Ernest Hemingway famously said that the first draft of anything is shit. And he was right. This is because your first pass is rife with personal biases: what you’d understand, find interesting or deem relevant. Even the way you present your argument is one-sided (even if it’s not), because it’s coming from one person: you.
Part of a copyeditor’s training is to see past those biases to what you’re trying to convey or elicit, and help you bring it out clearly.
As a copyediting company, we’d obviously recommend that every piece of writing, from a dissertation to an email, be reviewed by a second set of eyes. Is that realistic in today’s fast-moving business world? Probably not. But the important pieces should definitely be passed by an editor to make sure they’re saying what you think they’re saying and doing what you need them to do.
So as you start your search for a copyeditor to have on speed dial, here are three things you should be looking for:
A formal copyediting education
Anyone can edit your work, but that doesn’t mean they’re a professional copyeditor. Because not anyone has taken courses in substantive, adaptive and structural editing (editing for meaning, content and readability). They haven’t been taught how to proofread properly, which means being able to spot all the mistakes, not just the glaring ones. Most importantly, they haven’t been taught how to work with writers to make their writing better. Because a good copyeditor is as much a coach as they are a service provider.
In Canada, copyeditors with the most credibility come out of the Ryerson program in Toronto or the Simon Fraser program in Vancouver, or similar programs offered throughout Canada. And in a perfect world, they’re certified by Editors Canada.
Rich copyediting experience
Regardless of what you need edited, you want a copyeditor who’s done a ton of that kind of work before. This isn’t to say a junior editor won’t do a good job, but someone who’s been around the block a few times has seen it all.
For example, a junior will have a firm grasp on Chicago style, but a seasoned vet will know where and how most people deviate from that style ¾ and so will spot those mistakes faster.
Also, an experienced copyeditor will have worked with enough personalities to develop a productive style. They’ll have worked with the writer who pushes back on everything (not ideal), the writer who blindly accepts everything (also not ideal), the overthinkers, overwriters, non-grammarians, ESL writers and writer-by-committees. Their approach to each will be constructive, helpful and collaborative.
A personality fit
Here’s another Hemingway-ism for you: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down and open a vein.” Talk to any writer, from a novelist to a journalist or a copywriter and they’ll absolutely corroborate Ernie. What they produce is very personal ¾ it’s more than a labour of love; it’s a piece of their soul. And they’re very protective of it, no matter how incoherent or awful it may be.
So you have to trust that your copyeditor will adjust without judging. You’ll have to give yourself to the editing process, which can range from uncomfortable to soul-crushing.
And for that to happen, you have to like the person you’re working with. You have to like their energy; their vibe. That’s not to say they have to be the life of the party or your best friend. But that is to say that you’re not going to get on with everybody and that’s okay. There are enough copyeditors out there for everybody. Find one you gel with and taking their feedback will be a lot easier.
An investment in copyediting is a wise decision for any business, publisher, agency, studio or content-producing department. Choosing a trained, experienced, easy-to-like copyeditor might be one of the best decisions you ever make.
We used the phrase “too clever by half” the other day in a presentation. It’s one of our favourites.
The wiktionary defines it as “shrewd but flawed by overthinking or excessive complexity, with a resulting tendency to be unreliable or unsuccessful.” It’s often what happens when a copywriter writes for themselves and not for the client.
Thing is, whether you’re a copywriter or not, it’s sometimes hard to tell when you’re being too clever by half. And why wouldn’t it be? What you’ve written makes perfect sense to you. You wouldn’t have written it otherwise. And it certainly wouldn’t make it through the self-editing process.
Like the wikinition* correctly points out, being too clever by half starts with a shrewd premise. And it’s easy to justify keeping a shrewd premise in the mix because it works when you look at it rationally. The problem is that you are looking at it rationally, and your own rationality is inherently subjective.
And this is why we believe in pairing copywriters and editors.
The editor/copywriter relationship
An editor’s work with a copywriter is a bit different than it is with a novelist or graduate student because the audience is different one significant way: the reader doesn’t want to be reading. They have to be compelled. The audience has neither the time nor the inclination to figure out what the writer’s really saying. They’ll just move on.
And so in addition to looking for mistakes and such, a big part of an editor’s job is to call out the over-thoughts and complexities. And these are the most common too-clever-by-half examples our writers try (often unsuccessfully) to defend:
Popular culture references
Forty years ago when popular culture was defined by three TV networks and five movie studios, celebrities were truly universal. Everyone knew Elvis, Sinatra and Monroe, and so if a copywriter referenced them in a piece, the reader would get it. It’s a bit different today. You can’t assume everyone will know who Kanye West is. So even if you nailed a headline: Re:word Copywriting: More disruptive than Kanye at the VMAs, if people don’t know what you’re talking about, they’re not going to look it up ¾ although they should…it’s quite something.
