When people learn that I work as an editor, they often ask me what books I have edited. And then I am compelled to bore those poor enquiring souls witless, with an answer that is much longer than they were hoping for.
There is a bit of confusion out there about what an editor does. Most people immediately think of book, newspaper, magazine, or even film editors. In other words, all the glamour editors. I'm not any of these (although I am terribly glamorous). I'm a copyeditor.
In light of this bewilderment, I thought it might be handy to put together a little pocket guide to copyediting, to help demystify this darkest of the dark arts.
Editors love words
One of the best descriptions of an editor that I've ever read, is someone who is 'a lover of words'. This may not be the most comprehensive description, but it's definitely a prerequisite for the job.
Editors meticulously inspect writing, and have a compulsion and a knack for putting words together in a way that perfects sentences, connects them, and binds them together to reveal the writer's intention in the most accurate, elegant and delicious way. Editors are detailed and critical readers, whose job it is to take writing in its draft form and polish it - smoothing out the rough edges, finding and correcting the mistakes, and enhancing the way all those words are put together so that the meaning of the work is expressed as fully as it can be.
When I edit something, my goal is to make the writing as seamless and accomplished as possible, so that the people reading it feel connected to the story that is being told – whether that's a story on a website about someone's business, the story of a project that needs funding or deserves an award, or an email that has to get its message across in just a few paragraphs.
A day in an editor's life
As a copyeditor, my area of editing expertise is business communications. In this job, I focus on a few different levels of editing.
Say, for example, that someone needs an annual report edited. The document is weighty, and a number of different people have contributed to it. All the information is in there, but there are different writing styles, different voices and tone, and none of it has been checked for typos or inconsistencies. What the client needs (by the deadline) is a report that is accurate, clear and consistent in its content and style, with no errors, and a tone that is easy and enjoyable to read and understand.
This kind of job requires several different editing approaches:
Substantive (or structural) editing
A structural edit takes a broad view of the work and is focused on the overall flow and arrangement of information within the document. The questions I ask myself at this stage are: Is the content in a logical order? Does the information flow smoothly from one section to another? Are the sections in the right place? Is there repeated content? Are there huge chunks of uninterrupted text? Do the headings make sense?
This is about making sure the document has good bones. The same process applies for website content, emails and letters. And, for an award or funding submission, I may also check that the each answer addresses the criteria or questions within the submission.
The structure is the framework that helps your reader move through your communication and keeps them with you until the end.
Once the structure is solid, it's time to get down to the nitty gritty.
Copyediting is a meticulous examination of the writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. This is where I check spelling, punctuation, grammar, document formatting, and the style and tone of the writing, to ensure accuracy and consistency of the text. For the web, this level of editing may also include checking or adding links and key words and checking or writing image captions.
This is the level of editing that I very fondly refer to as 'nitpicking'.
If you do nothing else with a piece of writing, you should always, always, have someone else proofread it before you release it into the wild. Proofreading is your safety net; the mesh in which all those tiny, superfluous commas, extra spaces, and repeated words are caught.
Proofreading happens at the final stage of production, before publication, when the document, submission, webpage or newsletter is ready to go to print or send out to your contact list.
At this stage, I check the entire document once again - giving it a very close read to check that there are no errors, that all text corrections have been incorporated by the graphic designer, that hyperlinks are correct and that headings and section breaks are all where they should be. In short, I check everything.
The devil is in the detail
Copyediting is all about attention to detail. Some stages require editing on screen, and at other times it needs a quiet corner with a printout and a red pen. Often, it needs both. It can be time consuming, and it requires focus and practice. And it really does demand a love of words.
My goal in all this, every time I edit, is to find the heart of the story that is to be told and make sure it is written in a way that will captivate the reader, stay with them, and have an impact.
The satisfaction of presenting someone with a piece of work that you know is as polished and perfect as it can be is pretty darn good. And that's why I love editing.
Writing for your business can be a bamboozling affair at times. Attempting to translate what you think, or what you want to say, to words on a page is something many business owners find challenging (or dread like the plague, depending on who you talk to).
As tricky or frustrating as it sometimes is, your written communication is an essential part of marketing your business. It is your link to your market. It communicates what you do, who you are, what you stand for, and what your customers can expect from you. So if you’re operating a professional business or service, it stands to reason that your written communication needs to be professional too.
If you read a business website that is sprinkled with spelling errors and typos, or that is rambling and confusing to read, how does that make you feel about the business?
Yes, me too.
You don’t want to be that business. So, to help you communicate professionally and effectively to your market, and generally look and sound spectacular, I’ve put together five simple tips to help you whip your copy into shape.
1. Don't use two words when one will do (thank you, Thomas Jefferson).
Plain English is one of the greatest gifts you can give your audience. Keep your writing simple and to the point and always remember that you are talking to real people with real needs. Avoid traps like the month of November, in consideration of, or at this point in time, when you really mean November, considering, and now. Have the confidence to say what you need to say, simply and clearly.
