And even when there are more corrections needed than is desirable, the fact that it delivers on the objective(s), is well-structured and flows nicely is enough to placate the minor inconvenience of, for instance, small lapses in spelling or verbosity in favour of brevity.
Detailed edits: the average experience
We typically spend a lot of our time making or requesting detailed edits – for both good and bad pieces of content. With the former, the writer may have generally ticked off all the essential things requested, but still fallen short on the tone of voice. With the latter, there can be bigger problems, such as lacking the crucial level of depth that was outlined in the brief.
The job of the editor at this stage is to make a judgement call. Do you make the edits yourself or do you get the author of the piece to do them? What influences this decision are factors like your confidence in the writer to understand what’s required, your availability at the time and, as ever, looming deadlines.
Major edits: not anyone’s cup of tea
Here we find a piece of work that requires substantial and time-consuming work to address major issues to do with, for example, structure – i.e. the article needs to be significant reordered and new sections added, existing sections removed – and the copy itself, which requires extensive rewriting to improve logic, flow, substance and accuracy.
While a decent number of edits from an editor is inevitable and vital in this situation, the main focus here is to draw attention to all critical aspects of the article that need to be addressed; to explain why these sections need to be improved, changed or replaced; and to be explicitly clear in one’s instructions on what exactly is required (i.e. useful actionable feedback).
Second draft, final round of editing
Generally, so long as the writer has understood the edits and suggestions made by the editor, the second draft ought to be more in line with expectations. Accordingly, while we do repeat the same process as above – an initial read followed by a more analytical review – we shouldn’t find ourselves making detailed or major edits. Just minor, more superficial changes.
On occasion, the copy will still be poor in quality, the brief still not fulfilled and errors still in abundance. You have two choices: either cut your losses and fix it yourself or send it back to the writer for one more absolutely final round of amends. Again, it’s not an easy decision. While it’s sometimes simpler to do it yourself – and, at this stage, quicker – it’s also important that the writer gets the job done to the kind of high standard that is always implicit in any commission.
At this stage, now that all edits have been made and all suggestions resolved, the article is ready and good to go, whether that’s into your CMS for publication or, as we’ll touch on below, to someone who has final sign-off. But, ahead of that, if you really want to deliver on quality, it’s always worth having someone else – ideally another writer or editor – review the entire piece or, more practically, carry out spot checks.
With spot checks, the process normally involves scanning the content to pick up on anything that might have been missed and/or, more critically, scrutinising specific sections to see if the copy is entirely original, accurate and faithful to, for example, a style guide or the brief.
It’s not always necessary to carry out spot checks but it does add another important layer of quality control, as well as reassurance that the article has been methodically reviewed.
Not quite the end
As noted, if you need to send the article out for further review – let’s say to your boss or a client – then there’s every chance that what is to all intents and purposes the final version will need further tweaks. It might be minimal or require a little more work. You never really know.
What’s essential is to agree beforehand on what is required for this final lap of the review process, such as how many rounds of feedback is sufficient, the individuals that need to be involved and everyone’s favourite, timelines for getting this done. Be specific, otherwise you run the risk of it becoming quite a protracted and laborious process.
And then, when everything is most definitely signed, sealed and delivered, well, it’s on to the next piece of content. The work doesn’t stop.
A slight postscript: track, track, track
Remember to always use track changes in Word or in Google Docs and to make comments in the doc itself (i.e. not in an email or over Slack). This ensures that all stakeholders can see what changes were made, why they were made and who they were made by. It also acts as a record of the entire review process at every touchpoint, including all comments and responses.
We hope you’ve found this article useful. If you have any questions about the review process, or you’d like to know more about how we can help you improve your copy, do drop us a note: