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To Err Is Human, But To Catch It Is Copy Editing

There are some things that give me great pleasure in this life: A Big Gulp, a good country song and lying by the pool are just a few. But I must admit to finding it extremely satisfying to discover copy editing mistakes and grammatical errors on the evening news, in marketing emails and in print media.

When you think of how many people go through that copy before it hits the mainstream and errors are STILL released to the public, it shows just how difficult it is for a business or writer to put out perfect material.

Recently, I had the laugh of all laughs (for the day) when I received a marketing email from a university soliciting students to earn degrees. While reading through this email, I found no less than four grammatical errors and found 2 formatting errors in the html. In this instance, it became abundantly clear to me, as a professional, why would I ever want to attend a university that can’t take enough pride in their written materials to ensure they are error-free?

But let’s not beat up only on the education industry. This is an issue regardless of vertical, media or publication. It prays directly into the way people are managed, asked to perform and lastly, their overall pride in their work.

Taking into account grammatical nuances in the area of voice or marketing message, as there is leeway in that, the hard sell demands articulation, precision and perfection. An ill-placed error discovered by a true prospect can raise a red flag and ruin a true opportunity. This is why multiple levels of edits are needed to ensure brand integrity, message continuity and action-based clarity.

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Often the speed in which teams are asked to produce materials makes revision rounds so tight, it is easy to overlook common mistakes as skimming copy gives way to the deep read. But a few well-placed tips and tricks to good editing can insure clean copy and lower the likelihood of smug error comments from prospects-turned-error police.

Give these a try:

Hold a copy meeting. Too often, copywriters are given too much freedom when it comes to framing a message. Get all stakeholders in a room and frame a message. This is not a meeting to allow the stakeholders to tell the copy desk what to write. It is a meeting to allow all involved to get on the same page and buy into a message, voice and execution.

Sometimes, it’s beneficial to outline bullet points. Other times, just talking through the connection between copy and artwork will bridge the gap. The bottom line is, by the time you leave this meeting, everyone should be on the same page.

Copywriters, unite. A truly good copy writer is a storyteller. He or she can weave your message into clear, concise sentences that sing to a prospective customer. The words resonate and demand action. BUT, if a writer lets too many outside influences interfere, the message surely becomes diluted and the writer can easily become less passionate about the copy. This lack of buy-in from the writer causes a breakdown in continuity and in effectiveness of the message.

Just because writers prefer the written word to actually talking doesn’t mean he or she should cower down when it comes to sticking up for the integrity of a message. While managers should have confidence in their writers’ abilities and give them creative free-range, upper management doesn’t always allow it. This is why a writer needs to gather all the information that needs to be communicated then provide 2 to 3 samples of direction. Each should convey brand voice, but give clear direction as to approach and reasoning. Explain why each sample is different and who each speaks to. It might be you need to break out messages by demographic. A good writer understands this and knows how to communicate the message accordingly. A great writer knows how to sell their message and why it is the right way to go.

Include outsiders in your edits. While the first few rounds of edits should be held inside your group, someone who is completely oblivious to your message, intent and process should perform edits in the final rounds. Form an outside editing panel comprised of people from accounting, HR and other areas outside of the creative team and get them to answer a few questions for you after they read.

  • Ask if they found errors and if so, where.
  • Ask them if they understood the message and to share what it was.
  • Ask them if they found any relevance in the message.
  • Ask them their impressions overall of the presentation.
  • Ask if the message was convincing, engaging and supplied enough information.

The outsiders’ point of view can give insight into gaps in your communication goals, written message or design applications. It is a brilliant way to make sure you are getting across the intended message.

Work closely with design. While I am not a proponent of the writer actually being a part of the design team, I do believe copy and design should work closely together to make sure message and imagery match up. Some of the worst work I have seen come from creative teams who allowed designers to write headlines and make edits to copy for space reasons. One misplaced change or a copy widow can throw off flow.

Get the full view. Something writers and design don’t often think about is how their digital marketing materials, whether it be email or online brochures, appear in different browsers. Web-based email clients open up a wide variety of testing variables. Check your materials in a defined browser matrix based on your known users and also make sure at least two levels of fonts are outlined – incase some systems don’t have your main font installed. You could write the best copy in the world, but if it doesn’t look good and flow as it should, no one will care to read it.

Own your copy & demand final sign off. Regardless of how many edits your copy has gone through, as a writer, you should get final sign off of the message going out – especially if your name is attached to it. Edits from well-meaning managers, designers or others get placed into copy and can change the entire message being framed and if you don’t get the final read, you’ll never know it until you get in trouble for it. You wrote it. Take pride in it and own it.

It is becoming increasingly important for a copywriter to have his or her hands in other areas of presentation. Don’t think of it as stepping on anyone’s toes. Think of it as a way to preserve your professional integrity and also foster a collaborative spirit from copy creation to final presentation. You’ll find you’re a happier writer for it but more importantly …

…. People like me won’t get a laugh at your expense.

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