In an era of tweets and blog posts, where virtually anyone and everyone is a writer, the rules for writing have turned upside down. And copy editing, whether of your own writing or someone else’s, needs to change right along with it. Don’t get me wrong, the basics still matter. You should always check for grammar and typos. However, in a digital age editing copy no longer means making sure “just the facts” are presented in an inverted pyramid. Now, editors need to focus first on whether the writer is telling a good story—and if it can be summarized in a 140-character tweet.
Here are several steps to follow to ensure that your copy is as sharp as possible.
1. Does it draw readers in? That’s the first question I ask when I begin the editing process. And if it doesn’t open with something that will make the reader want to learn more—then I reach for the red pen.
These days there’s no need to stick to the confines of the inverted pyramid. Telling the whole story up front is a surefire way to deter people from reading on. A snappy lead can be found in an anecdote or a quote, which many writers save for later in their stories. When you’re editing, find that one aha moment, and drag it to the lead.
2. Make sure words—and sentences—count. Once you determine that the lead will capture readers’ attention, you need to make sure the rest of the story will keep it. The attention span of the average human is dwindling at an alarming rate. Often, readers don’t understand, and don’t want to read, long sentences and complicated words.
Some grammar experts say that sentences should be less than 17 words to keep readers’ attention. When I edit, I delete any word that isn’t necessary. Can something be said in a shorter, simpler way? Always ask that question when things get too wordy.
Tools like Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics can tell you your average sentence and paragraph length. This will help you determine if you are being too wordy.
3. Make sure content matches your company’s messaging. Surely your company has worked hard to create a brand, and it wants to reflect that brand through proper messaging. It seems obvious that any written copy should convey your company’s brand attributes and include consistent messaging, but it’s something that can be easily forgotten.
4. Ensure any quotes complement the story. Readers want their copy short and straightforward. So why waste prime copy real estate with an empty quote? It’s your job as an editor to make sure the quotes don’t just complement the story, but that they enhance it.
PR pros, of course, should quote in their written materials someone directly tied to the new product/announcement, and the onus is on communicators to ask appropriate questions during the interviews to get decent, relevant quotes that propel the story.
5. Don’t skip the basics. There are basic rules of editing that have been around since the dawn of writing, but just because we have spellcheck and the Web doesn’t ever mean that they should be overlooked.
The cardinal rule is to check the facts. It’s easy to trust that your colleagues and writers would check their facts in a story. But mistakes happen. I learned from my years as a newswire editor to triple check the information, particularly those facts that you think are obvious. Is May 5th really a Wednesday? Did they spell the new VP’s name correctly? These facts are easy to check, and easy to notice if they’re disregarded.
So now, whether you’re tasked with being that extra pair of eyes for your colleague or looking at your own article for the hundredth time, you have some new rules to follow to edit that copy and reach more readers.
Rachel Miller is corporate communications specialist at Toshiba America Medical Systems Inc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.