Portent Pop Quiz: Isla McKetta on Why Editing is Just as Important As Writing

Sometimes we’re in meeting or on calls with clients and we catch our colleagues saying something worth sharing. So we created the “Portent Pop Quiz” series where we ambush the Portentite and have them drop a quick knowledge bomb about a random subject. In our latest installment Isla McKetta speaks on why editing, though commonly discounted or overlooked entirely, is the key to delivering truly great content.


Katie: What’s on your mind today?

Isla: Editing.

Katie: Okay.  What kind of editing?  SEO editing or –

Isla: No, just editing in general, because I think we spend a lot of time talking about content –

Katie: Mm-hmm.

Isla: – and making good content, but what we don’t spend enough time talking about is how good content is made.  And I don’t mean writing it; I mean editing it, because editing is just as important as writing, and a lot of people just don’t spend enough time on it or leave time for it at the end like they should.

Katie: Do you have any tips for what would sort of – what i, what is a checklist of what you should look, look for when editing something?

Isla: Well, one, I think you need to get some distance from the piece when you’re editing.  Um, so [laughter] you take –

Katie: Yes.

Isla: – some – if you can, like if you’re working, say, in an agency, and you write a bunch of different stuff, let it sit for a day before you come back and rewrite it.  Also, if you have an editing buddy, that’s really fantastic, because they’ll have a perspective on the work, and they’ll get to know your writing and your tics, and they will call you on it.  If they don’t call you on your tics, they’re not a good editing buddy.

Um, so things that I like to look for are – obviously, you wanna do a copyedit.  Concision is important.  You know, if you find the piece that’s repeating itself over and over again – readers don’t have a lot of time.  We know that.  We know they’re gonna scan the content anyway, so you may as well make it short for them to read if you can, but make sure it still has all the information in there they need.

Um, what else?  I have notes.  Should I look at my notes?

Katie: Sure.

Isla: Um, oh, tension.  One of the things that – this is – so I’m a fiction writer, and one of the things that’s really important in fiction, even in literary fiction, which I write, is tension as the thing’s writing.  And so one of the things – when you’re reading your piece or when you’re reading somebody else’s piece, you start to notice when you get bored, because that’s where anybody else’s is gonna get bored, and it’s really important at that moment to just make a note, figure out what’s going wrong with it.  And on the Internet, a blog post may be about 400 to 800 words.  There should be no room to get bored, and there so often is, so think about that.

Think about your audience when you’re writing and when you’re editing, because you may think that what you’re writing is genius but the person that you’re – who’s your intended audience – may not even know what you’re talking about.  So that’s something really important, and that’s where getting that day-of perspective can be very helpful, too, when you come back to edit.  One thing I like to do when I really have time and when I’m really concerned about the wording of something is to read it aloud, because you will find things in there that will surprise you and it’s great.

The other things are the blank sheet of paper test, and you can always – what that means is that – Ian talks about this – but your title, your headings, your paragraphs should all be able to pass the blank sheet of paper test.  They should be able to fully explain themselves, what they are, without too much, um, external stuff.  So one of the things that can help with that is a reverse outline.  So if you’re going through a piece and you’re like, “I don’t really know where this went wrong,” go down and write in one or two words what every paragraph is about, and if there are sentences in there not about that, they go away.  That helps with concision.

Style guides can be really helpful.  Grammar – like, everybody’s got their own grammar and I don’t really care what you decide you like about the Oxford comma or not the Oxford comma, but I love it when people are consistent.  [Laughter]  And the other thing is just get to know yourself as a writer and call yourself on your stuff,  because if you don’t have that editing buddy – you know, like, for example, I know that I use the word “amazing” a lot, and there are so many other adjectives [laughter]

Katie: Cool.

Isla:  – that makes writing more interesting.  Is that…

Katie: Yeah, that’s good.  Say goodbye, Isla.

Isla: Goodbye, Isla.

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