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 of surviving reader apathy.
Editors might call it a structural or substantive edit, but let's steer clear of jargon. Instead, we'll call it the No One Wants to Read What We Write edit. As writers, editors or content marketers, we're not entitled to our audience's attention. We have to earn it.
They say the devil is in the details. But in writing, the real boogeyman lurks around the corners of the big picture. And it’s what’s scaring 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 help 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 the editing process—the one you should do first—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 a piece of content seizes its best opportunities.
- How it organizes information to retain readers
- How it emphasizes immediate value to give readers a reason to stay
This kind of editing is grounded in questions, involves tightening the structure and has the biggest impact on a piece of writing—namely, whether people stay to read it or not.
Here are some of the questions you need to ask when you're editing before you even think about proofreading.
Does the content take 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 evaluate whether these principles are applied to the 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 the post or individual section to stop “big blocks of text” from becoming a barrier for readers.
Are the ideas packaged in 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 break up and 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 easier to digest information when we can focus on tackling "chunks" at a time rather than having to endure a long series of information.
For example, list posts deliver their value in bite-sized chunks that make them one of the easier 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 the information is presented?
Information—whether in a piece of content, an application or a resource center—needs to be organized in a way that makes 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 to a Sales team.
The easiest way to improve the flow of a post is often simply to rearrange parts of the content or strategically repeat certain information to provide more context.
Try including a "nut graf", an early glance at what the content contains, before the meat of the post. This helps readers understand the kind of value to expect in a piece of content.
Pro(se) Tip: If there's a chance, try adding a consistent element in each section that creates a pattern for audiences to engage with—like these Pro(se) Tips at the end of each section, for example!
Are the subheads in the content immediately meaningful?
Subheads are more than just a way to organize thoughts, describe the information in a section, and refocus the reader’s attention.
Subheads are the table of contents in your content. 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 the best opportunities: the beginning and the end
- Write immediately meaningful subheads
- Help the best parts of the content shine
The One Edit That Could Save Your Content
- Beyond Grammar: Mechanical vs. Analytical Editing
- Does the content take advantage of beginnings and endings?
- Are the ideas packaged in easily digestible chunks?
- Is there an intuitive order to how the information is presented?
These are the actual sets of subheads I was considering for this post. I opted to go with 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, "This is a conclusion."
Do the "selling points" shine 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.
So why allow these elements to 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 a series of tips or actionable advice.
- Using block/pull quotes to draw attention to quotes from experts or set apart specific lines within the content.
- Designing a quick graphic to better represent certain information.
- Adding hyperlinks to meaningful, attention-grabbing anchor text.
- Showing off cool one-liners by giving them their own paragraph.
Pro(se) tip: Rewrite sentences so you can more effectively format them to make the meaning shine.
See the forest for the trees
When you edit, you should never start with proofreading. The changes you make when you're proofreading or copy editing 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 that often gets lost in all the noise.
As marketers, we try to optimize everything we can for better results. But how do we do it for a specific piece of content?
It starts with criticizing the forest before the trees with the one edit that can save all the great ideas and hours of work that go into creating content.