I’m willing to bet that very few people have read a blog post, spotted a typo and said, “Well, I guess I’m out of here.”
But I’d put even more money down for every reader who has visited a blog post and left because they were confused, intimidated, overwhelmed, or saw no immediate value.
And yet, when it comes to editing and content marketing, a lot of stress is placed on the importance of spelling and grammar. While this is essential when it comes to preserving your professionalism, our obsession with the details might lead to huge oversights in the overall architecture of a piece of writing.
What I want to discuss is one often overlooked stage of editing that will drastically improve a piece of content’s chances against reader apathy.
Editors might call it a structural or substantive edit, but I like to steer clear of jargon. So let's call it the No One Wants to Read What We Write edit. It’s the kind of mindset that writers and content marketers need to have when producing content for an internet that's now inundated with blog posts and shiny infographics.
When it comes to writing, they say the devil is in the details. But the real boogeyman lurks around the corners of the big picture. And it’s what’s scaring our readers away.
Beyond Grammar: Mechanical vs. Analytical Editing
Editing for grammar and spelling is a mostly mechanical process. There’s not much critical thinking involved at this stage; you simply have to pay VERY close attention and occasionally google the stuff you’re not sure about. The red squiggly lines light the way.
And while I don’t want to undermine the importance of proofreading and other detail-oriented steps in the editing process, these changes are mostly seen by already-engaged readers.
The other side of editing requires that you approach the text critically and put yourself in the shoes of a reader who doesn't want to read.
It involves questions about:
- How well you seize the best opportunities in a piece of writing
- How you organize information to retain readers
- How you emphasize immediate value to give readers a reason to stay
This kind of editing is grounded in questions, involves tightening your structure and has the biggest impact on a piece of writing—namely, whether people stay to read it or not.
Here are the questions you need to ask when you're editing a piece of writing.
Are you taking advantage of beginnings and endings?
According to the primacy and recency effects, the beginning and end represent your best opportunities when you consider the “writing real estate” you're working with.
Not only should you make sure you're taking advantage of this in your introduction and conclusion, but also in every section, every paragraph and every sentence.
What I find when editing is that yYou can cut the fluff or reword a sentence to ensure a bigger impact at these critical points across a piece of writing.
Seize these opportunities as often as you can.
Pro(se) Tip: Keep the first paragraph short at the start of a post or specific section to stop “big blocks of text” from becoming a barrier for readers.
Have you packaged your ideas into easily digestible chunks?
I doubt I need to explain how shorter paragraphs can increase readability online and conquer your content's "Too Long; didn't read" syndrome.
However, you should embrace the F-shaped pattern of reading if you want to create a scannable piece of content. While the F-Shape is a general trend more often applied to copywriting and web page design, it still helps us understand the reading behavior of unengaged visitors and how to mix up paragraph lengths to create a better reading rhythm.
"Chunking" has also been proven to make information easier to consume and remember. It's the notion that it's easy to digest information when we can focus on a handful of parts rather than a long series. For example, list posts leverage information chunks that make them among the easier and fastest types of content to consume.
Pro(se) tip: Evaluate how you've broken down your overall piece—can you break it down even further or combine two “lighter sections" into one?
Is there an intuitive order to how you present the information?
Information—whether in a piece of content, an application or a resource center—needs to be organized with the intention to make consumption intuitive for visitors.
Consider the hierarchy and whether the information is presented strategically based on what's most interesting, what might be prerequisite knowledge before you introduce certain information, and how it flows from one section to the next.
Some topics have a natural flow. For example, a post about lead management can start with generating leads, then move on to nurturing them, scoring them, and handing them off a Sales team.
Try adding what's called a nut graf, an early glance at what the content contains, before you dive into the meat of your post. This helps readers understand the kind of value to expect in a piece of content.
If it's missing from a piece of content, you can achieve this sort of order by rearranging parts of the content or strategically repeating certain information to provide more context.
Pro(se) Tip: If there's a chance, try to add a consistent flow that's obvious for readers throughout the content. These Pro(se) Tips are an example!
Are your subheads immediately meaningful?
Subheads are more than just a way to organize your thoughts, describe the information in a section, and refocus your reader’s attention.
If your blog post is the full story, subheads are the summary. They give readers a good idea of what to expect in terms of value, tone and direction.
Here’s an example of the significant impact subheads can have (for this very post):
The One Edit That Could Save Your Content
- Mechanical vs. Analytical Editing
- Seize your best opportunities: the beginning and end
- Write immediately meaningful subheads
- Help the best parts of your content shine
The One Edit That Could Save Your Content
- Beyond Grammar: Mechanical vs. Analytical Editing
- Are you taking advantage of beginnings and endings?
- Are your subheads immediately meaningful?
- Are you hiding your content’s “selling points”?
These are the actual sets of subheads I was considering. I opted to go for the 2nd series to be more consistent with my point that this kind of editing is about asking questions about the content you're working with.
Even if you change nothing but the subheads in a post, it would still have a significant impact on the overall tone and message of the content.
Pro(se) Tip: Build cohesion throughout your subheads if possible by repeating the grammatical structure, verb tense, or theme. Separate your conclusion from the body of your content with a subhead that tells your audience, "I'm a conclusion."
Are the "selling points" shining through the text?
What would you say are the best parts of a blog post? The parts that you know for sure will impress readers?
I’d say they’re images, quotes from experts, cool-and-catchy one-liners and, of course, the actionable information in your post.
So why allow these elements blend in with the rest of the writing?
Apply emphasis to these points by:
- Bolding key phrases to create anchor points for scanning and generate interest for the paragraph they belong to.
- Using bulleted lists to communicate actionable value.
- Using block/pull quotes to draw attention to quotes from experts or specific features of the writing.
- Designing a quick graphic to better illustrate information
- Adding hyperlinks to meaningful, attention-grabbing anchor text.
- Showing off your cool one-liners room to stand out by putting them on one line.
Pro(se) tip: Rewrite sentences so you can more effectively format them to make the meaning shine.
Make a difference when you edit
When you edit, you should never start with proofreading. The changes you make when you proofread are for the readers who are already reading. First, you need to ensure that people get to that point by asking these broader questions about a piece of content.
Keep the big picture in mind as you go through the entire editing process. All content can benefit from this sort of approach, but it's absolutely essential for text-heavy content.
As marketers, we try to optimize everything we can. So why stop when it comes to the one edit that can save the great ideas and hours of work that go into creating a piece of content?