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greeting card to editor says "thank you for making me suck less"My latest blog post for the Harvard Business Review makes the case for adding an editor to your content marketing team. As I note in that post,

Content marketing will only deliver on its promise if it’s good enough to deliver customers–that’s why improving the quality of content marketing is critical to business. But creating the kind of excellent original content that attracts, engages and retains an audience requires a mix of competencies that go well beyond what you find on a typical marketing team. At the top of that list of missing competencies is professional editing.

You’ll get the most value from adding an editor to your team if your contributors know how to work with an editor effectively. As a writer and blogger I’ve been lucky to work with a number of talented editors, and to develop a particularly close and collaborative working relationship with Ania Wieckowski, the editor of my Work Smarter with Social Media series for Harvard Business Review Press (and recently, my HBR blog posts, too). If you’ve read any of the books in the series, you’ve seen the impact of Ania’s work: she has an extraordinary ability to identify the most relevant content, to challenge techno-speak so that instructions are clear and accessible, and to tease out the underlying assumptions and argument that tie it all together.

But for an editor like Ania to do a great job, writers have to do theirs. And that job doesn’t consist merely of puking words onto a page and then hitting “send”. Just as important is the way writers engage in the editorial process — which means learning how to work with an editor. Here are my suggestions for how contributors can make that relationship successful:

  1. Start thinking in the plural. It’s not “my” work anymore…it’s ours. Yes, I’m the person with her name on the cover and on the Facebook page (how good a deal is that?) but Ania worked just as hard on the final product. Respecting your editor’s investment in each piece you produce together is key to every aspect of your working relationship.
  2. Seize the opportunity to improve. If you think of your editor as an incursion to defend against, you’re going to have a hard time collaborating. Instead, think of your editor as a therapist for your writing — someone who is actually going to help you think, argue and write better. You wouldn’t go to a therapist hoping to hold onto all your crazy issues…so bring the same attitude to your editor, and get excited about the idea that someone is going to pay real attention to your writing, and help make it better.
  3. Invest in the relationship. If you’re working with the same editor over time, invest in building a personal relationship — or at least, a very cordial professional relationship. The better your editor understands your core passions, views and goals, the better he will be able to guide your work so that it advances your particular perspective and your career. And hey! It’s not all about you. Yes, you’re mostly talking about your writing, but remember that your editor is a person, too — so ask her about what she’s working on, what she did this weekend and what she’s thinking about.
  4. Know your triggers. We all have vulnerabilities — areas where we find it hard to take criticism. The more direct you can be about where your editor needs to tread softly, and where she can give it to you straight, the better you will work together. If you are open to pushback on your logic, invite her to challenge you; but if you hate being nagged about misusing apostrophes, let her know she can just fix your errors — without pointing that out to you each time.
  5. Learn your editor’s strengths. Different editors bring different skills to the table. Ania is amazing at teasing out the underlying vision for a piece and driving the revision process towards that vision; Scott Berinato has an uncanny ability to add the pithy line or headline that takes the whole post to a new level; Michael Totty is fabulous at situating a story in a larger context, and identifying the missing pieces that will help it speak to a wider audience or make a greater impact. Figure out where your editor shines and make the most of their support in that area.
  6. Use phone for vision, emails for summaries, comments for discussion and in-line edits for wordsmithing. Your editorial process almost certainly includes the exchange of electronic documents, but that doesn’t mean your entire working relationship should take place online. Talk with your editor regularly by phone, particularly when you are establishing the initial vision for a report or story, and again if either of you are suggesting significant changes to a draft. When you do send a draft or revision, use the covering email to explain what you are trying to accomplish in that draft, and noting any big-picture questions you have about your overall approach. Use your word processor’s comment function to raise or address questions about specific sections of the text, or to explain the reasoning behind any significant changes; when Ania and I exchange drafts, the marginal comments turn into a very detailed conversation.  The only un-commented edits in the text itself should be confined to wordsmithing; anything else should be accompanied by a clarifying comment explaining why you added a paragraph or how you’re hoping your revisions addressed your editor’s last round of feedback.
  7. Focus on content, not flow. One of the things that has made me a much faster and less stressed writer is learning to trust my editors’ judgement about the order in which my arguments flow. I try to focus on getting everything I want to say out there, section by section, but then let my editor suggest the order in which the sections make the most sense. A third party usually has a better perspective on how your argument needs to build; since all the ideas are already in your head, it may not be as obvious to you which building blocks need to get laid down first.
  8. Ask for help. Part of what makes an editor so useful on a content marketing team is that a good editor can save a writer or contributor a lot of time — once the writer learns to trust in their editor’s guidance. So wherever you struggle in your writing, ask your editor for help, whether that is in figuring out your core argument, choosing the right kinds of supporting examples or articulating your main points in a memorable way.
  9. “This doesn’t feel like me.” This is one of the most important pieces of feedback you can give your editor, if you use it sparingly. It’s not a trump card you can play whenever you want to revert your editor’s changes; it’s best saved for those occasions when editing has somehow led to an argument or a point you actively disagree with. It’s also something to bring up if you need to make a modest revision that makes the way something is said (but not what is being said) sound more like the language you’d normally use. Just bear in mind that if your strength lies in your ideas rather than your writing style, it may be a good thing if your contributions end up sounding more articulate than you do.
  10. Hit your deadlines.  Even if you’re an unpaid contributor, treat your editorial relationship with the same courtesy you show your colleagues or clients: agree on deadlines for each work or draft, and then meet them. You may not succeed in meeting 100% of your deadlines (I’ve got an overdue piece right now myself!) but if you’re mostly on time, your editor will learn to set aside time to review your work the day after you promised to submit, and you’ll get faster feedback. And if you’re not going to meet your deadline, let your editor know as early as you see trouble, and offer a new deadline that you can actually meet.
  11. Say thank you. Once you start thinking about editing as something that is done for you rather than to you, you can feel grateful to the amazing person who is actually investing their time and brain power in making your work as good as it can possibly be. So say thank you every single time you get their revisions, and let them know the specific way you feel they improved your work. And then once in a blue moon, write a blog post that acknowledges that you couldn’t do what you do without them.

