Walkthrough: short blog post, deep edit

Even a short piece can be structurally challenged

The longer the piece, the more potential there is for its going awry on some aspect of structure. But a short piece can have structural issues as well.

The assignment

This food retail client was looking for a short blog post to announce partnership with a company that sourced imperfect produce. The goal was to encourage shoppers to try out these oddly shaped fruits and veggies and also to allay any fears they might have about the quality of the produce. Although “imperfect produce” has gained traction since then, the idea was still a bit new at this time, most particularly for this population in the heartland. The appeal would be to pocketbook, with a side of environmental consciousness.

Misfits, original (first page) .png

The original draft contained all the right ideas, but not quite sorted out yet. There was a hiccup after the second paragraph, with the text then sometimes revisiting the same points, sometimes jumping off into new directions. The fix? Moving things around and adding transitions. Along with just a bit of rephrasing.

The edit

In the edited version, the writer’s ideas are trimmed and tidied. The themes of beauty on the outside and beauty on the inside are woven throughout the piece. The flow of the discussion is tightened and now has forward movement. (That is, it is more cohesive.)

The thrust of the changes is apparent in the revision clean. But it can be instructive to look through the markup (in this case re-created in Word), which highlights what was added, what deleted, what changed. The markup is something like a schematic representation of the thinking that went into the changes.

There’s an important point to keep in mind here: the deeper the edit, the more interpretive is the work. That is, the more an individual editor’s style and sensibilities come into play. A group of professional editors should all be seeing more or less the same issues with a piece (dependent, too, on their understanding of the context and their experience with similar contexts), but when the issues extend beyond the merely mechanical, those editors are unlikely to arrive at the same remedy. Copyeditors work more alike in similar contexts than do line editors or — most particularly — developmental editors. The level of edit that a piece calls for makes all the difference.

Thus, for this piece, another professional editor should arrive at a similar diagnosis of the issues to be resolved, but the actual resolution would likely look different. The less so for a short piece like this, where there are only a handful of good options. The more so for a long piece, where the final narrative might unfurl in any one of several potentially fine directions. This is the artistry of editing.

Detailed comments

If you’re working with a novice writer, with a writer becoming familiar with a new writing context or style of writing, with a writer whose work is valued and in whom the client has an investment, or any similar situation — and most particularly where you have been charged to make the changes yourself directly to the text — consider returning also a set of detailed, instructive comments. Such comments help to explain your thinking and they help also to establish a working relationship with a new writer and to maintain a good one with a writer you’re continuing with. In some environments, such as publishing, you would return markup and comments as a matter of course. In many corporate environments, not necessarily.

With comments of this sort, it can sometimes be more useful to comment on the original text. Other times, on the revised text. (And here’s one example of that latter approach, with the same article.) Where the changes have been many, you might find it helpful to do both. You can also interleave comments with the markup. This is the usual approach to editing in those contexts where you return the files to the writer for her to make the changes. But often such comments are fewer and less detailed than comments intended to instruct.

When you include comments that explain the changes you’ve made, you give the writer a key to unlock the full meaning of the markup. If the markup is a kind of map, then instructive comments are the legend that brings the map to life. Novice writers will not likely see all you’d like them to see in those changes without it.

Who does what?

Most traditionally, a developmental edit means analyzing what needs to be done (or sometimes analyzing what the issues are and leaving it to the writer to determine what needs to be done). Providing an example or two to model the sorts of change(s) needed. And then sending the piece back to the writer with extensive notes. As the writer works to develop the next draft, the editor is there to answer questions and coach as needed.

If working in that way in this case, I might have noted where the text was redundant, where it jumped to a new topic and then returned to a previous one, and asked the writer to revise to be clear of those issues. Or I might have additionally noted that the original close to the second paragraph would make for a strong and natural close to the entire piece. I might also have specified a general order to follow for the material leading up to that close. For an editor working within the traditional editor/writer roles, often in a publishing house environment, this would have been the way to go: specifying the issues to be resolved, specifying (or suggesting or sometimes asking the author to come up with) the fixes to be made.

But sometimes those roles are circumvented or do not apply. Sometimes for expediency, you might opt — where this strategy is available — for doing the work directly and using that work as a model. Or the client might ask you to go ahead and make the changes. Working within the traditional role could mean trading the piece back and forth several times, likely having a number of conversations about the work as well. It’s a process that respects the writer’s role and ownership of the material, but it’s a process that some contexts do not support as well as others. In a corporate environment, where the client (and not the writer) owns the final written piece, and where the timeframe calls for quick work, you may be asked to step in more directly. But by using clear markup and detailed comments, you can show the writer more clearly what you were going for. The next time, she might be able to take a crack at it herself, arriving at a clear and smooth result and taking her own path to get there.