One of the hardest things to keep in mind as a writer is that you’re not writing for just yourself. A lot of the time, you’re writing to help others. Whether readers want to learn something new, need to make an important decision, or are searching for a sense of belonging to combat isolation, the writing—if you want to build an audience, which I do—needs to address what they’re looking for in some way.
Sometimes the insight on how to do so can be summed up in a single sentence.
Last year, I was at a cocktail party held after business hours by a company I was working with. Also at the party were some of the writers whose work I had been editing for this company. One of them was talking about how when he started writing for this company, he didn’t really have a handle on what his style should be like until he had a key conversation with a friend.
“Look, when I’m reading something, I’m busy and I’m looking for advice. In the end, I just want to be told what to do,” the friend said.
I could hear the awe and relief in this writer’s voice when he repeated that line to me and the others listening to him: “I just want to be told what to do.”
What writing for others really means
It’s a good lesson to keep in mind: try to leave as little useless ambiguity as possible when you’re writing something. (I say “useless” ambiguity because under certain circumstances avoiding any shade of grey in your writing is a disservice. Letting your readers come to their own conclusions is a good thing.)
In other words: tell your readers what they want to know (and make it snappy).
Is that a hard thing to do? Certainly. If it were easy, I wouldn’t have so many long, rambling posts in my archives. (I’ll leave it to you to read through them if you’re so inclined.)
“I just want to be told what to do” has become one of my own mantras when it comes to writing blog posts for myself and my clients. So what about you? How have you tried to apply that lesson to the people you want to help, persuade, or convince?
What editors do is often kept hidden. In fact, a good editor is supposed to remain invisible by giving the text enough care and polish that it shines brightly and speaks for itself.
The thing is, when your goal is to be invisible, people get a distorted image of what you actually do. Myths about editors exist, and they’re pernicious. So what is editing, and what myths about editors are there? Here are four examples.
Myth #1: Editors are just glorified spell-checkers
However, even in a typical copy edit, there’s far more going on than just spell-checking. For instance, copy editors are frequently on the lookout for:
incorrect information or anachronisms
inconsistent formatting of elements like tables, graphs, and captions
Let’s say you’re writing a novel set in 1981 and you mention that a character is wearing a pastel shirt like the ones on Miami Vice. MS Word won’t double-check when the show started airing, but an editor will – and they’ll flag it, since the show started in 1984, three years after your story takes place.
Another example: you say your character’s eyes are blue in chapter one, but brown in chapter six. Would a spell-checker catch that?
I doubt it.
Of course, that’s assuming you’re working with a copy editor. A lot of editors don’t copy edit. Instead, they look at the text from a 50,000-foot view, examining the terrain and figuring out the deeper-level issues in your text that need fixing.
These people are known as structural or substantive editors. When reading your text, they ask themselves things like:
Are you keeping your audience in mind, or are you using too much technical jargon?
Should your conclusion really be the text’s introduction or first chapter?
Do your readers need to know about Topic X when the rest of the chapter discusses Topic Y?
That’s more than just being a glorified spell-checker. Editing like that involves being a bloodhound on the trail for gaps, unclear thinking, and logical fallacies. I bet Clippy can’t do all that.
Myth #2: Editors are just waiting to pounce on every mistake you make
People often think of editors as know-it-alls wielding red pens, waiting to call you out on your misuse of a comma. Granted, there are people out there like that, and there is a certain amount of satisfaction in pointing out the spelling and grammar mistakes of others.
But honestly? Getting into a tizzy over every single error is pedantic. More than that, it’s exhausting. People make mistakes. The whole reason editors exist is to keep those mistakes to a minimum and make you look better.
More importantly, ridiculing you for every mistake is counterproductive to an editor’s aim, which is a positive working relationship. As an editor, it’s in my best interest to keep you as happy as possible about the small things, like fixing spelling mistakes, so I can create enough trust to bring up more serious problems, like bad transitions and inconsistent referencing.
Myth #3: Editors will change your writing so much it won’t sound like “you” anymore
Bad editors may do this. Overzealous editors who feel like they have something to prove may do this. I know there are horror stories out there.
But unless your writing is so bad that such heavy rewriting is necessary — and if it is, that’s something that a managing editor or project manager should discuss with you in detail — editors like that are the exception, not the rule.
It all goes back to fostering a good working relationship, like I mentioned in the second point above. Trust is both important and scarce, and the wholesale rewriting of text without consultation burns through a lot of trust quickly with no obvious benefit. Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot like that?
Remember that bit above about people making mistakes? It applies to editors too.
Embarrassing confession time: there are a lot of errors I haven’t caught when editing something. Usually they occur when the turnaround time for a project is very short. (A lesson to the wise: don’t underestimate the amount of time that good editing takes.)
Hell, I’ll admit to something even worse: I’ve committed the cardinal sin of introducing errors. This is a huge no-no. One time earlier this year, I was doing a rush job (remember what I just said about needing enough time to do good work?) for a client whose company included a bed and breakfast facility. During the process, I wrote the phrase “bread and breakfast” rather than “bed and breakfast”. This happened not once but twice. Once the client informed me of this, I made sure to fix the error as soon as possible and — after doing a quick scan in MS Word to make sure this error didn’t appear anywhere else in the document — sent back a cleaned-up copy.
They’re like anyone else, really. They’re fallible, but they care about doing a good job. The difference here is that this job is an intensely personal one because many people see their writing as an extension of themselves — and if your writing is bad, what does that say about you as a person?
