How To Think Like An Editor

We’re all editors these days. Every day. All day.

Whenever we write — a business proposal, a research paper, an article, a blog post, an email, a social media comment or even a text — we should be editing ourselves. But who am I kidding? Seems like self-editing has gradually become a thing of the past, just like the evening newspaper and letters written in longhand.

Which is probably what led somebody who may no longer have a job at CBS News to tweet about “Michael Jeter” during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game earlier this month and then, moments later, post this:

Earlier that day, I had tweeted these words:

The truth is, anything poorly written or poorly punctuated can leave a bad impression. In the CBS News case, someone neglected to proof before posting. That’s a mortal sin here at TLM HQ. But thinking like an editor goes beyond structure, grammar and accuracy.

Here are five questions to ask yourself before and while you write:


1. Who is my audience?

While you have no way of knowing who might lay eyes on your writing, you should at least have a fundamental sense — based on the platform, the topic and the purpose. Write for those people, with headlines, subject headers or opening sentences that will make them feel they’ll miss out if they don’t read your words. If others want to read them, too, they will. But don’t worry about them.


2. What is my message?

Know why you’re writing. This is similar to knowing your audience, because once you’ve captured your target reader with those first few introductory words, you don’t want to lose them with the rest of your words. Have a plan, and stick to it. If you stray too far from your topic, so will your readers.


3. Why should readers care?

Readers are not dumb, and they’ll know when you’re just dashing something off to get it done. Tell your readers early on why you’re writing, and then deliver. Give them a stake in your message:

I’m writing to let you know that …

When you think about it, we’re all editors these days.

Readers will keep reading because they know what follows pertains to them, either directly or indirectly. Now, a coworker might overlook a typo here and there, or a couple incomplete sentences in a casual interoffice email (“Just got back from lunch. Wanna chat about the new marketing campaign at 2?”). But write an email like that to a new client? He’ll think you didn’t have the time or the respect to write full-on sentences, and he’ll probably be your former client soon.


4. How long should it be?

Be aware of shrinking attention spans. More online articles are beginning to state anticipated reading time, and they’re being promoted on Twitter as “lightning fast” reads:

If you can state your point in a 20-word email, do that. If you need only 500 words to make a compelling argument in a blog post, don’t use 650. If your editor wants a 1,900-word article or a 60,000-word book manuscript, don’t come in way over or way under. This takes practice, so it’s a good thing you write on a daily basis.


5. What’s next? 

Know where you’re going. You don’t need a formal outline for everything you write, especially tweets and social media comments. But longer pieces typically require more detailed direction and focus. Would you set out on a 1,400-mile road trip without your GPS? Or cook a five-course gourmet meal without recipes? Most of us wouldn’t. Nor should we attempt to write a blog post about the five reasons you should avoid vacationing in July without a list of those five reasons. An outline — and by that I mean anything that includes what you’re going to write — will help keep your words on track and your readers engaged.

About Michael Popke

Michael Popke owns Two Lakes Media Group and is an award-winning journalist with 25 years of experience in print/digital media as a newspaper reporter, B-to-B magazine/online newsletter editor, social media content generator, freelance writer, book editor and music critic.

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