The Editor’s Secret Weapon

Asking questions. Lots and lots and lots of questions.

For years I’ve called myself an editor, not only by trade but also by personality. I like to edit things as well as words. You know, remove something that shouldn’t be there (dead leaves on my co-worker’s ficus tree) or comment on something that’s just slightly out of place (wrong emotion in an actor’s voice) — all in the name of making everything better.

But what does it really mean to edit something, in the traditional sense? And if you’re not an editor, how might you still offer an objective eye to your organization’s messaging so that it garners greater attention, passion or funds?

At Journey Group, we view editing as a crucial step for any words that are put to paper (or pixel). That’s simply because even the most eye-catching design or powerful bit of coding will miss the mark if the accompanying words elicit confusion or a yawn. (Or even outright rebellion. That’s what early readers of the Declaration of Independence might have instigated, if Thomas Jefferson’s editor hadn’t persuaded him to refer to them as “citizens” instead of as “subjects.”)

Even the most eye-catching design or powerful bit of coding will miss the mark if the accompanying words elicit confusion or a yawn.

If you’re invited into the process of crafting a powerful message that will help bring home your organization’s story, where do you start?

Obviously, a keen eye is needed right before you hit “publish” or ship files to press. One last time, you think, just to be sure. Often, the best way to catch those tricky bits is to invite someone totally new into the process, someone who’s not been in the trenches, someone who will spot the spelling error that crept in with a last-minute change or the logic gap that everyone else missed.

And then, of course, a few steps earlier you relied on a crackerjack editor to do the hard labor before the design phase even started: tighten wordy sentences, craft punchier verbs, point out when a phrase simply doesn’t make sense or doesn’t move the point forward.

But how might you shape the messaging even earlier, so that the end product is its most compelling?

Ask questions.

Jonathan Simcoe / Creative Commons license.

Questions are the most powerful tool in the early stages of a media product — what we at Journey Group call “developmental editing.” Your insightful questions might well save your organization significant time and money.

Here are a few favorites to put forward when you review the first draft.

  • Is the first paragraph, the very first sentence, compelling enough to draw in our intended audience? (What if we begin with something that’s currently buried farther down?)
  • Is there a fact or point of view missing?
  • Is the tone consistent throughout?
  • And to be honest: Is there any place when even I just start losing interest?

Better yet, start even earlier, in those first meetings before a single word is crafted.

  • Will our readers identify with something casual or more formal? Which tone better suits who we are and the reputation we wish to build?
  • Who should be quoted, to offer expertise and/or passion?
  • What do our constituents most need to know, in order to persuade them of our cause?
  • What do we want people to do after reading this?
Oli Dale / Creative Commons license.

No question should be off the table.

After all, if your readers find themselves puzzling over an inconsistent tone, a confusing sentence or an outright error, you’ve lost their attention . . . and possibly their commitment to your cause. So play the part of an editor, and ask away.

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