2. Control your capitals.
I am an avid culler of capitals. These little devils pop up in the strangest places, for mystifying reasons. Capitals act as speed bumps in your sentences—they make your reader pause so they can understand why that particular word is so important. A sentence such as--A range of Activities is available at the Resort, including Bike Riding, Swimming and Crocodile Wrestling--is just going to give your readers a headache. In general, capitals belong at the beginning of sentences (including titles and headings) and as the first letter of proper nouns and proper names. Otherwise, you can pretty much leave them alone. There are some notable exceptions, but this is a good general rule to follow.
3. Put yourself on an adjective budget.
Overly descriptive writing is exhausting to read. Your meaning is lost in all the superlatives (Take a soothing, relaxing swim in the calm, crystal clear, turquoise ocean after your delicious, gourmet dinner.) and your message becomes less believable and accessible for your reader. Limit adjectives and adverbs and avoid jargon and overused terms (e.g. pristine, unique...just kill me now...). When you've written your copy, go back over it with a red pen and take out any descriptors that don't really need to be there.
4. Say what you mean.
To be effective, your writing should be believable. Audiences are exposed to endless amounts of content online and this makes them highly sensitive to exaggeration. Don't fall into the trap of using cliches (jewel in the crown leaps instantly to mind), claims that you can't substantiate (best in the state, finest in the world), or worn out marketing speak to get your message across. You have a unique story. Tell that story from your heart and you're well on the way to making readers very happy.
5. Check and check again!
Nothing undermines your message as swiftly as spelling mistakes, poor punctuation and typos. Proofread everything. Then ask a friend to proofread it. Then proofread it again! If you have read it so many times you can't make sense of it anymore, then pay a professional to check it for you. It will be money very well spent.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately reacquainting myself with my neglected business administration. A lot of time.
It’s all work that needs to be done. It’s tedious and time-hungry, but it’s important. So, each morning I’ve sat at my desk and attacked the task at hand, reassuring myself that my efforts are worth all the hours I’m not spending on my core business.
It took almost a whole week to catch up. It was a busy few days, and yes, I finished a lot of admin tasks. But was it a productive week? An effective week?
I love what I do. I love writing, I love learning about my client’s businesses, and I really love the fact that I have a job that lets me buy lots of office stationery. But I loathe admin.
At the end of that busy week, I had ticked most things off my long list of business administration tasks. I also had the red, scratchy eyes of a late night TV addict and the aching back and hair-trigger mood of a woman who had barely seen the light of day all week.
The high cost of busyness
What I didn't have was any significant progress on my creative or freelance projects, or the number of chargeable hours on my timesheet that I would have liked. My big week of catching up had cost me valuable productive working time, creative thinking time, time to take proper breaks and go for a walk in the sun (or hail, depending on the day), or even the flexibility to leave work a little early and surprise my kids with an after school trip to the beach.
At the end of that frustrating week, I met my financial adviser for our regular check in. Now, I am blessed to have this person in my life—she is insightful, knowledgeable and her wisdom and advice goes way beyond my financial life. After she listened to me moan about the scourge of admin, she gave me a brisk pep talk about managing my time and expectations and getting a grip on my productivity.
One bite at a time
I am a person who likes to work in chunks. I ‘need’ big allocations of time so I can immerse myself in a project and have uninterrupted hours to think and write. I also like to do things myself, so I can be sure they’re done properly (control freak that I am). But when I apply this approach to my admin, it works against me.
My adviser suggested some clever reworking of my weekly schedule by breaking up admin tasks into strategic steps, and then slotting them in my calendar in smaller time increments. (As this approach gave me a legitimate excuse to colour code my calendar and buy some new notebooks, I was all over it).
It was a simple adjustment with a powerful effect. But apart from immediately freeing up hours of my week to do creative, paid work, this exercise made me realise that I needed to take my control dial down a few notches. I needed to recognise which tasks were mine, and which I should be handing over to other professionals with the skills and time to do the job properly, and in less time.
Don't clean for the cleaner
Small business operators often feel like we have to do it all. But some aspects of our business are just not our strength. I certainly didn't start my business so I could spend whole days struggling with Excel spreadsheets, and yet, I spend hours on the wretched things, feeling compelled to perfect them before I send them off to my accountant. But, ahem, is that not precisely what my accountant is there to do for me?
The extreme version of this is the ‘cleaning for the cleaner’ phenomenon. I have many professional friends who are so ashamed of their untidy houses that they run around madly tidying it before their cleaner arrives. Which makes exactly NO sense.
My work often involves writing and editing e-newsletters and blogs for small businesses. For many of my clients, this task is their equivalent of my admin nightmare. It’s important, but it takes time away from their core business, it befuddles their minds, frustrates them and takes forever to complete. Consequently, it’s left to the last moment, or abandoned altogether.
This is of course where I come in. But even when a client has decided to outsource their blog or newsletter, they often feel that they need to put together a ‘good first draft’ before handing it over. And that first draft invariably means a time investment of many hours or even days.
How much do you really need to do?
Sometimes, when content is very technical or specific, this approach is necessary. But often, all a client really needs to give their copywriter is a topic, a few subheadings, some dot points (bad spelling and all), a couple of links and a quick phone conversation. It’s usually a lot easier and more productive for you to read a first draft that your copywriter has put together, and advise any changes you want, than struggling to come up with a draft yourself (that your writer then needs to fix).
