Behind every great writer, there’s a great editor. But what exactly do they do? How do they work? What goes through their mind when a brief gets mangled or copy comes in late?
To find out, Matthew Stibbe and I lunched with Matthew Rock, founding editor at Real Business, and Joanna Higgins, launch editor of BNET in the UK and former group editor at Director Publications.
Ensure a consistent voice
An important part of the editor’s job is to indoctrinate writers in the minutiae of the house style guide and the attitude, voice and tone of the publication. [As the new writer at the table, everyone did their best not to look at me at this point!]
This does not mean individual writers must lose their voice: don’t edit the life out of copy. But whilst the best columnists and experts often distinguish themselves from the prescribed ‘house style’, a writer’s work still has to fit the publication’s tone and values otherwise it is simply not meeting the brief. An editor must mould their writers.
Define a voice
To immerse your writers in your title’s voice, you’ll need to define it. There are two ways to do this:
House style guide
These are the technical guidelines that your publication follows: capitalisation, commas, rules of consistency and so on. Matthew and Jo cited the Economist Style Guide as a good basic standard. You don’t have to create a whole book if you build on an existing guide – some style guides are just a few pages long. While it may focus on details, the style guide itself is a reflection of the overall house tone: how you use words and grammar builds a voice in itself.
Standard of expectation
Beyond the basics, think about the minimum standard you want your writers to aim for in their work. The Economist, for example, is reliable, informative and never verbose. It can be a little po-faced sometimes, but as Matthew pointed out, it is much easier to edit up, or enliven copy, than tone down.
An overly stylised or conversational article is very difficult, if not impossible, to work back to an intellectual, informative piece. On the other hand, if you set the expectation of a good, sturdy baseline, you can always sex it up without too much difficulty.
Create an editorial calendar
Start with one arresting idea, the narrower the better, and build from there. Matthew suggested picturing the cover of the magazine in your mind and working backwards from there, to the content you want to run through that edition. You don’t have to be a magazine editor for this technique to work: whatever your body of work will be, distilling it down to a magazine cover will help you craft your structure and theme.
Coming up with that brilliant, fresh and relevant idea is the hard part. Jo said she would look at the calendar of events in the readership’s field. In business, for example, you have Small Business Week, Fair Trade Fortnight, Davos and so on. Know what your readers are doing and where they are going in order to address topical content.
A particularly good place to spot hot topics is social media feeds like Twitter. Follow your ideal readership, thought leaders and news outlets, and keep on top of current trends.
Another tip was to read as widely as possible, particularly in American and Asian news, in order to watch for emerging trends, which can be adapted for your audience. Ideally you want to be just ahead of conventional wisdom.
This is a crucial part of the editor’s job. Brief your writers extensively and effectively and you are far more likely to get the content you want without resorting to rewrites. Communicating specifics is easier than describing a vibe or a feeling so be prescriptive. Jo is a fan of commissioning forms: get the details down in writing and you can hold your writers to account. Include at least the following:
- Originality (if you want fresh rather than recycled content then say so)
- What sources to use, who to use and how to contact them
- The argument to be made
- A working headline
- The first couple of paragraphs as you would write them
- Intended audience
- Legal issues such as rights ownership
- Deadline and agreed fee
(See Better briefs for writers for our thoughts on briefings from the writer’s perspective.)
Give good feedback
Regular, pragmatic and specific is the best approach. Both Matthew and Jo are fans of track changes in Word. Cover a document in comments, red and green lines and ping it back to the writer, even if they are sat across from you. It is easier for a writer to learn if they can see the progression of edits. This also allows them to absorb, (and calm down) before they approach you with questions.
Jo added that it is always a good idea to follow up your feedback with a conversation, ideally face to face, but at least give the writer a call on the phone. A writer’s ego tends to be fragile, and you have no idea what edits they will take to heart, so be considerate and explain your decisions in a professional and straightforward manner.
Beware the writer who says they aren’t precious about their copy, added Jo, they are often the most likely to take umbrage at their edits.
Enjoy the job
All this might sound like a lot of hard work, but both Matthew and Jo agreed they had really enjoyed their time as editors, whether it was the buzz of really going to work on an article or building relationships with new writers. For both, however, the best part was the camaraderie and the people. Remember: a happy editor makes for a happy writer and vice versa.