The internet was taking baby steps in 1983. Google was founded in 1998. Facebook launched in 2004.
But before all of the blogs and tweets—and, to a small degree, even now—publishing, advertising, and direct mail were printed … on paper or film. It took more than a few clicks to convey a message.
The production cycle was weeks, even months long, rather than the typical 4-to-8–hour turnaround often expected today with social media. While indeed the editorial turnaround time has been minimized, the quality of editing has not and cannot diminish. Let’s take a look at how editorial review ensures quality in today’s digital world.
The importance of editorial review in an instant digital world
High-quality content is the bottom line for any form of publication—online or print. And in this age of social media, the two signature characteristics of communication are speed and compression. Make it fast and keep it short.
But regardless of the copy’s length, an editor focuses on details to ensure consistency throughout a document. They pay close attention to the precision of a piece, fine-tuning the words and following an established style for clarity and accuracy. Style = corporate brand guidelines + industry standards + even basic dictionary “rules.” Some brands insist on serial commas, some don’t. Some brands prefer American Heritage while others default to Webster’s.
In addition, editing for a specific audience is as critical as following a specific style. An editor will zero in on the message—what’s being said and to whom. Does the reader develop mobile apps? Are they a nonprofit working in a developing country? Are you inviting them to an event? Do they breed Great Danes? Are they hobby gardeners or own a nursery? Audiences are as vast and varied as you can imagine. And the details are important.
An editor ensures documents are polished and professional. Readers won’t trust a document if there are typos, misused words, or factually incorrect statements. And by extension, readers will think twice before trusting the company whose logo is on that document. Whether the message is a 140-character tweet or a blog several paragraphs long, it needs to be clear and error-free. Here are some common mistakes editors look for:
- Typos—We all know that spell-check software can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse. Word mix-ups are, by far, the most common errors.
- Grammar—Language is complex. You must read words in context to identify how they function in a sentence, which is why grammar-check software sometimes makes suggestions that are not appropriate or correct. The app can be helpful, but it shouldn’t be relied upon 100% of the time.
- Voice—It’s important to maintain a consistent voice throughout a document. Write with an active voice, which is more direct and focused on action; avoid passive, which can be wordier and possibly confusing.
- Subject/verb—It’s critical to make subjects and verbs agree for accuracy and readability.
- Capitalization—We live in the age of acronyms: IBM, NASA, AKA, LOL. But unnecessary capitalization can make sentences cumbersome to read and affect overall comprehension. Context is key.
- Commas—Use commas to separate parts of a sentence for clarity and readability. In part, they indicate where you would pause if you were speaking rather than reading. Brand guidelines will specify whether or not to use serial commas. Both ways are correct, but you should follow the chosen style and be consistent.
- Lists—Lists must be parallel in both language and structure: start each item with the same part of speech, make sure each bullet makes sense, and be consistent using complete sentences or fragments.
- Bias—Use gender-free language; avoid masculine pronouns; don’t use ageist language; address people with disabilities appropriately; and be sensitive to potential global (mis)interpretations.
- Articles—These aren’t superfluous; they help the flow of language. And if your material will be localized or translated, they are crucial for language-specific clarity.
Ensuring quality in a digital world
At the risk of restating the obvious, quality can never be compromised. Editors have gone from having three months to complete a project to mere hours, and yet, the quality of the edit must stay the same. Where projects were once printed on paper, now almost everything is produced online, on social media, and, therefore, has an immediate effect. Editors need to digest content quickly while knowing when to send up a red flag, such as with inconsistent bullets, the lack (or use) of serial commas, an incorrect product name, or its misuse. Quality is ensured by knowing style and branding guidelines and industry terminology.
Just as designers design to a specific set of brand standards, so do most writers. Whether they are writing for an annual report, a medical journal, an instructional manual, or a global event, content has “rules.” Their editors work behind the scenes, in partnership with the writers, to ensure the voice, tone, and style are on-point for the brand’s messaging. Successful editors understand what a writer is trying to say and can help improve their piece. Knowing the audience is critical. You don’t want your message to seem proprietary, and you don’t want to talk down to your readers.
But despite all of the “rules and regulations,” content should be accessible, readable, enjoyable, and even fun; informative yet friendly. As the reader, you should be captivated by the content, and as the writer, you want your audience to come back for more! As an editor, you help ensure that both happen.
The bar for quality and its intrinsic rewards
The expectation for quality is extremely high, the goal is always zero errors, and you want the language to be at the target level for your audience. The reward as an editor is that we meet the needs of the writer and the expectations of the reader. The trick is that editing needs to be invisible. We are always behind the scenes. A reader will clearly see a mistake, but they won’t “see” where or how the copy was finessed. And that’s OK. As with most endeavors, personal satisfaction comes from a job well done.
The bottom line? Good editors strive to “do no harm.” That’s our contribution to the world of words: helping writers show off their talents—and their voices—in the best way possible.