You are not a bad person. Your thoughts are worthy of expression.
All editors do is make that worthiness more apparent to the wider world.
On Tuesday I attended The Art of Entrepreneurship, a day-long event with info and resources for business owners and entrepreneurs. However, even though the speakers were famous, much of the advice about running a successful business was old-hat.
You know the stuff. Build a positive work culture. Find your passion. Be bold. Et cetera.
That advice works; you can’t be successful in business without following it. But there’s more to entrepreneurship than that.
Despite this, I did learn some other lessons. Here are three of them.
1. Entrepreneurship is like basketball: it’s all about pivots and rebounds
The best anecdote that I heard was from Alexis Ohanian, who talked about starting reddit. Reddit is one of the darlings of Paul Graham’s Y Combinator program, but initially Ohanian and his co-founder Steve Huffman were rejected when they applied. Their plan to create a mobile-based restaurant ordering service didn’t pass the sniff test — the infrastructure for this sort of thing just wasn’t there in 2005.
However, they got a sudden reprieve: the next day, Graham called them back, offering them a second chance if they worked on a different idea instead.
Y Combinator wasn’t yet the legend it is now. But both founders knew a good thing when they saw it. With the right guidance, they got reddit off the ground and made it so successful that it was bought out by Conde Nast the following year.
Could they have stuck with their initial bad idea? Yes. Could they have improved on that bad idea? Probably. But they recognized that changing direction would be better in the long term. They pivoted and rebounded from near failure.
2. Give your presentation balance
There were five speakers at the event:
Eric Ryan, from the eco-friendly cleaning product company method;
Debbie Travis, design expert and founder of a multi-media empire;
Alexis Ohanian (mentioned above); and
Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of the Wine Library and VaynerMedia.
These are all notable people — big names draw in big crowds.
However, I suspect they scheduled the speakers in the above order on purpose: the opening and closing speakers, Ryan and Vaynerchuk, had the most energy. Ryan was fun and goofy. Vaynerchuk was confrontational and swore a lot. (This had the benefit of waking up an audience that was crashing at the end of the day.) In contrast, the other three speakers were more muted.
The point is that what applies to high-school essays can also be applied to people: start and finish with your strongest stuff, and leave the weaker parts in the middle.
This isn’t to say that the other three speakers were “weak” — just that different people have different levels of charisma, and that you need to take advantage of that. Personally, I found Chris Guillebeau’s talk the most appealing, but he was far more subdued than Eric Ryan was.
3. It’s not just about the art; it’s also about the people
The true value of these events lies in meeting interesting people, so let me tell you about some awesome people I met. Maybe they can help you. Maybe you can help them. Whatever happens, they’re still doing cool stuff.
Viviana Machado of Foodies Inked — Viviana’s day job involves managing social media for a major hardware store chain, but during the evenings and weekends she reviews restaurants across Toronto on her blog, Foodies Inked. In addition to her reviews, she travels, runs contests, and posts recipes online.
Belinda Monpremier of 99founders — 99founders is an online benefits club for Canadian entrepreneurs and business owners. It offers special deals and discounts on travel, hotels, web apps, and other aspects of running a business. Note: The site is currently invite-only.
Lindsay Knowlton of Iron Lady Golf — Lindsay started playing golf as a hobby with her dad. Eventually, people asked her to teach them how to play golf so they could take part in corporate events. She soon realized that knowledge of golf was a useful asset for women who wanted to “break into” primarily male parts of the business world, and founded Iron Lady Golf as a result. Lindsay has made some fabulous connections with golf courses across the GTA. Now she’s learning how to play golf left-handed to learn all over again what it’s like to be a newcomer to the sport.
Were you there too?
There were hundreds of people at The Art of Entrepreneurship; were you one of them? How did you feel about the speakers? What did you learn? Let me know in the comments.
As of today, I am officially a Student Member o f the Editor’s Association of Canada. While I have yet to fully investigate the resources they have available, it looks like they have a veritable bonanza of forums, postings, publications and seminars to take advantage of. Thanks go to Sharon Crawford, who originally suggested I join.
A contact called to tell me about a speech-writing opportunity that might be available in the future. More details are pending, but I’m quite excited.
I have received some feedback from the author of my first editing project. While she agreed with my decision to rearrange the order of paragraphs to highlight the topic of the article, her reaction to some of my other editing choices was less favourable. In particular, I reworded or deleted words and phrases that have important meanings in the context of the article’s topic, and she’d like me to reincorporate those words. Now, in fairness, I didn’t know some of the terms she was referring to were professionally relevant , or (as in one particular case) that they even existed.
This brings me to a new feature I’d like to introduce as I post more: Lessons Learned. As I make my way through this new industry, I realize that I’m going to need to learn and adapt to the needs of my clients. So, as I finish projects, I’m going do to little post-mortems to figure out what I did well and what I need to remember next time. It’ll be our own personal little cheat sheet.
So, what were today’s lessons?
Be aware of the cultural and professional context in which you are preparing a project. If there are specialized terms that you are not familiar with or words that you think don’t belong, bring them up with the author or project manager, and do the following:
Ask the person who has commissioned your work for style guides or references to help you understand the terms in question
Make sure to update your style sheet, if you’re using one
In any event, I think today’s been fairly successful. I’ll go over the EAC’s member area in more detail over the weekend, and prepare an application for that very tempting scholarship of theirs that is due on November 30th.