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Business Content Editing Tips

The Web is awash in content. A recent Moz article reports that 92,000 new articles1 are posted online every day. Companies are spending billions on content marketing2 to enhance credibility, build brand awareness and, especially of late, improve SEO.

Here is what Google has to say about content in its quality guidelines3:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

Google has always tried to reward great content with high rankings, but today, thanks to vast improvements in its algorithm, Google is better able to actually do it. Its content quality guidelines are perfectly aligned with what every writer and marketer should aspire to.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

As A Designer, Why Should You Care About Content Quality? Link

  • Your brilliant designs will be wasted if they are filled with inferior content.
  • By developing the ability to evaluate content quality, you are able to provide constructive, difference-making input to other members of the creative team, increasing your value as a designer.
  • If you are in a project management role, you must know what needs to be fixed, improved and enhanced in the deliverable’s content.
  • Unless the content meets a high standard of quality, the finished product will undermine rather than enhance credibility, diminish rather than build brand awareness, and damage rather than improve search engine visibility.

Defining “quality content” is difficult. A useful approach is to look at the editing process, because editing is where content theory is translated into cold hard facts. You could argue forever with clients about what constitutes quality content on a theoretical level. But when you break down quality into its specific editorial components, theoretical arguments evaporate.

A sound editing process forces quality into content, no matter how ill-conceived or weakly written the content was in the beginning, assuming it was properly conceived and at least decently written to begin with.

Content Editing 8
The editing process is more important than most think. (Image credit: opensourceway9)

This article examines several aspects of content editing. By reading it, you will learn:

  • how the editing process works for most forms of online business content, including website pages, infographics, landing pages, brochures, white papers and slide presentations;
  • what “big picture” issues and technical editing details to get right before publishing;
  • the different types of editing help you need, and where to find authoritative online resources for DIY editing.

Five Types Of Content Editing Link

There are various formulas for breaking down editing tasks. For business content, it helps to think about editing as having five specialties.

1. Substantive Editing Link

Substantive editors are mainly concerned with overall cohesion, clarity, accuracy and effectiveness. They look for incomplete or faulty arguments, unsupported assertions, inconsistencies or gaps in the logical flow of the content, and faithfulness to the assignment’s strategic goals.

2. Copyediting Link

Copyeditors are mainly concerned with style. Are sentences clear and concise? Is the tone consistent? Are the right words being used? Is the text free of jargon and obscure references? Does the copy adhere to rules of grammar, punctuation and style?

3. Fact-Checking Link

Fact-checkers are mainly concerned with informational accuracy. They make sure statistics and other quantitative information are stated fully and correctly. Fact-checking is often a research task, but in business writing, it also comes into play at the editing stage — with vitally important impact, as we will see in a moment.

4. SEO Link

SEO editing ensures that on-page content conforms to SEO best practices and follows the campaign’s on-page guidelines. SEO editing is typically done by a client’s internal or external SEO resource. The more the SEO resource is plugged into the creative process, the less artificial and stilted the optimized content will be.

5. Proofreading Link

Proofreaders are mainly concerned with technical precision. Different standards apply to different types of content; a list of authoritative editing resources appears at the end of this article.

Editing done here by Johanna Shapiro (View larger version11)

If all of these editing tasks are done well, the final product will have the level of quality that readers and search engines desire. In terms of workflow, the editing process follows the order noted above, starting with substantive editing and ending with proofreading. However, as you might imagine, editing is not always linear; documents usually go back and forth between editors and writers as issues are fixed.

Editing Process FAQs Link

Effective editing is not only a matter of knowing what to do; it also requires an understanding of how to manage workflow and communication. Addressing these FAQs at the outset of your next project will help lay the groundwork for not only a better editing process, but a more enjoyable one.

Do I Need to Hire Five Editors? Link

No. A talented editor can cover a lot of the work at an acceptable level for most business content. That being said, the substantive editor must be familiar with the product, industry and audience in question, since the effectiveness of the content hinges on understanding the audience’s mindset and needs. The SEO editor must, of course, know SEO inside and out.

How Can I Get Copy Approved More Quickly? Link

Too much editing can be just as bad as not enough — some firms review and tweak for so long that the content is outdated by the time they approve it. The substantive editor or project manager is the best defence against perfectionism. They are best equipped to recognize when content should be deemed finished and to explain why to clients and team members.

How Much Editing Should the Writer Do? Link

I would love to hear from the Smashing Magazine community on this one, because it’s a thorny issue. Even writers with a firm grasp of grammar, style and technique submit substandard drafts due to time constraints or lack of familiarity with the subject matter. Competent writers learn as they go, reducing the editorial burden. For example, if a website project requires 60 pages of new content, have the writer start with 10 pages and then give them a careful copyedit and substantive edit. The edits may be numerous at this point, especially if the writer is new to the subject matter. If the next 10 pages come back vastly improved, then you’ll know the writer is catching on.

