How to avoid being the editor that copywriters hate

Some people have a natural ability to critique other people’s writing. Some don’t. If you’d rather staple your eyelids together than review someone else’s work, here’s a quick survival guide.

How to avoid being the editor that copywriters hate

I have a painful confession.

I am, quite possibly, the worst editor in the entire B2B copywriting industry.  Or, if not actually the worst, at least pretty bad.

I don’t mean copy-editing; I’m quite good at that. I mean reviewing other people’s writing, and giving them pointers on how to make it better.

For years I did everything possible to avoid situations where I had to review someone else’s work, and (horror!) provide constructive feedback.

This is because, until recently, I had absolutely no idea how to provide constructive feedback. Anyone who had the misfortune to submit copy to me for ‘a quick glance over’ would generally have their work returned to them almost entirely rewritten.

No words of explanation, no encouraging noises about their choice of phrase or approach, no suggestions for improvement, no praise for a job well done or a good first effort.

Just completely rewritten, the way I would have written it if it had been my project.

I’m terribly, terribly sorry.

Luckily, I’m just self-aware enough to know that this is not helpful, nor enlightening, nor apt to fill promising young writers with wild enthusiasm. (Frankly, I’m surprised no one has tried to punch me.)

So when we changed our team structure at Radix earlier this year, and I became a content lead overseeing a team of writers, I knew I couldn’t get away with being a rubbish editor any more. I had to get good at editing.

I wouldn’t say I’m massively good at it yet, but I’m a lot better than I was. If you’re also the kind of person who would rather staple your own eyelids together than “glance over” someone else’s copy, here are some tips from one crap editor to another:

1. Recognise that your way is not the only way.

Suppress all thoughts of “Well, I wouldn’t have written it like that”. Does the copy you’re reading meet the brief? Does it speak to the intended audience in a way that’s likely to interest, engage, entertain and intrigue them? Will they want to keep reading? Are they likely to follow the call to action? Then, for the love of god, leave it as it is.

2. Clearly explain any changes.

If you do see areas that need tightening up, and you’re tempted to change them yourself (maybe because you’re up against a deadline), at least explain to the writer why you’ve made those changes. You can do this by leaving explanatory comments in the margin, or by sitting down with the writer afterwards to go through them.

3. Help the writer to help him/herself.

Better still, don’t actually change anything, but leave short, specific comments about why the wording doesn’t quite work as is, and ask the writer to have another go at it. By all means make suggestions for alternative ways to approach it, but don’t rewrite the copy – let them think it through and find a solution for themselves. That’s the fastest way to help your writers improve and develop.

4. Give praise where it’s due.

See a phrase, approach or idea that works really well? Let the writer know, and explain why you think it’s so good. No one ever gets tired of being praised. Reviewing other people’s work is a great way to get ideas for new techniques that you can try, too.

5. Look for patterns.

If you find yourself frequently making the same comment to the same writer, or giving them the same feedback, these are areas where your writer may need some particular guidance or training. The earlier you can address them, the faster their writing skills will develop.

(A good 50% of all the feedback I get is “Needs punchier title” or “Too wordy”. After a while it does start to give you a clue about where your writing falls down…)

6. Get advice from professionals.

The first thing I did on my twelve-step programme to becoming a less annoying editor was to look for advice on the internet. I found this guide produced by Columbia University for its lecturers: How To Provide Constructive Feedback – That Won’t Exasperate Your Students. It’s from a completely different world from B2B marketing, but it’s an excellent beginners’ guide to reviewing written work, and I’m very grateful to Columbia University for making it available.

7. Pretend you’re someone else.

When all else fails, try channelling the spirit of a natural editor. I’ve reviewed my way through many white papers, brochures and blog posts by pretending I’m Gus Haynes, the Baltimore Sun’s city desk editor from Season 5 of The Wire. I’m firm but fair, and I can immediately put my finger on the one thing that’s right or wrong about the copy in front of me. With just a few well-chosen pointers, I can guide another writer to produce work of Pulitzer-winning (B2B Marketing Award-winning?) quality. Or at least, that’s the dream…

If you’d like to get more of our tips on B2B copywriting and all that goes with it, follow @radixcom on Twitter or sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Fiona Campbell-Howes

Our founder and original managing director, Fiona was responsible for the strategic and day-to-day management of Radix, as well as working on many client writing projects. She brought long experience of marketing in the tech industry, during which time she worked with many global IT brands, including Adobe, CA, IBM and Oracle.

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