The Web is awash in content. A recent Moz article reports that 92,000 new articles are posted online every day. Companies are spending billions on content marketing to enhance credibility, build brand awareness and, especially of late, improve SEO.
Here is what Google has to say about content in its quality guidelines:
- Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
- Don’t deceive your users.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
- Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.
Google has always tried to reward great content with high rankings, but today, thanks to vast improvements in its algorithm, Google is better able to actually do it. Its content quality guidelines are perfectly aligned with what every writer and marketer should aspire to.
As A Designer, Why Should You Care About Content Quality?
- Your brilliant designs will be wasted if they are filled with inferior content.
- By developing the ability to evaluate content quality, you are able to provide constructive, difference-making input to other members of the creative team, increasing your value as a designer.
- If you are in a project management role, you must know what needs to be fixed, improved and enhanced in the deliverable’s content.
- Unless the content meets a high standard of quality, the finished product will undermine rather than enhance credibility, diminish rather than build brand awareness, and damage rather than improve search engine visibility.
Defining “quality content” is difficult. A useful approach is to look at the editing process, because editing is where content theory is translated into cold hard facts. You could argue forever with clients about what constitutes quality content on a theoretical level. But when you break down quality into its specific editorial components, theoretical arguments evaporate.
A sound editing process forces quality into content, no matter how ill-conceived or weakly written the content was in the beginning, assuming it was properly conceived and at least decently written to begin with.
The editing process is more important than most think. (Image credit: opensourceway)
This article examines several aspects of content editing. By reading it, you will learn:
- how the editing process works for most forms of online business content, including website pages, infographics, landing pages, brochures, white papers and slide presentations;
- what “big picture” issues and technical editing details to get right before publishing;
- the different types of editing help you need, and where to find authoritative online resources for DIY editing.
Five Types Of Content Editing
There are various formulas for breaking down editing tasks. For business content, it helps to think about editing as having five specialties.
1. Substantive Editing
Substantive editors are mainly concerned with overall cohesion, clarity, accuracy and effectiveness. They look for incomplete or faulty arguments, unsupported assertions, inconsistencies or gaps in the logical flow of the content, and faithfulness to the assignment’s strategic goals.
Copyeditors are mainly concerned with style. Are sentences clear and concise? Is the tone consistent? Are the right words being used? Is the text free of jargon and obscure references? Does the copy adhere to rules of grammar, punctuation and style?
Fact-checkers are mainly concerned with informational accuracy. They make sure statistics and other quantitative information are stated fully and correctly. Fact-checking is often a research task, but in business writing, it also comes into play at the editing stage — with vitally important impact, as we will see in a moment.
SEO editing ensures that on-page content conforms to SEO best practices and follows the campaign’s on-page guidelines. SEO editing is typically done by a client’s internal or external SEO resource. The more the SEO resource is plugged into the creative process, the less artificial and stilted the optimized content will be.
Proofreaders are mainly concerned with technical precision. Different standards apply to different types of content; a list of authoritative editing resources appears at the end of this article.
Editing done here by Johanna Shapiro (View larger version)
If all of these editing tasks are done well, the final product will have the level of quality that readers and search engines desire. In terms of workflow, the editing process follows the order noted above, starting with substantive editing and ending with proofreading. However, as you might imagine, editing is not always linear; documents usually go back and forth between editors and writers as issues are fixed.
Editing Process FAQs
Effective editing is not only a matter of knowing what to do; it also requires an understanding of how to manage workflow and communication. Addressing these FAQs at the outset of your next project will help lay the groundwork for not only a better editing process, but a more enjoyable one.
Do I Need to Hire Five Editors?
No. A talented editor can cover a lot of the work at an acceptable level for most business content. That being said, the substantive editor must be familiar with the product, industry and audience in question, since the effectiveness of the content hinges on understanding the audience’s mindset and needs. The SEO editor must, of course, know SEO inside and out.
How Can I Get Copy Approved More Quickly?
Too much editing can be just as bad as not enough — some firms review and tweak for so long that the content is outdated by the time they approve it. The substantive editor or project manager is the best defence against perfectionism. They are best equipped to recognize when content should be deemed finished and to explain why to clients and team members.
How Much Editing Should the Writer Do?
I would love to hear from the Smashing Magazine community on this one, because it’s a thorny issue. Even writers with a firm grasp of grammar, style and technique submit substandard drafts due to time constraints or lack of familiarity with the subject matter. Competent writers learn as they go, reducing the editorial burden. For example, if a website project requires 60 pages of new content, have the writer start with 10 pages and then give them a careful copyedit and substantive edit. The edits may be numerous at this point, especially if the writer is new to the subject matter. If the next 10 pages come back vastly improved, then you’ll know the writer is catching on.
What If My Client Doesn’t Care About Editing?
Clients might not care about content editing as such, but they certainly care about public image, leads and orders. High-quality content impresses Google, which leads to more search engine visibility, which leads to more traffic and more business. High-quality content also reassures prospects, customers and stakeholders that the company is reliable and competent.
What’s the Best Way to Manage the Editing Process?
One person, generally the project manager or substantive editor, should coordinate all editorial functions and communication and make final decisions. Creative teams have many editing tools at their disposal, but using good old Track Changes and Comments in Word documents is perhaps the easiest way to start. A big challenge is preventing multiple versions of an in-process document from floating around; implement a clear procedure to avoid this. In my experience, the competence of the manager, rather than the tools, will determine the efficiency of the process.