What If My Client Doesn’t Care About Editing? Link

Clients might not care about content editing as such, but they certainly care about public image, leads and orders. High-quality content impresses Google, which leads to more search engine visibility, which leads to more traffic and more business. High-quality content also reassures prospects, customers and stakeholders that the company is reliable and competent.

What’s the Best Way to Manage the Editing Process? Link

One person, generally the project manager or substantive editor, should coordinate all editorial functions and communication and make final decisions. Creative teams have many editing tools at their disposal, but using good old Track Changes and Comments in Word documents is perhaps the easiest way to start. A big challenge is preventing multiple versions of an in-process document from floating around; implement a clear procedure to avoid this. In my experience, the competence of the manager, rather than the tools, will determine the efficiency of the process.

Common Content Editing Issues Link

Let’s look at a few specific real-world issues that crop up in business Web copy for each type of editing. These particulars will give you an idea of what to look for if you are doing the editing or looking for an editor or managing the project.

Substantive Editing Issues Link

  • Here is an instructive, real-life example of how substantive editing produces clarity. In a recent article about writing for slide presentations, I wrote, “Slide presentations are great for a ‘peeling the onion’ narrative approach.” My editor commented, “What does that mean?” I pondered the issue and realized that I didn’t really know what I meant! After further reflection, I changed it to, “Slide presentations are ideal for storytelling.” Moral of the story: Substantive editors don’t always need to make sweeping changes. Often, just knowing what to look for helps to get it right.
  • Keeping content on point prevents content creep. Substantive editors remind clients that a landing page need not be a thousand words long to prompt a conversion, nor a website a thousand pages deep to convey the firm’s value proposition.
  • Substantive editors police all content to maintain consistency of brand messaging.
  • The company’s branding and positioning strategy, the value proposition of the product and service being marketed and the nature of the target audience will determine the content’s style and tone. The substantive editor must be crystal clear on all of them.
  • Building on the last point, a substantive editor — if time, budget and skill allow — injects personality into flat business content by adding storytelling narratives and stylistic flair that speak powerfully to the target audience.

Business Content Editing Tips12
When it comes to substantive editing, Duluth Trading Company’s website13 does this extraordinarily well.

Copyediting Issues Link

  • Headlines and headings should be descriptive and, in many cases, persuasive. Additionally, proper keyword placement in headlines and headings is important for SEO, so copyeditors and SEO editors must collaborate closely to balance these requirements.
  • Active voice usually beats passive voice: “John saved $100” has more impact than “$100 was saved by John.” There are cases where the passive voice is preferred; a competent copyeditor makes the proper adjustments.
  • Pronoun sensitivity leads writers to employ tortuous sentence construction to avoid “he” or “she” usage. Also, writers often shift from “it” to “they” when referring to a company. The copyeditor keeps pronoun use smooth and consistent.
  • The wrong word or phrase can do worse than make a company look stupid; it can convey a message contrary to the one intended. My list of commonly confused business words and phrases14 is a handy reference.
  • Overuse of exclamation points and all-caps conveys HYSTERIA!!!!
  • Copyeditors convert long unformatted paragraphs into Web-optimized formats that employ bullet points, three- to five-line paragraphs, judicious use of bold text, etc. This is an area where designers provide valuable input.

Fact-Checking Issues Link

  • Sadly, the Web is a stewpot of misinformation, cooked up by marketers who feel pressured to publish. For example, a reader might come across a flashy infographic stating, “70% of Executives Use Tablets!” but, after checking the source, discovers that this “fact” is based on a survey of 25 anonymous respondents conducted by an obscure agency. Fact-checkers protect you and your client from losing credibility as a result of shaky statistics.
  • Fact-checkers make sure that basic corporate information is correct. The company’s name, job titles and the spelling of employees’ names should always be accurate — yet often are not.
  • Fact-checkers review product specifications to make sure they are up to date. The value of this thankless task is appreciated only after, say, a customer orders a $1.5 million printing press that turns out to be 10 feet too long for its production line when it arrives at the plant.

SEO Issues15 Link

  • Overusing keyword phrases on a page of content is counterproductive.
  • Varying keyword phrases generally helps search engine visibility and makes content more readable and less “spammy” for humans.
  • An SEO editor might opt to add links to the client’s other relevant content on a given page of Web content or a blog post. If done correctly, these related links build the authority of the client’s website.

Proofreading Issues Link

  • One space after a period is standard.
  • Capitalization in headlines and headings should consistently follow a predetermined style.
  • Font size and style should be consistent for text and headers from page to page.

