In the vast majority of website projects that I have managed during my ten years in the industry, content is often the last thing to be considered (and almost always the last thing to be delivered). We’ll spend hours, weeks, even months, doing user scenarios, site maps, wireframes, designs, schemas, and specifications—but content? It’s a disrespected line item in a schedule: “final content delivered.” It’s the perennial cause of delay and the stuff of myth (I once shelved a project for three years while the client “wrote” his content.) It’s a malaise that needs fixing and needs fixing fast.
Time and time again we’ll encourage our clients to engage a copywriter—but on projects with tight budgets there is a tendency for clients to “handle the content ourselves.” And this makes some sense. After all, the clients are the ones who know their business and audience best. If they have educated communications professionals leading their IT and marketing departments it does seem logical for them to take care of copy internally—particularly when a budget is already being stretched to accommodate a best-practice tech or design solution.
Furthermore, from the client’s perspective there’s always a risk that the copywriter won’t get it right—that their prose will be too fun-lovin’, too dry, that they’ll explain things incorrectly, they’ll waste time writing something “we already have” etc., etc. (My personal favorite: “by the time I’ve explained it to someone else, I might as well write it myself.”) There are plenty of rational, reasonable explanations that send our clients merrily teetering along the let’s-write-it-ourselves tightrope. Fair enough: risk taking is not encouraged in most commercial situations.
It is perhaps the market forces driving web development projects that find us aligning ourselves with the lexicons of marketing and advertising rather than publishing. As a result, we have lots of “brand identity guidelines,” but not so many “style guides” (for content, at least). We have “strategists,” but no “commissioning editors,” and we more often “go live” than “publish.” Hence, we tend to first think “copywriter” when trying to get our content sorted, whereas very often an editor is the person we should be engaging. That’s not to say there aren’t editors in our industry—there are—but they tend to be a part of large online publishing projects after launch rather than a part of the development lifecycle from the beginning. (Somehow, we’ve become a kind of freak cousin of publishing, ignoring that industry’s expertise.) In many cases, an editor would be a great addition to our process as well as, in some cases, a better and more rational investment than a copywriter.
Life without an editor: chaos, sorrow, pain
Like many other clients, my it’s-been-three-years-and-I-still-don’t-have-the-content client had a patchwork of words produced by subject matter experts with no training as writers and no guidance. While they may know their area (a profession, a department, a product) quite well, and are sometimes able to write lucidly, subject matter experts are seldom sensitive to the nuances of the English language. They also tend to pay little attention to the wording for miscellaneous pages, forms, submission messages, pop-up boxes, and so on. As a consequence, website content often fails to reflect the thought and planning that goes into the rest of the site. The language on sites built this way is almost always inconsistent: spelling, grammar rules, tone, and voice are like flotsam and jetsam on the shores of a sea of information. My guy knows this. He just needs time to sit down and fix it all. To, er, give it a good edit.
Writing vs. editing
There are good copywriters who can also edit, but the two disciplines are separate specialties. Most writers enjoy researching their topics and crafting their prose, and for this reason, many writers are less than enthusiastic about shaping someone else’s words—but it pays: so they’ll do it. An editor’s training lends itself more strongly to working with clients who can scratch together a good portion of the copy. Editors are taught to weave disparate voices into something more professional, and they can quickly identify and prevent common errors—particularly on multi-writer projects. They are taught the fine art of helping writers improve their work and have a strong eye for detail. Where writers often like to start with nothing, editors expect to start with a pre-existing body of work, and generally enjoy shaping it into something stronger. These are generalizations, but in a situation where a client already has some copy, there’s no doubt that an editor should be our first port of call. And hey, if a writer is required, who better than an editor to make the business case for hiring one and find the right talent?
Life with an editor: a glorious cycle of song
There are so many challenges in delivering best practice web projects that it seems absurd we should allow copy to create such discord in our process. If involved early in the project, editors can bring harmony. They can develop tools, such as style guides, as well as define the site’s tone and voice, and these tools can be distributed to the client’s writers to help them feel more confident about the task before them. Just knowing an editor will review the work enables those who are time-poor to just bust something out—something the editor can later refine. Alternatively, they can discuss their approach with the editor to ensure there’s no chance of writer’s block.
Editors also have project management skills. They can set tasks and schedules. They can make sure our writers meet their milestones. Even if employed at the end of a project, an editor can contribute most of these things, though admittedly with more effort. If the writers are no longer available, chances are an editor can still shape the words into something consistent, professional, and meaningful.
Once editors are ensconced into our development processes, we will find more and more editors with the specialist skills we need. Already, the editorial specialists in our industry can save testing and project management time by ensuring that headings, paragraphing, captions, and links are meaningful and serve all user groups before they’re implemented. Imagine an editor who can shortcut the SEO process by introducing appropriate keyword density and link titles, all while maintaining a healthy respect for syntax, spelling, and grammar. If we introduce editorial skills into every project at the scoping stage, we can achieve better final products and avoid the typical and unnecessary delays around content delivery. Furthermore, because it’s understood that editors work with existing words, they can be an easier and more logical sell to clients who “don’t need a writer.”
Getting it done
So how to get an editor into the process? Introduce the idea early in a project (as early as the business development phase) so a budget can be set aside for editorial work. Acknowledge that your client is the subject matter expert, but may need help in ensuring all of their content is consistent and demonstrates best practices in the fields of accessibility, usability, and SEO. If brought in early enough, editors can save money for clients by managing the writing and review process, setting up style guides for writers to follow, and keeping the preparation of content on schedule. Make sure your clients know this!
It’s important to work with a professional editor—someone who is endorsed by your local professional association or who has advanced qualifications in the field (you can find these people through educational institutions who train editors). Ideally you’d like an editor who understands web issues, such as accessibility, usability, SEO and so on, but it will take time for specialist web editors to become the norm in our field, so you should be able to brief your editor on these aspects when they are engaged.
Unfortunately it’s too late for my three-year-late client. In the years he spent trying to finish off his content, the company logo changed, the technology changed, and he was forced to start the site design all over again—the worst case scenario for copy-delay syndrome. Still, I have introduced editorial services to my other clients and received a very positive response. Seems like it’s just what the doctor ordered.