Reclaim your time
The hours you would normally spend thinking, writing, screwing up and throwing paper in the bin, agonising, etc. etc., can then be directed to your core business. You free yourself to do what you do best, and hand over the stuff you don’t enjoy or do as well to someone who loves doing it, and has the skill to do it beautifully.
It’s productive, efficient and cost-effective, and the time you’re not wasting on writing your own blog or newsletter becomes available for work or pleasure—those far more important and enjoyable things that you can either charge for or be recharged by.
When my sister and I were kids, we were forbidden to swear. So, being resourceful young sprites, we developed a new word for those special moments when mild profanity was really the only thing that would do the trick. The word was bulltwang.
Bulltwang was the go-to label we applied in situations where we knew that someone was spinning us a story. When we were being told something that was…not exactly lies, but certainly not the truth. Kindly uncles with long stories about their youthful acts of heroism were the worst culprits. Even as eight and eleven year-olds, our bulltwang detectors were finely tuned.
Decades have now passed, but the bulltwang is still out there. As a writer and editor, I spend a lot of time immersed in business websites, and often I’m up to my watering eyeballs in the stuff.
Your website is your opportunity to tell the world who you are, what you do and why someone should part with their hard earned spondoolies to experience it. When it’s done well, it can be an immensely powerful tool.
The problem is of course, that writing about yourself or your own business is often deeply challenging. We feel enormous pressure to make a spectacular first impression that will convince people to support us, buy our product or use our service. Unfortunately, that pressure can get in the way of telling the story that really needs to be told. It can be terrifying, and sometimes, it can go a little pear shaped.
Here are some of the more common mistakes I encounter in websites:
The real trick is to know your story, tell it well, keep it honest but infuse it with all the passion you feel for what you do.
So how do you do that?
The first thing to remember is that you don't have to write your website content, perfectly, all by yourself. There are plenty of talented copywriters and editors out there who can sculpt your ideas into beautiful copy. But you are the person who knows your business best, so only you can really know what that story is.
You’ll need to go a little analog here. Uncovering the heart of your story is a creative exercise and you need to engage the correct part of your brain to do it well. So, move away from your desk, your screen, your phone, the umbilical cord of the internet and find a pencil and paper—or coloured markers, or charcoal or whatever you fancy, but make sure it’s something tactile. It’s important that you physically write things down in this exercise.
At this point it might be really helpful to engage some other people in your process. Close, trusted friends or colleagues can reflect what they think your business is about and what is special about your offering. Brand and marketing specialists can cut to the core of your story or help you to tease out your ideas and identify what lies at the heart of your business. The insights of others can be revelatory.
I do most of my creative thinking on the beach (except for the bit that I do in the shower—waterproof crayons have become an essential stationery item for my business). It took me a long time to stop feeling guilty about leaving my office to go and get the sand between my toes for an hour or so, but the difference that hour makes to my writing, my thinking and my productivity is huge. I always return with clarity and direction. So the beach has now legitimately become an extension to my office. Yes, lucky me.
Writing about yourself or your business can be difficult, and it does require a shift in thinking. But finding the essence of your story is a crucial first step to building successful marketing communications and online content. Without the bulltwang.
And so, onward!
Want to know how to enrich your life in less than six minutes? Treat yourself to an earful of the wondrous Frank Vincent Zappa's instrumental Apostrophe. No really, go and do it now. Your world will shine in brighter colours, I promise.
I grew up in the embrace of my brother's stereo headphones, destroying my delicate hearing under the sonic cascade of the Frank Zappa back catalogue. Dubious lyrical content for a nine-year-old girl, it's true, but Frank taught me the sublime joy of rock music and the correct spelling of the most misused punctuation mark in the English language (OK, so he also had misspelled track titles on that album like the classic Cosmik Debris, but that's poetic license and therefore acceptable).
The public abuse of this poor little beast (that's the apostrophe, not FZ), is evident everywhere you turn. It's not there when it should be, or it's there when it shouldn't be, or it's plonked in a spot where its only role is to hang miserably and destroy the meaning of an otherwise perfectly well-behaved sentence.
What a nit-picking crone, you may be thinking. But dang it, small details are important. And I'm not alone in my punctuation OCD. I once saw a delightful elderly lady openly deface an advertising blackboard outside a hardware shop because it had superfluous apostrophes on it. She stood there fervently rubbing them out with a spit-glazed finger (yes, spit) and then strode away with great dignity, having made the world a better place. No more Great Special's on Fruit Trees—Apple's, Pear's and Stone Fruit's ready to plant now!!! and I for one couldn't have been more grateful.
Bless her, and all you other apostrophe vigilantes out there.
I'll be blogging here at the Apostrophe Catastrophe about the wonders and tragedies of the English language, and other peculiar passions of mine. You can feel very welcome to post a comment, or have a little vent about crimes against language if you need to. We're all friends here, after all.
In the meantime, go well, go Frank.