Saturday, 25 February 2012

Content editors: what we do

The trigger for me writing this blog post was the outrage expressed by a colleague when I edited her content. She thought editing just meant checking for typos. She is very wrong.

Here are some of the other things content editors do.

One page = one theme
We look at the page as a whole. We check it sticks to one theme. On a page called 'Helping small businesses get loans', everything should relate to that theme.

If a whole chunk of info is about another topic, for example 'mentoring small businesses', this should go on another page.

Keeping content focused on one theme makes it easier for the reader to see what the page is about - and makes it easier for you to write an accurate page title.

The page title usually displays in Google search results. So it will help people decide whether to click through or not.

What are you on about?
We look at whether individual sentences will make sense to the reader, whether that's the general public or '18 year olds applying for apprenticeships'.

Are there phrases that only insiders will understand? I tussled with a colleague over 'Colleges will receive funding according to the distance travelled'.

What he really meant was: 'A local college will receive more funding from central government, the more qualifications its students get'.

Another example is 'English domiciled students'. It's a bit Latin. So I've changed it to 'Students who usually live in England'.

Spin, spin, sugar
We prefer straightforward facts over spin. Which of the following is less spinny?
  • 'We will ensure higher education is free at the point of access.'
  • 'We have introduced student loans so no one has to pay university tuition fees up front.' 
I prefer the second sentence as it's not claiming that university tuition is free.

Chunks 'n' headings
We divide information into meaningful chunks and add sub-headings to help people skim the page. And to help people see if they're on the right page.

Three's a crowd
We cut repetition. Take the phrase 'Information, advice and guidance' used by careers advisers.

Yes, the dictionary definitions of all 3 words are slightly different but you can bet the reader will experience the phrase as repetition - and glaze over.

Bring in Kofi Annan
But only half our job is editing, the other half is negotiating with people whose content we're changing.

Many people get offended when you change their text. They may have spent several hours writing it and their boss has signed it off.

So we try and persuade people that:
  • you always need a second pair of eyes (an editor) to spot jargon
  • it's not personal - we're all working together to make it better for the reader 
Statistics at our fingertips
We often need to explain why we've changed the wording. So we need proof that our version is better for the reader.

I recently used Google Insights to show that no one's searching for the term 'alternative providers' - instead people are more likely to search for 'private universities'. So we used 'private universities' as the page title.

Smart phones: new rules
Content editors know that smart phones are changing the rules. The smaller the screen, the harder it is to read stuff. With small screens, people are even more impatient people with long-winded text.

Design maestro Jakob Nielsen says: "Writing for mobile readers requires even harsher editing than writing for the web."

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