B2C (business to consumer) copywriters generally have to be checked on this more frequently that B2B (business to business) copywriters because the average person reads at a Grade 6 level. And that means three things: they don’t know a lot of complicated words, they appreciate simple words and simple thoughts, and they’ll quit if something’s too hard.
It’s easy for a copywriter to fall in love with a word like “zenith” or “facilitate.” But readers prefer “top” and “help.” In the B2B space (depending on the audience), you can get away with being a bit more high-brow. But not too much more. Remember, the reader is still a person with limited time. Be credible and professional, but don’t show off with big words.
A useful arrow in a copywriter’s quiver is a word or phrase they can create. Two that come to mind are “ring around the collar” and “halitosis.”
“Ring around the collar” is exactly what it sounds like. Every dress shirt or blouse will eventually get one. And Tide detergent is (apparently) specially formulated to remove it. The key here is that when they say “ring around the collar,” I can picture the problem. If they were to have called it “Circle Stain” it would have been unclear. “Collar Crud” would have sounded too off-putting. “Ring around the collar” has a nice…um…ring to it. And it’s 100% descriptive.
On the flip side, in 1921, the term “halitosis” was created by Listerine, combining “halitus” (the Latin word for breath) with the scary medical suffix “osis” ¾ et voila, a condition only Listerine can cure. But what if they had named it “dragon breath” or “hot garbage mouth?” Would people have paid attention?
The best way to avoid being too clever by half
Remove yourself and your biases. Have a second set of eyes review your writing. And if you can, have a professional editor look at it. They’re trained to (a) spot those too-clever-by-halves and (b) guide you towards a more universal alternative.
Your readers will thank you.
*hey, look…we made up a wikiword…hey, look…another one.
Let’s talk about what seems like the easiest thing in the world to do, but the hardest thing to do really well: give something a name.
Have you listened to parents recount the way they came to their kids’ names? You’ll get the odd “we just knew we had to name her Gertrude” or “we both said Skye at the same time” or “my dad’s name was William so it was a no-brainer.”
But most of the time, it goes a little something like, “I wanted Wilma and she wanted Betty. We fought about it for months until she was born. But when we saw her, we knew she was a Pebbles.”
As a business owner, product developer or marketing manager, you don’t have the luxury of waiting until the eleventh hour to come up with a name you love. You have websites to write, collateral to print, social media feeds to populate, trade shows to attend, and, and, and…
So if 2018 is the year you get to name something, keep these tips in mind:
Two words or less. Two syllable words or less.
Great names are quick and easy to say. Think of all the one-word companies the world deems progressive: Apple, Uber, Google, Rogers. All two syllables ¾ and all following the same linguistic pattern: LONG-short. APP-le. OO-ber. GOO-gle, etc. There’s a reason for this. The pattern demands attention because it forces you to emphasize the word right away. You’re not limping in to the word; you’re jumping in full throttle.
If you’re leaning towards a two-word name, follow the same convention with both words: two syllables or less, with the emphasis up front. Under Armour. Perfect. Easy.
Once you start getting into multi-syllable names, you run the risk of mispronunciation and confusion. And you’re never going to keep your name on the tips of people’s tongues if they’re too long to sit there comfortably.
That brings us to important tip #2:
Easy to say. Easy to spell.
Two words/two syllables is fine, but make sure you have the right ones of each.
Flyynneyl Shloeby. There’s a two-and-two name. But can you say it? Would you know how? Do you think you’d say it differently than your neighbour? And is that a problem?
A few years ago, Korean car-manufacturer Hyundai ran a TV ad (during the Super Bowl, no less) that taught people how to say their name. “Just remember, it rhymes with Sunday…” went the ad. Fantastically eye-opening spot and very funny. But we STILL hear Hi-un-DIE all the time.
Clearly this isn’t much of a problem for them as they’re doing something right. But if you have the chance to avoid confusion, take it.
Speaking of avoiding confusion…
Clarity is key.
When someone hears your company or product name for the first time, they don’t know it from Adam. So what’s going to intrigue them to want to find out more?
We’d argue that there has to be something in it for them.
