Editorial as strategy (and why it’s not the same thing as editorial strategy)
This is the fourth in a series of posts covering some lessons I’ve learned as an editor. You can read the first entry here, the second entry here, the third entry here, and a list of all the posts in the series here.
Question Jimmy gets asked regularly after he explains to people what he does for a living: So that means you do editorial strategy?
Answer: No. I don’t work on editorial strategy so much as I work on editorial as strategy.
Follow-up question: What?
And then a conversation begins. The difference in wording is subtle, but I think the difference in approach is a big deal. Here’s an attempt at a longer (but still brief) answer to the “what do you do for a living” question.
When you’re developing and executing an editorial strategy, your job is to solve problems. Maybe it’s a media or publishing company and the projects you’re working on are core to the business. Maybe it’s not and your focus is on some internal or external communication effort that supports the core business. Either way, your day-to-day work is centered around short-term questions: Are the topics I’m covering relevant? Am I presenting them in a way that my audience can understand and act on? Do the author/presenter and audience have conflicting needs? Is what I’m publishing or presenting helping my audience get great at something they need to be great at? On good days, you come up with good answers to those questions. But they’re short-term answers that change as conditions change.
When you think of editorial as strategy, you’re considering a company’s business through an editorial lens. That means using tools commonly associated with the editorial process to build a more coherent and precise strategy and make better decisions to support it. It means, for example, being brutal to every idea, while being kind to the people expressing those ideas. It means creating a series of rules that an organization will live by no matter what, while marking off the areas in which it’s good to get weird. Style guides don’t say to use a serial comma unless it’s difficult to use one; they say to use a serial comma. Similarly, while there are areas in which businesses can and should improvise, explore, and experiment, there are also areas in which there must be agreement to move forward. It’s much easier to advise people to stick to the plan if there’s a well-vetted plan. I suppose it’s similar what Clay Christensen said in a different context in How to Measure Your Life: it’s easier to stick to well-thought-out rules 100% of the time than it is 98% of the time. And it’s especially easy to do so if you’re clear on where you have to drive straight and where it might be fun to swerve and see what happens. By viewing a business’s strategy through an editorial lens, with all the editorial tools for structure and iteration at your disposal, you can see things that both traditional strategy consultants and meme-of-the-moment consultants miss.
Editorial strategy is, of course, part of editorial as strategy, and I don’t want to suggest that getting a corporation’s editorial strategy together is anything but a good thing. But if all you’re offering is what you’re packaging as “editorial strategy,” chances are that your work is tactical and will have only a limited impact on the organization you’re trying to influence. You can best help a client think big by thinking big yourself.