Be a better reviewer: tips from the trenches

Posted by on Nov 19, 2013 in Brand Communications | No Comments
Be a better reviewer: tips from the trenches

Rather than gas on about usage and grammar in this installment of Grammar Rants, let’s go a little higher-level. Many of us in the content game work as writers and/or editors, and have experience in what can be a delicate dance. That doesn’t mean everyone’s great at it, but we’ve at least run the gauntlet and picked up a few things in the process.

However, when you work in content but then have to turn in things you’ve worked on for an internal review by subject experts and the legal department, sometimes the wheels come off the wagon. It’s instructive for those of us who are leading and editing teams of people who know their subjects better than we’ll ever be able to, but aren’t trained as writers.

For everyone, here are a few basic dos and don’ts that will get you the content you want, without reducing the authors to either quivering piles of goo who’ve had all self-confidence drained of them, or frustrated, combative balls of anger.

Don’t: Comment before you’ve read or viewed the whole piece once.

Do: Take notes as you go, then add your comments to the document.

I can’t even estimate the number of times I’ll get a document back with a comment that “XXX is missing,” when XXX is fully explained in the paragraph right below. Someone had an itchy trigger finger. And then couldn’t even be troubled to delete the comment after the question had been answered.

Don’t: Put your comments in the document as inline text.

Do: Use the handy utilities in Microsoft Word, Mac’s Pages or Google docs that allow you to comment in the margins.

A comment inside the actual text, even if it’s set off by paragraphs or in upper case or is even a different color, can make it to the final published version. Then everyone’s embarrassed because (what does this MEAN????) actually made it onto your website or into your email or PDF.

Don’t: Be the Sphinx.

Do: Explain your questions or objections.

If something is confusing or just plain wrong, explain why. Especially if you’re an expert on the subject, saying, “this is wrong” without telling someone who might be struggling to understand it what is right wastes everyone’s time. If you know the answer, give it. A lot of content creators dread the legal review, but actually lawyers can be great editors — they’ll tell you what the problem is, why it’s a problem and lead the content teams to ways that it can be solved.

Don’t: Fully rewrite.

Do: Respect the voice of the piece.

You may just have one piece of the puzzle. If there’s an overall voice, tone and strategy, veering from that may cause problems. Also, if there’s something not addressed in the piece you’re reviewing, note that, don’t insert paragraphs about it. It’s entirely possible it’s been covered in something you haven’t seen or is planned for an upcoming installment. If it’s not, you’ve just given valuable insight for something that can be worked into the mix.

Don’t: Be mean.

Do: Remember there’s a human being behind everything you’re reviewing or editing.

This is important for even seasoned editors to keep in mind. Be positive, point out the good stuff, and ask probing questions to get information you may think is missing. Simply noting “huh?” in a margin doesn’t help. Suggest an option (or two), like “Maybe you could rephrase to incorporate X, Y and Z?” Sometimes writers get stuck. They usually have an inkling that something’s not quite working, but don’t know how to get out of it. Suggesting an alternate often sparks an even better option once the writer looks at it again.

Always keep in mind the larger scope of what the strategy is. You may only be seeing a small part. If you don’t know what it is, ask. Even the most complicated content strategy can be boiled down to a short explanation, and your content person will be gratified to explain it. It’s what we do, and we’re happy to talk about it.

At the end of all this collaboration, your company’s strategy and brand will be strengthened. It’s a total team effort, and there will be struggles — and maybe clashes — along the way. But as with any project with many moving parts and individual efforts, keeping your eyes on the ultimate goal will make everyone work smarter, happier and better.

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