How to review copy

November 15, 2016Content Writing

By Michael Butler – Head of Editorial 

One of the best things about working in the editorial team at a content marketing agency is the opportunity to spend lots of time messing around with copy. Our clients understand that every word they post on their blog, every email they send, every tweet they publish (etc.) represents them to the outside world.

So if you’re posting copy, that’s poorly written and full of misteaks like misspelt, words and wrong punctuation? then – what message are you sending about, your company?

(You see what I did there, right?)

Here are a few tips on how to make sure the words you’re publishing represent your company in the right way – as an organisation that cares enough about its customers to get the details right, and to not waste their time (or insult their intelligence) by expecting them to spend time reading content that’s below par.

The most important thing

The most important thing is to get someone else to check your work; you can’t edit your own copy. If you’ve been working on something for a while, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because it makes sense to you, it’ll make sense to everyone else.

You don’t need to find a professional editor at this stage – sub-editing and proofreading come later. Reviewing copy is more like user testing. If your blog, white paper or LinkedIn post makes sense to someone else, your piece is on solid ground. If not, you’ve got some work to do.

The other most important thing(s)

If you’re checking someone else’s copy (or if you’re giving a piece one last look-over before passing it on to someone else to check), here are five things to look out for:

  1. Does it make sense? This may sound obvious, but make sure your arguments flow logically and support any conclusions you draw. Be especially careful when quoting statistics: you need to be sure they actually prove your point. For example, if you’re arguing that content marketing is the most effective form of marketing, then quoting a statistic saying 100% of marketers think content marketing is important doesn’t prove your point. Instead, you’d want statistics around return on investment (ROI) or conversion rates. Bonus tip: Always provide links or in-line references for information sources. If your piece says ‘one in three users has a problem with…’ then you have to be able to back up your claim.
  1. Have you explained everything? We see this a lot – new terms and concepts dropped into a piece with little to no explanation of what they are or how they support the writer’s argument. If anything’s unclear, provide examples to clarify your point. Sometimes this is just terminology; if you’ve been talking about ‘user adoption’ don’t suddenly start calling it ‘customer engagement’. Bonus tip: Always write out an acronym in full (with the abbreviation in brackets) the first time you use it, even for familiar terms like ROI.
  1. Is the tense consistent? Everything should be either in past tense or present tense. Present tense (like this piece) is usually preferred, but sections of some particular document types, like annual reports, case studies and event recaps should be in past tense. So all quotes should be ‘Jane says’ (not a mix of ‘says’ and ‘said’), all explanations should be about how things were (not are), and vice versa. Whichever tense you use, consistency is the key. Bonus tip: Consistency of terminology, naming conventions, job titles, date and number formats is also vital. If you identify the same thing in different ways, it’ll pull the reader out of the piece as they process the ‘new’ information or terminology.
  1. How’s the tone? It can be jarring for a piece to veer between having asides to the reader (like these), lots of familiar language and contractions, and more formal sections that read like corporate-speak. It’ll make the piece seem like Frankenstein’s monster; you should aim to have a consistent tone of voice throughout. Bonus tip: If you work for an organisation that has tone of voice or style guidelines, use them. These are your best defence against jargon, cliché and the dead hand of buzzwords like ‘enablement’, ‘empowering’, ‘engagement’, etc.
  1. Is there too much of it? This is my favourite. The great Dieter Rams once said: “Good design is as little design as possible” and I’d have to agree. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “good writing is as little writing as possible”. Resist the temptation to throw every possible bit of information into your blog or white paper; be ruthless and restrict yourself to just the information you need to make your case. Bonus tip: You can have too much writing as well as too many words. Keep your copy clean, simple and direct. Using convoluted sentence structures and lots of jargon isn’t a sign of sophisticated writing – your job is to make your piece understandable, not to show off your vocabulary.

Keep these tips in mind and you’ll produce better copy that’ll need less proofreading and make it easier for readers to enjoy your insights.