In a world of endless content, innovative copywriting is a great way to catch and keep the attention of the customer. While a creative approach will often draw a bigger audience than simply following best practices, it can be tempting for an editor to change the writer’s style to fit an assumption about what sells. A good editor can help emphasize the unique aspects of a copywriter’s voice in a way that communicates well to a reader and pleases the client.
Some writer-editor relationships are legendary. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe had Maxwell Perkins (rumor has it the Wolfe-Perkins collaboration is about to be dramatized in a film starring Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender). John Cheever and John Updike had William Maxwell. Here’s how to be a good editor—how you can protect and enhance the creative voice to become your copywriter’s best creative partner. Even if your name isn’t Maxwell.
Step 1. Do an initial read-through
Read over the entire document to get a sense of the writer’s style and the approach he or she has taken. Pay attention to the effect the writing is having on you. Make a note anywhere your attention wanders or you are confused. This is your time to get to know the document. Heavy edits will come later.
Step 2. Edit for grammar, spelling and punctuation
An editor should have no qualms about editing for general grammar, punctuation and spelling. Some quirks like the Oxford comma (that comma before the “and” that I did not use in the previous sentence) or American versus British spellings are editing no-brainers and should conform to the style guide or brand identity rather than the copywriter’s usual style.
British clothier Boden plays up its Briticisms for the US market. Customers are asked to “befriend” the company on Facebook.
Step 3. Perform a thorough edit
This is the tricky bit. You are going to have a lot of ideas about how you would have written the copy. The more you can put that feeling in a drawer, the better the final result will be. You are working with the writer to create a seamless document in his or her voice. Your fingerprints should be invisible.
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman
Here are three places where it is easy to accidentally edit out creative solutions:
Marketers prefer feeling words to thinking words and editors often prefer words with Anglo Saxon roots to those from Latin. Ask yourself what the effect of the word choice is on the sentence. “Juxtaposing” two ideas does have a different sense than “weighing” them against one another.
If you notice the writer using stilted vocabulary, ask why.
When writing a sentence, some writers use dependent clauses up front. As in the previous sentence (and this one), dependent clauses placed at the beginning ease the reader into a topic. While starting sentences with dependent clauses can be a stylistic tic that is easily overdone, it is also a great way to suggest something without being too aggressive.
Dependent clauses are only one example. Also read for compound sentences and overall sentence length. Ideally, the writer is using a variety of sentence types to achieve the desired effect. Are they?
“Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead.” – Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato
Many editors would be tempted to clean up the redundancy in this passage. But Tim O’Brien is deliberately using epistrophe (the repetition of a phrase at the end of a clause). Here’s how that passage could be destroyed by removing his rhetorical device:
“Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler
was deadhad died. Someone shot Buff was dead. A grenade got Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the deadcasualties.” – Tragic butchering of Tim O’Brien
Rhetorical devices are more than just beautiful language. In the hands of a skilled copywriter, they are powerful influencers of tone. Pay attention to areas where your writer is under or overusing any of these elements. Other rhetorical devices include:
- Alliteration – Repetition of initial consonant sounds
- Delayed sentence – A sentence that holds the main idea for the end
- Ellipsis – Omission of words that are easily understood
- Hyperbole – Grand exaggeration
- Motif – Recurring element, theme or situation
- Parallelism – Balance of words or phrases
A Matter of Trust
You are your copywriter’s partner in creativity. Nothing makes a writer feel more frustrated or lose confidence more quickly than to be arbitrarily rewritten. It’s like falling in love with someone for who they are and then trying to change them. Once you’ve hired the right copywriter, work with his or her strengths to help develop that unique voice and your audience will follow.
Has your work ever been edited to oblivion? We’d love to hear your story about that and other copywriting nightmares in the comments.
Great post, Isla – a very intelligent look at editing that I really enjoyed reading. One of my recurring nightmares in the past was the overzealous in-house legal team – they could take any decently conceived idea and cram it so full of disclaimers and protective/inclusive/safeguard language choices that only other lawyers would ever be able to discern the original idea. Voice, spark and personality got systematically crushed under the legal heel. Marketing gave way to hunkering behind statement shields, so to say it was not engaging is really understating it. Butchered, maligned, mangled, wrecked…all much more accurate.
Thank you, Martypants. I wish you much more thoughtful editors in the future!
I had to laugh while reading the “dependent clauses” paragraph. This is a beautifully crafted article, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Thanks, Roy. Always glad when editing can garner a laugh, too.
I have had a few of my pieces destroyed by editors who didn’t understand the difference between editing for grammar/style and voice.
Many people don’t like Stephen King’s work, but only a fool would question whether he is successful.
True, true. You might be surprised how many of my MFA friends cite Stephen King’s “On Writing.”
“Your fingerprints should be invisible.” Priceless.
You could have titled this “the yoga of editing,” Isla. Nicely done!
Great thought, Aliza. Perhaps I’ll start my own yogoir on editing.
Excellent blog, Isla. I especially like the point of varying sentence structure. That really helps keep the reader from getting bogged down in so many long, winding clauses. Had to laugh at Tim O’Briens’ rhetorical device (if you view from an SEO perspective, he was spamming the dead).
“Spamming the dead” may be my new favorite phrase.
Great blog Isla. As I (would like to) say to my clients – ‘edit by all means but don’t suck the life out of the copy!’
Indeed, Martin. We’ve all seen writers (often in critique groups) who take edits too far to heart (as well as editors who want everyone to write exactly as they would have written). Thanks for reading!