Common Editing Issues
Let’s look at a few specific real-world issues that crop up in business Web copy for each type of editing. These particulars will give you an idea of what to look for if you are doing the editing or looking for an editor or managing the project.
Substantive Editing Issues
- Here is an instructive, real-life example of how substantive editing produces clarity. In a recent article about writing for slide presentations, I wrote, “Slide presentations are great for a ‘peeling the onion’ narrative approach.” My editor commented, “What does that mean?” I pondered the issue and realized that I didn’t really know what I meant! After further reflection, I changed it to, “Slide presentations are ideal for storytelling.” Moral of the story: Substantive editors don’t always need to make sweeping changes. Often, just knowing what to look for helps to get it right.
- Keeping content on point prevents content creep. Substantive editors remind clients that a landing page need not be a thousand words long to prompt a conversion, nor a website a thousand pages deep to convey the firm’s value proposition.
- Substantive editors police all content to maintain consistency of brand messaging.
- The company’s branding and positioning strategy, the value proposition of the product and service being marketed and the nature of the target audience will determine the content’s style and tone. The substantive editor must be crystal clear on all of them.
- Building on the last point, a substantive editor — if time, budget and skill allow — injects personality into flat business content by adding storytelling narratives and stylistic flair that speak powerfully to the target audience.
When it comes to substantive editing, Duluth Trading Company’s website does this extraordinarily well.
- Headlines and headings should be descriptive and, in many cases, persuasive. Additionally, proper keyword placement in headlines and headings is important for SEO, so copyeditors and SEO editors must collaborate closely to balance these requirements.
- Active voice usually beats passive voice: “John saved $100” has more impact than “$100 was saved by John.” There are cases where the passive voice is preferred; a competent copyeditor makes the proper adjustments.
- Pronoun sensitivity leads writers to employ tortuous sentence construction to avoid “he” or “she” usage. Also, writers often shift from “it” to “they” when referring to a company. The copyeditor keeps pronoun use smooth and consistent.
- The wrong word or phrase can do worse than make a company look stupid; it can convey a message contrary to the one intended. My list of commonly confused business words and phrases is a handy reference.
- Overuse of exclamation points and all-caps conveys HYSTERIA!!!!
- Copyeditors convert long unformatted paragraphs into Web-optimized formats that employ bullet points, three- to five-line paragraphs, judicious use of bold text, etc. This is an area where designers provide valuable input.
- Sadly, the Web is a stewpot of misinformation, cooked up by marketers who feel pressured to publish. For example, a reader might come across a flashy infographic stating, “70% of Executives Use Tablets!” but, after checking the source, discovers that this “fact” is based on a survey of 25 anonymous respondents conducted by an obscure agency. Fact-checkers protect you and your client from losing credibility as a result of shaky statistics.
- Fact-checkers make sure that basic corporate information is correct. The company’s name, job titles and the spelling of employees’ names should always be accurate — yet often are not.
- Fact-checkers review product specifications to make sure they are up to date. The value of this thankless task is appreciated only after, say, a customer orders a $1.5 million printing press that turns out to be 10 feet too long for its production line when it arrives at the plant.
- Overusing keyword phrases on a page of content is counterproductive.
- Varying keyword phrases generally helps search engine visibility and makes content more readable and less “spammy” for humans.
- An SEO editor might opt to add links to the client’s other relevant content on a given page of Web content or a blog post. If done correctly, these related links build the authority of the client’s website.
- One space after a period is standard.
- Capitalization in headlines and headings should consistently follow a predetermined style.
- Font size and style should be consistent for text and headers from page to page.
In Conclusion, How Much Editing Is Enough?
Practical considerations such as deadlines and bandwidth, along with a clear understanding of the audience, will influence how thoroughly a piece of online content should be edited.
Generally speaking, readers do not hold blog posts to the same stylistic standard as, say, white papers. However, a blog post directed at an audience of scholars, physicians or attorneys will be held to a higher standard.
Visual content such as infographics and slide presentations, perhaps because of their formality, seem to carry more weight with readers than blog posts and website pages. For this reason, producers of visual content have a greater obligation to be sure of their facts, all else being equal. Firms undermine their credibility when they publish graphical material loaded with unsupported or misleading facts, whether intentionally or not.
If a firm has an organized SEO marketing program, then on-page SEO is crucial. If not, on-page optimization alone would probably not be enough to have any substantive impact on search visibility.
Copyediting and Substantive Editing
As for these, there is never any advantage to publishing vague, incoherent and uninspiring material. Some level of review is really a must. If resources are limited, and often they are, use this editing tactic: When in doubt, leave it out.
- AP Stylebook
The AP (Associated Press) style is the standard for newspapers and journalists and is commonly used for marketing and PR content. An online subscription gives you instance access to authoritative information on editorial issues relating to general business content.
- The Chicago Manual of Style
The CMS, published by The University of Chicago, is widely used in the humanities for formatting and citation, and it contains a wealth of information, analysis and insight on issues of grammar and usage. Whereas AP primarily tells you what to do, the CMS also explains why.
- MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
This style guide of the MLA (Modern Language Association) is widely used for academic writing.
- Purdue OWL
The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) is a convenient online resource for grabbing up-to-date answers to CMS– and MLA-related questions.
- New Oxford Style Manual
This book contains detailed information on UK style. Oxford Dictionaries has helpful tables on British and American spelling and terms for online reference.
- AMA Manual of Style
The AMA (American Medical Association) guide is widely used for medical and scientific publishing.
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
This manual is widely used for academic and professional writing in the social and behavioral sciences.
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© Brad Shorr for Smashing Magazine, 2014.