One of our favourite brand names is Volkswagen. No, it’s not a two-syllable word ¾ but it’s a German word so the conventions of English don’t count. But translated, it means “car of the people.” That’s a pretty bold statement and one most people would want to know more about. Car of the people? What does a car of the people have? I’d need to see. Show me this car of the people.
We mentioned Google before. Let’s look into that for a moment.
The word googol represents 1 followed by 100 zeroes. When we were kids, we all probably used that term at one time or another (I love you times a hundred/a thousand/a million/a billion/a googol!). So when Google’s founders conceived of a place to get all the answers you’d ever want about anything, googol made sense. A quick spelling change and voila: the empire is born.
What you want to avoid is anything too cerebral or clever that people have to think too hard about. Because they won’t sit there trying to deconstruct what you mean by your name. They’ll move on to a competitor whose name they understand.
Once you have a name you like, register it. Spend the money to trademark it so no one else can take it from you. It would be a shame to put in all that branding work only to get shut down the week you launch.
OK…so now that you have tips, where do you begin?
You begin by writing. You write down your first 100 names. They’ll all be crappy. And that’s okay. They’re supposed to be crappy. This part of the process is called “flushing your system.” Get all the garbage out.
Then you’ll look at the names you have and probably notice a few “thought starters” there. These are directions you can take your name.
So with those in mind, you’ll write 100 names for each of those thought starters.
Now you have a huge list to start paring down. Cross out the really stinky ones, but circle the ones that aren’t so bad. Then group the ones you have left into themes. You’ll start to see certain words
over and over again, and that’s a good thing because they’ll obviously mean something to you.
Pull those words out and start playing with them. Combine them in different ways. Look them up in the dictionary and the thesaurus. The more you tinker, the closer you’ll get to Eureka.
And when you get there, you’ll know.
If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. A good name can take weeks, even months to come up with. Don’t have that kind of time. We do.
A funny thing happened over the past few years: long-form content has made a huge comeback.
It’s funny because not too long ago, when the trend was moving more and more micro, the “experts” concluded that people didn’t have the attention span to consume long-form content (or even medium-form content).
Well, they seem to have missed out on that one because they glossed over the basic tenet of the writer/reader relationship: make it worth reading and people will read it.
Google understood this. So a few years ago, they started rewarding well-written, well-researched long-form pieces by tweaking their algorithm to move that kind of content up the ladder.
Today, the average blog post is roughly 1,600 words, a far cry from the 140 characters that defined the way we communicated in the recent past ¾ and even Twitter has rethought their insistence on brevity, moving from their original 140 to 280 character limit the other month.
Now, to be competitive online (that is, to put yourself in front of them when they’re looking for whatever you sell), long-form content has to be a key part of your strategy. And it’s not just because Google likes it.
People WANT to learn. They WANT to know more about a topic. They’ll APPRECIATE you for educating them, or just making them laugh. And they’ll SHARE your content because that’s what we do: show our friends and colleagues great stuff we find online.
The four rules of effective long-form writing
We’ve written a lot (a laaaawwt) of long-form pieces for our clients, and also for ourselves, covering topics ranging from weight loss supplements to city events to social media management. Each felt a bit different in its own way, but we took the same approach to each because it works.
If you can adopt these four strategies in your long-form writing efforts, you’ll produce better overall content and you’ll have a WAY easier time doing it.
Start with an outline
Remember back in high school, your English teacher would always ask you for an outline of your essay before you wrote it so they could vet your argument before you went too far? You probably saw this as extra work you had to do, but as it turns out, it’s extra work you’ll want to do.
For the return on investment you should expect to get from the effort you’ll put into a long-form post, you’ll want to craft your piece in the form of an argument.
Now, keep in mind that there’s a distinct difference between presenting an argument and being argumentative.
An argument is explaining a position you’ve taken for the purpose of convincing others to take it as well. Being argumentative is digging your feet into a position for the purposes of pushing others towards to your view. Everyone appreciates the former. No one likes the latter.
A strong outline will help you craft a compelling argument without the risk of falling into an argumentative tone because it’s meant to be a 20,000-foot roadmap to guide your writing.
It’s not supposed to be long or even that detailed. But it should contain all the information you’ll need to evaluate your finished piece against. They should align.