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Homeschooling as a working mom: the pie chart

September 9, 2014

It’s week two of the school year — or it would be, if we weren’t in the middle of an increasingly frustrating (though well-justified) teachers’ strike. We’re experiencing the school outage a little differently at our house, because this also marks the beginning of our experience homeschooling our younger child. And while we’re lucky to [...]

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Choosing research methods for data-driven storytelling

September 4, 2014

This blog post does not represent Vision Critical. In fact, I think some of my colleagues are going to argue with me vigorously over this one. Rigorous data gathering and analysis can get in the way of effective storytelling by non-profits. That proved to be the most controversial part of my talk today on Telling [...]

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Is this an ice cream? A 2×2

September 3, 2014

It has recently come to my attention that many people seem to be unable to recognize whether their preferred frozen dessert is ice cream. At last! A modern dilemma I can actually solve, thanks to this handy 2×2: Is it ice cream? Butterfat content 10 to 20% Less than 10% Ice cream flavors (chocolate, vanilla, [...]

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20 requirements for a great coffee shop for home office workers

August 27, 2014

What are the ingredients for the perfect working café? I’ve been thinking about this question because I’m heading into a period when I expect to spend a lot of time working in coffee shops.  I’ve spent a lot of my career, including my most productive periods, working in coffee shops, largely because they offer the [...]

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Yelpless: What kinds of reviews get squelched by Yelp?

August 26, 2014

I’m an ardent (some might say pathological) Yelp user, and since I am incapable of putting anything in my mouth without first validating its viability on Yelp, I try to contribute back to the community by sharing my own perspectives and information, particularly on the all-important subject of artisanal ice cream. But today I got [...]

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Is the Canadian media responsible for Western Canadian alienation?

August 25, 2014

What is the root cause of Western Canadian alienation? Contrary to common arguments, it’s not because the rest of Canada fails to understand the West’s “distinct history, economy and society“, it’s not due to the National Energy Program or even (as my friend and colleague Angus Reid once noted) to the under-representation in our electoral system and [...]

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Bumper sticker conversation guide: 2×2 edition

August 17, 2014

This weekend my mind got blown a tiny bit by this unexpected combination of bumper stickers. Naturally, I facebooked the photo, and my friend Steve challenged me to fit this phenomenon into a 2×2. But as with any 2×2, the structure of the table should be determined by what it’s helping you understand…so in this [...]

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How 17 essential travel apps can improve your next vacation

July 14, 2014

Whether you’re packing your bags for a summer trip to Europe or packing the car for a summer road tip with the kids, you may be tempted to define your vacation by what you’re not packing: your computer, tablet or mobile phone. As more and more of us struggle with the invisible electronic leash that keeps us [...]

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Making room for messiness

June 2, 2014

For the past two weeks we’ve been in the middle of our semi-annual domestic meltdown. Meltdown features include: emergency school visits necessitating precipitous departures from work implementation of new household rules precipitating epically draining tantrums academic and medical appointments requiring multiple (often sudden) scheduling changes. As messy, exhausting and difficult as these periods are, what [...]

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What you can learn by NOT throwing your child out of a window

May 20, 2014

A few years ago I found myself comparing vacation plans with a colleague — a single guy about a decade older than me. His upcoming vacation? A month-long backpacking trip to Hawaii, totally off the grid. When I marvelled at his bravery, he offered this wisdom: “Every year, try to do something that pushes you [...]

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