On providing editorial services to noneditorial professionals
Much of the consulting work I did over the past year was more about strategy than pure editorial, helping companies with processes as well as product. But I was able to do a lot of editing in 2012, nearly all of it with people whose job was never to be a writer or journalist. I had the opportunity to help nonwriters get better at the writing craft, with the understanding that I was there to help them create effective documents and presentations that satisfied their current business demands, not to help them get their petrarchans into The Paris Review.
Since I was dealing with people who were more familiar with Samuelson than Strunk and White, I expected different issues would come up while I was helping them find and tell their stories. I was wrong. It turns out that editing these people is not all that different from helping fellow pros or aspiring pros improve their work. Here are three guidelines I’m trying to follow. They may help you manage the needs of nonprofessional writers — or nonprofessionals in any areas when you are the only pro in the room.
Meet them where they are. Terms like “lede,” “nut graf,” and “TK” don’t mean much to people outside the editorial world. Just as jargon is bad in the documents and presentations you’re helping people present, it’s bad in your interactions with these people. Talk their language; help them understand the tips you’re giving them in the language most familiar to them.
Focus on audience. I once attended a launch party for a magazine, back when there used to be launch parties for magazines. I remember the founding editor at the microphone telling the publication’s origin story. “I woke up one morning,” he said, “and I realized there wasn’t a magzine for me.” Of course that magazine didn’t last; it was an overfunded vanity publication. Any editor or writer needs to have a firm idea of who she is publishing for. Asking nonpro writers who a document or presentation is for makes it much easier to tell the story that matters the most to that audience. The work is for the audience, not the author.
Focus on focus. In business, documents and presentations are designed to have impact. They’re supposed to lead to better decisions and outcomes. The best way to do that is to tell the most relevant story for a particular as clearly and concisely as possible. The job is to persuade, but that doesn’t mean making things up. There’s nothing more messy than the truth, but there’s also nothing more persuasive than the truth. One of the great pleasures of this work is helping someone develop an idea until it’s bulletproof and than help someone present that idea in a way that the audience can’t help but nod along to. Keep the focus on what you want your document or presentation to accomplish; anything that doesn’t serve that goal directly should get cut.
This is, with few significant alterations, the same advice you’d give “real” writers. The incentives are different, but the goal is the same: clear, precise, authoritative communication. So, editors, don’t treat your nonwriters differently. Why shouldn’t an editor’s nonprofessional writing clients get the same quality of advice we give self-identified writers and journalists?