So let’s say you were writing a long-form piece about the evolution of winter wear in Canada (I just made that up because it’s –27˚ today and I’m staring at my toque on my desk). Your outline might look like this:
Topic: Evolution of winter wear in Canada
Keywords: Canadian-made winter coats, Canada Goose, winter coats, Canadian winter
Intro: Despite the popularity of European haute couture winter wear, Canada has actually led the world in quality winter wear. And given our climate, that makes sense
Part 1: The Hudson’s Bay Company sets the standard
Part 2: The rise of the department store (Eaton’s, Simpsons)
Part 3: Canadian winter wear defines its look through local designers
Part 4: The rise of Roots as a Canadian winter icon
Part 5: Alternatives to fur — Canadian fashion develops a conscience-focused technology
Part 5: Olympic gear
Part 6: Canada Goose becomes bigger than Roots
Closing: The rest of the world can learn from Canada when it comes to winter wear both from a product standpoint and an evolutionary standpoint. We do winter better than anyone because we have to. And that’s why we’ve succeeded in this category for so long.
Now, if we were to sit down and write this piece, we’d know where we were heading every step of the way. We can craft our section openings and closings accordingly so the piece flows, and we can stop ourselves from veering off topic. Readers hate that.
Do your keyword research
Yes, you should be writing your long-form piece for your readers, but those readers have to find you first. So your target audience is always the Google bots as well.
At its most basic, here’s how Google works: when someone types in (or now speaks in) a search term, the Google algorithm presents them with links that are relevant to what they’re looking for. Many factors go into determining what Google deems is relevant, but the biggest is a keyword match with what the searcher is looking for.
So if someone is searching college courses for advanced open source technology, ideally Google will present them with a page or two of class options with a few links to articles or blog posts related to college courses for open source technology. But the only way the Google bots can know if a webpage or article is about college courses for open source technology is if those words (or a variation of that concept ¾ Level 5 open source technology education, for example) is present on the page.
But remember that gaming Google is way more about human behaviour than it is about technology. You’ll want to know how your target audience speaks, what they want to read and how they’d describe what you’re talking about.
For example, if you learn that people interested in advanced open source technology refer to it more as OST (again, I made this up), and if you see OST as a commonly used acronym on social media, then it might be that your target audience would never key in “open source technology,” but would almost exclusively search for OST. In that case, you may want your keyword to be OST instead.
Another important note about keywords: with the steady adoption of voice search, we’re seeing more money and resources being put into long-tail keywords, which are key phrases that help better segment a search market.
So going back to college courses for advanced open source technology, the searcher’s not going to simply type or say “open source education classes”; they’ll be more specific with something like “advanced open source education classes in downtown Toronto” because (a) that’s what they want and (b) especially with voice search it’s not difficult to type it in.
So if you happen to offer advanced open source education classes in downtown Toronto, make sure that keyword is prominent in your post. And when we say prominent, we don’t mean repeating it over and over. What we mean is that it’s featured in prominent places on your page, like in your headline or subheads because those elements are what the Google bots crawl first.
Do your actual research
The name of the game in long-form content development is adding value. You want your readers to come away smarter, happier, more hopeful or more aware than they were going in.
This is the implied social contract of internet content: I give you my time, you give me a reason to feel good about that. Think about it: you’re asking a person to give you an average of seven minutes of their lives, which, today, might as well be an eternity when you think about what else you can do with seven uninterrupted minutes.
So do the digging to find information your readers don’t know. Consult multiple sources to make sure your information’s accurate. If you come across unfamiliar terminology, look it up so you can explain it to your readers.
Most importantly (and we really can’t stress this enough): credit your sources with a backlink. A backlink is simply a link to another page on the internet that readers who find your piece interesting will also find interesting. Here’s one to our copyediting service page (hint hint, nudge nudge).
A backlink serves three purposes. It can give your argument credibility if the facts you present come from accredited, accepted sources or the positions you take are shared by influential people in your space. It can push your blog up the Google ranks, as part of their algorithm rewards content with solid backlinks, and it encourages other websites to backlink to your content (the internet’s a tit-for-tat world), which also tells Google that you’re a credible source, which boosts your content even higher.
Consider visual appeal
In the last section, we reference subheads, and when you’re writing a long-form piece, these can be your best friend because they split up the content into manageable chunks.
No matter how voracious of a reader you are, a large block of text is still intimidating. By breaking up your content into sections, and paragraphing often, you’re making it easier on your readers’ eyes and minds to get through your piece.
That paragraphing creates what designers call white space. What white space does for a reader is give them a perceived break to further digest and internalize what they’ve just read. It may only be a split second of time to move from one paragraph to the next, but it makes a big difference.
Make the time to post consistently
To be a thought leader, you have to actually lead. And you don’t do that once a month. You have wisdom to share about your field and you should be sharing it often. Of course, if you don’t have the time to write your long-from pieces, we’re happy to take it off your hands. Again, hint hint, nudge nudge.