how to help your content creation team do their best work: tips from a professional journalist
People who create content need a supportive environment to really rock at what they do. Companies who publish content need innovative material that engages audiences and moves people to take action. The editor is the person whose role is to satisfy both needs.
In my career as a journalist, I learned that editors who can do both are rare. I was lucky enough to meet and work for several. Over time, I took notes about what those great editors did, and those notes developed into my personal editor’s manifesto, which drives how I work with people today. Here's my editor's manifesto as I used it while I was a development editor for Time Inc. Books. I think it holds a lot of value for content marketing, too.
1. Be gregarious and curious. Never stop listening, questioning, and learning.
2. If the editor’s not genuinely, passionately excited about a project, no one else will be. Faking it fails.
3. Success is dependent upon strong relationships. Build and nurture them. Dismiss no one. Not even interns.
4. Work with people who are wholeheartedly invested in the project. Your working relationship with a writer is going to be a long, all-up-in-your-guts-and-head relationship. If they’re not into it heart, soul, blood, and tears for the long haul, you will be into it for far more than you expected—and then you’ll be miserable for the rest of the project, which potentially is the next two or three years. So skip working with these people. They don’t value you or your time.
5. Be as considerate of your colleagues as you are of your audience. The people you work with deserve just as much clarity, thoughtful organization, respect, and decisive direction as your readers.
6. The editor is always right. This is true because the editor is the ultimate guardian of the story or the book’s message (hereinafter called The Message). Everything that any creative professional contributes to the book has to work together to communicate The Message, and the editor is the only person who sees all the elements coming together and can make sure they’re working in concert to deliver The Message. So: The editor is always right.
7. Being right doesn’t mean you know everything. It doesn’t mean you have all the answers. In fact, you don’t, and if you want a successful book, you’ll acknowledge this every day. Ideally, you'll hire a great team of creative professionals who each know the nuances and specifics of their respective crafts better than you do. Share the book’s Message with them until you know they’ve got it, give them the resources they need, then let them do their work and make their contributions to the project. (If you’re good at being the editor, you’ll challenge them to stretch and out-do their own best work, and you’ll champion them when they do.) Be open to diversity of thought and approach, to new ideas that genuinely enhance The Message. If someone on your team proposes something that puzzles you, ask questions first. Let them share what they’re trying to accomplish. Ask them to justify their approach. Your job is to make sure it supports the Message, and to help the contributor do their work so that it’s awesome.
7b. There are thin lines between challenging your team, exasperating your team, and insulting their intelligence and capability. Crossing these lines are likely to produce lackluster results. So plunge into the vast and unexplored “challenge your team” space.
8. Firmly establish your editorial rightness. Sometimes the people who need you to be right will challenge that fact. Pretend you’re Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup and remember that they want you to be right; they need you to be right. Be open-minded to suggestions that support the message, but also be resolute in protecting what the message needs to be, and keep it on track. If the editor isn’t right, the book won’t have a clear, singular message.
9. Never edit copy in red. People associate red with being wrong, thanks to the red pencils grade school teachers use (or used to use). Truly collaborating with someone requires an atmosphere that doesn't promote shaming.
10. Never say “I don’t get it” or “I don’t buy that” in a dismissive tone. It kills innovative thinking. It only encourages people to fall back to safe, mediocre ideas. It does little to encourage people to stretch for better clarity, better structure, or better storytelling. It also suggests that you, as the editor, have lost your intellectual curiosity and surrendered yourself to the delusion that you are omniscient.
11. Lying about deadlines is completely permissible. God told me so.
12. The best copy editors are anal know-it-alls whose edit marks annoy you to no end. Be thankful for them.
13. Strive to create a clear message without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Vagueness and insults are equally effective at turning people off. Dumbing down a piece and shaping a piece for clarity are entirely different things, yet many editors dumb down content in the name of clarity. Clarity and originality can co-exist. In fact, if you’ve got an innovative Message, clarity is a must.
14. Know the difference between editing to clarify and editing to impose your own voice, thoughts, and culture on a piece. If you’re not mature enough to recognize and admit when you’re doing the latter, you’re not yet capable of being a good editor.
15. Stop worrying so much about offending your readers. Worry more about delighting them.
16. After you edit a piece, put it down for a while. Come back. Read it. Do you enjoy it as much as you enjoyed the writing sample that inspired you to take on the author in the first place? A book that has no emotional payoff is deficient and will not thrive in the marketplace. It doesn’t matter how much serviceable information it gives, how many pictures it has, or which celebrity wrote a cover blurb or foreword. If you don’t feel the same delight, no one else will. If it isn’t emotionally moving or thought provoking in some way, you've messed it up. Start over.
17. Protect, defend, and fight for these: The Message. Colleagues. Readers. Passion. Resources. Collaboration and synergy. Going the extra mile. Innovation. Being different.
18. Strive to impregnate people with passion. Not infect. Infections are temporary, unwanted, and produce excessive waste. How do you know which effect you’ve had? If you’ve successfully impregnated someone with passion, they contribute their own elemental selves to it. They nurture it. They glow. They tell the world about it. It’s attractive. Other people want it.