In Conclusion, How Much Editing Is Enough? Link

Practical considerations such as deadlines and bandwidth, along with a clear understanding of the audience, will influence how thoroughly a piece of online content should be edited.

Proofreading Link

Generally speaking, readers do not hold blog posts to the same stylistic standard as, say, white papers. However, a blog post directed at an audience of scholars, physicians or attorneys will be held to a higher standard.

Fact-Checking Link

Visual content such as infographics and slide presentations, perhaps because of their formality, seem to carry more weight with readers than blog posts and website pages. For this reason, producers of visual content have a greater obligation to be sure of their facts, all else being equal. Firms undermine their credibility when they publish graphical material loaded with unsupported or misleading facts, whether intentionally or not.

SEO Link

If a firm has an organized SEO marketing program, then on-page SEO is crucial. If not, on-page optimization alone would probably not be enough to have any substantive impact on search visibility.

Copyediting and Substantive Editing Link

As for these, there is never any advantage to publishing vague, incoherent and uninspiring material. Some level of review is really a must. If resources are limited, and often they are, use this editing tactic: When in doubt, leave it out.

Resources Link

  • AP Stylebook16
    The AP (Associated Press) style is the standard for newspapers and journalists and is commonly used for marketing and PR content. An online subscription gives you instance access to authoritative information on editorial issues relating to general business content.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style17
    The CMS, published by The University of Chicago, is widely used in the humanities for formatting and citation, and it contains a wealth of information, analysis and insight on issues of grammar and usage. Whereas AP primarily tells you what to do, the CMS also explains why.
  • MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers18
    This style guide of the MLA (Modern Language Association) is widely used for academic writing.
  • Purdue OWL19
    The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) is a convenient online resource for grabbing up-to-date answers to CMS20– and MLA21-related questions.
  • New Oxford Style Manual22
    This book contains detailed information on UK style. Oxford Dictionaries has helpful tables on British and American spelling23 and terms24 for online reference.
  • AMA Manual of Style25
    The AMA (American Medical Association) guide is widely used for medical and scientific publishing.
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association26
    This manual is widely used for academic and professional writing in the social and behavioral sciences.

(al, il, ea)

Footnotes Link

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Brad Shorr is Director of B2B Marketing for Straight North, a 
Chicago based search marketing agency. Brad writes frequently 
on social media, SEO and copywriting topics. Connect with 
Straight North on Google+ and LinkedIn.

  1. 1

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Brad. I really enjoyed this strategic overview of the content process, which points to the centrality of content quality as an issue in the success of a website/ brand development. You clinch the point when you state that however awesome your design is, poor quality content will lead to the alienation of site visitors/ followers. If we think of how many times we just give up and move on from mediocre websites, we need to ask, do we want to be one of “those” sites?

    • 2

      Thank you, Sean. As a writer, I know how important design is in terms of getting visitors to pay attention to a web page. But sooner or later, the visitor is probably going to read something. Since design and content are so closely connected, I’ve always tried to learn more about design — and hope that designers will benefit from knowing some of the ins and outs of content.

  2. 3

    Great article. Thanks

  3. 4

    Thanks for the article, Brad.

    I am particularly interested in something you mentioned: the definition of quality content (no definition provided). Ultimately, the quality of content can’t be determined by the author or editors, but rather by the actual readers that consume the content.

    Do you happen to have meaningful metrics that would measure the quality of content (hopefully beyond the standard like, dislike, time on page)?

    • 5

      Hi Tim, The editing function imparts quality to content in several ways — clarity, logic, style, precision, grammatical correctness, etc. — all touched on in this article. In terms of the reader, length of time on the page is meaningful. On our blog, our “best” blog posts have average view times of 5 minutes and up. If people are exiting the page in just a few seconds, the content clearly isn’t engaging them. For certain types of business content, landing pages in particular, quality can be measured by conversions.

  4. 6

    Great article Brad, thanks for sharing!

    I’m interested in the SEO Issues that you’ve mentioned. I understand that keywords aren’t as important as they were before through google eyes. (unless these keywords are actually part of the content). Would you advice into using variations of the keyword in your content in order to be able to “stuff” the page with a bit more keywords?

    I’ve seen some “SEO” companies who all they focus is on getting your keywords into the page content, but to me it feels that if you were to have great content about the topic you’re writing about, then the keywords for your topic will be automatically placed where they are supposed to be in your content.

