How to Edit Copywriting

Writers are made, not born. I do believe that. Anyone can learn to write. And, anyone can learn to edit. Frankly, if you’re going to write you better learn how to edit. Because nobody writes flawlessly the first time. No-bo-dy.

Especially when editing copywriting for digital marketing, it’s essential that you have a clear set of parameters and objective criteria. Copywriting, while expressive, isn’t subjective like art. You can’t really ask, “what is a blog?” I mean, you can, but it would probably only be a good conversation if you’re high or something. Even then.

There are specific standards related to good marketing copy that you need to know and be able to check for, both in your own work and if you work as an editor.

One of the most painstakingly curated documents in our little Hire a Writer world is our editing guide. I edit it constantly. It takes a vast amount of time to cultivate the ability to see what you’re looking for, to identify inconsistencies, to know the “why” behind the “that sounds wrong.” Extrapolating all of that into discrete principles is hard work. But I’ve done a lot of it, so I’ll share it with you.

Marketing Copy Editor Guide

Any time you edit copy you need some kind of guide. If you’ve done it for a long time, it’s probably all packed into your sweet little cranium, which is fine. But if you ever want to pass on your hard-won knowledge of infinitive placement and comma splices, it’s got to be written down. If your company doesn’t have an editor guide, I suggest you make one, preferably with some checklists. 

Here’s a little bit of what it should include, by category.

  1. Editing Text

At Hire a Writer, we have a pretty extensive copywriting guide that sets out all of the basic parameters for written copy. This includes things like adverb use, punctuation, terminology, numbers, etc. Depending on what you’re editing, the standards for this may vary. Although, I’ve found that very few clients have their own copy guide, so you may be able to wing it. Just be standard throughout the course of a document.

Here are the basic areas you look for when you edit text:

  • Language, Grammar, Punctuation
  • Voice and Article Structure

Language, Grammar, Punctuation

Here are the common issues you want to look for and catch:

  • Abbreviations, Acronyms and Initials. Two rules of thumb in our system:
  1. Abbreviations should only be used if you are writing a fairly casual document or it’s common knowledge.
  2. The first time you reference something that is commonly an acronym, you should spell it out. In other words, you might say, “The United States Housing Authority (USHA)” upon first mention. From that point on, you can simply use “USHA” to reference that department.
  • Bulleted Lists. Is the first word capitalized? Are there/should there be periods at the end? Do you need an em-dash?
  • Commas. Oxford or no Oxford? Decide in advance and standardize throughout.
  • Hyperlinks. Are they used over the right words and in the right way?
  • Numbers. Common practice is to spell out one through nine and then use numerals for 10 and above.
  • Money. Be sure money is expressed correctly.
  • OK versus okay. Decide and standardize.
  • Pronouns. A lot of writers attribute “they” to companies. Companies aren’t people. Also, check for gendered pronouns (most commonly they won’t be used).
  • Sources. Check every source. It’s the worst part of editing, especially long documents, but you have to do it. Click on all of them and make sure they’re correct, relevant and current.
  • Time and dates. Standardize how these are written.

Voice and Article Structure

This part of editing is a little more subjective but absolutely essential. It's a major amateur hour if a writer’s voice or tense switches at any point. 

Voice considerations:

This will be client or company specific. If this writer is new, this needs to be a point of focus and feedback. Crafting the right voice is an intensive exercise that a marketing team will usually dedicate time to. Getting a writer who can pull it off is important. Very few will get it right the first time, so this is worth working on over the course of a few pieces. A distinct voice is immensely important.

Article structure:

In our agency, we provide a brief for article assignments that includes instructions about the article structure. Most generally, we’ll tell writers the following, which can then be checked in editing:

  • A focus keyword phrase: include in title, introduction, and throughout the text where it makes sense
  • Supporting keywords: include in subheadings and/or body text.
  • The desired word count: please do your best to stay in the range of this word count.
  • Format: could be list post, step-by-step guide, in-depth article, etc.

As an editor, I strongly suggest you “check the brackets.” What I mean is to read the intro and outro first. Do they competently bracket the concepts contained in the article? Is the hook compelling and intriguing? Does the last paragraph sufficiently wrap it up?

  1. SEO Analysis and Text Scoring

Because most of the copy a marketer will edit is going on the web, it should be written with SEO in mind. While we have in-depth training on this, I find it’s easiest to just have editors do the checklist. Here’s what we require:

  • The H1 has the tier 1 keyword.
  • The H2s all include tier 2 keywords (exactly and, for key phrases, in exact order).
  • Text is broken up into short paragraphs of 3-5 sentences each.
  • There are at least 2-3 internal links, if available.
  • There are at least 2-3 external links to non-competitive, external sources.
  • All of the links work.
  • Link text is at least two words and matches the destination content.
  • All SEO keywords are present.
  • SEO keywords are distributed evenly through the text and make sense.
  • The tier 1 keyword is present in the first paragraph text.
  • At least one tier 2 keyword is in the first paragraph text.
  • The meta-description includes the tier 1 keyword, one or more tier 2 keywords and a CTA.
  • There is a succinct, coherent narrative flow to the document.
  • There is enough substance to make this a valuable document to readers.
  • The tone is good.
  • The tenses match.
  • The pronouns are correct and do not change.
  • All technical information is accurate.
  • There is some wit and conversationality.

Then, we have editors score text for plagiarism, readability and word count. Our blog template has all of these metrics in a handy little table, so they’re easy to see at a glance.

  1. Markup and Comments

Funnily enough, this may be the worst part of editing (IMO). Providing meaningful feedback and giving a writer time to correct their mistakes is the only way to reduce future errors. Sometimes, this part is almost as time-consuming as the original document drafting. But it is important if you want the writer to improve.

Here is what is in our HAW Editor Guide, and is a good approach to markup and comments:

Markup
You will markup the text by editing in suggestion mode on Google Docs. Correct all issues. Google Docs will track and save your changes. If you are editing anything other than an expert writer, any and every edit has value to instruct and improve a writer, so don’t hesitate to be thorough.
Comments
Beyond simple grammatical catches, you will often find issues in structure, flow or even word choice. We understand that your discernment on these may be subjective. Even so, if you are an editor with us we trust your judgment and want you to relay your opinions in addition to the facts. Comments are a helpful way to illustrate why you’ve made certain changes. 

Editing Writers

Editing requires focus. It’s not a multitasking endeavor. It’s on an editor to catch issues and correct mistakes, but also to provide thoughtful guidance that helps a writer grow. Great editing can take a piece from adequate to outstanding.

Note: this blog was not edited before posting.