    Would like to know your thoughts on this. :)

    • 7

      I wouldn’t recommend keyword stuffing in any way whatsoever. We shoot for one to three repetitions of a keyword phrase (or variations) on a page of content (500 words roughly). If more repetitions occur naturally, that’s usually OK. The key is natural. So in that sense, I agree with you that keyword placement is automatic. However, keyword research and usage are still important. Suppose there are two ways to describe a particular product. One way is used in search 60,000 times per month, and the other way only 600 times per month. It would make sense to favor the former term, both because it will make your content visible for more searches, and because a greater number of people use that terminology. This is perhaps an extreme example, but the differences add up when many pages are involved.

  5. 9

    Nice article, Brad! It brings this ‘poofreader’ cartoon to mind:

  6. 10

    Hello Brad and Happy New Year – All the Best in 2014!

    This is by far one of the most informative and interesting web content editing articles I have ever read. I have the attention span of a gnat but – I read this entire article :-)

    Was wondering if you could offer up your opinion on this:

    When writing about the NFL Super Bowl, which I am doing a lot of right now, I mention the event itself four or five times per article – not by design – out of necessity.

    To avoid using Super Bowl over and over I try to mix it up with:

    Super Bowl XLVIII
    NFL Championship
    Pro Football Championship
    Super Bowl
    Pro Football Title
    Super Bowl Sunday
    Champions of Pro Football
    battle for the Vince Lombardi Trophy
    American Football Championship

    In your opinion, am I mixing it up enough in an article that is approximately 500 words?

    Appreciate any advice you can offer.




    • 11

      Hi Roy,

      Thank you for your positive feedback on the article. Ranking high for “super bowl” sounds like a daunting task no matter what you do. You’re competing against major news sites like ESPN, CNN, etc. The game is referred to as the Super Bowl; all of those other terms sound pretty artificial to my ear, so I’m not sure they would help you. Results may be better if you focus on a long tail term, like “super bowl xlviii matchup statistics”.

  7. 13

    Melvin Thambi

    January 15, 2014 4:11 am

    Good Article, Really informative and useful!

  8. 14

    Anoop Srivastava

    January 15, 2014 5:38 am

    Brad, good post on web content!

    Q: Does the the word count really matter on the web?

  9. 16

    Isadora Design

    January 15, 2014 7:00 pm

    This article is awesome in regards to quality control on content generation. Without cohesive, well-written, and copy-edited content, a website can lose all credibility. Thank you for emphasizing well-written and edited content, Brad!

    To answer your question, “How much editing should the writer do?” I would say that having a well-seasoned content writer is important – but as any writer knows, reviewing your own work can often lead to simple misspellings and missed concepts (case in point: your example of the onion layers PowerPoint). Having a second proofer, even if that person is not an editor or writer but rather just an industry expert, is an absolute must in content creation. In a perfect world every website designer would work closely with a copywriter! I understand that due to budget and time constraints this is not always possible, and that is why having a well-seasoned content writer in the first place is important.

    Isadora Design – Handcrafted Web Design Company

    • 17

      So true! A good editor is a writer’s best friend — I think most writers would see it that way.

  10. 18

    Stuart Crawford

    January 21, 2014 9:00 pm

    I remember writing articles entirely sourced from the Google keyword tool – always left the article feeling fake, dropping forced key terms in every possible place to fit the right %.

    Although it was an important learning experience, it’s much more fulfilling to write without trying to always maximise the search audience.

    • 19

      Stuart, I know what you’re talking about. When I started learning SEO copywriting in 2005, I had a manual that must have been 300 pages, full of precise details for where to place keywords, how many times to repeat them, anchor text rules, and a bunch of other stuff. It was very hard to keep all of these rules in mind and write content that appealed to humans.

  11. 20

    This article is awesome in regards to quality control on content generation. Without cohesive, well-written, and copy-edited content, a website can lose all credibility. Thank you for emphasizing well-written and edited content blog post.

  12. 21

    Carolyn Cooley

    January 24, 2014 8:47 am

    I have started learning SEO , Link building , and in link building have many other types of seo in 2013, I had a manual that must have been great experience till now full of precise details for where to place keywords, how many times to repeat them, anchor text rules, and a bunch of other stuff. It was very hard to keep all of these rules in mind and write content that appealed to humans.

  13. 22

    Michelle Hutchinson

    February 13, 2014 3:20 am

    Great article, Brad. If every client read this, they’d understand why a good professional editor is not cheap. Now, about proofreading, I do believe you meant to use the word “instant,” not “instance in the following: “The AP (Associated Press) style is the standard for newspapers and journalists and is commonly used for marketing and PR content. An online subscription gives you instance access to authoritative information on editorial issues relating to general business content.” ;-) The good thing about online content is that you can go back and quickly revise it.

  14. 23

    Michael Greenwood

    March 25, 2014 4:32 pm

    Yes proofreading is important. So is writing your content in a few stages. After all, there’s a creative stage and then there’s an error checking stage. Each of which requires you to wear a different “hat”.


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