What You Probably Didn’t Know About Editors

New York Times newsroom, 1942This morning I spent 45 minutes cutting an article by a technology marketer by one-third. When I finished, the piece was better than when I started. And that made me happy.

I love editing, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I also love my occasional roles as speaker, prognosticator and thought leader, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about taking someone else’s work and making it better.

Editors get little credit for what they do, but like film directors and record producers, their function is essential to a quality product. Today they are more needed than ever.

I sat down to write this essay after reading Alexandra Samuel’s eloquent post on the HBR blog network. Content marketing, she writes, “has emphasized producing a high volume of content at the expense of producing content that people actually want to consume.” But repetitive, unremarkable content drives audiences away, which is the opposite of what marketers want to achieve. The solution is better editing.

There are three types of editors: visionaries, copy editors and line or content editors. Marketing departments have no shortage of visionaries. They can also hire hourly workers to sweat the details of grammar and punctuation.

What’s missing are the editors in the middle, the city editors,  the people who shape individual stories and work with writers to turn ideas into content that people want to consume. In a world where everyone is a content producer but few people know how to write, they are in desperately short supply.

There are a lot of misconceptions about line editors. I’ll address a few big ones:

Editors work mostly with copy.

This is true only if the editors are incompetent or their organization is screwed up. Good editors do 90% of their work before a single word is written. They take ill-formed ideas and shape them with interesting angles and approaches. They guide writers on sourcing, structure, voice and format. They know when more research is needed and also when to stop researching and start writing.

Editors take words out.

This is sadly truer than it should be. People are taught from their earliest school days to equate length with gravity, so overwriting in the business world is epidemic. Sometimes the solution is to take words out, but it’s often better to rephrase ideas so that fewer words say the same thing. Editing is also about knowing where gaps exist and directing the content creators to gather more information.

Bill Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing should be required reading for all editors. A longtime Wall Street Journal writer and editor, Blundell documents the almost obsessive culture at that newspaper with packing more information into less space. The reason for taking words out, though, is to fit more information in. The Journal’s time-pressed audience wants efficiency, not just brevity.

The editor’s most important constituency is the people who create the content.

Wrong. Good editors advocate tirelessly for the people who consume the content. They need to know better than anybody about the knowledge level, interests and time constraints of the audience, and they need to remind content creators, who tend to fall in love with their own work, that ultimately there is someone on the other end reading or watching. The best editors have spent years in the field with their constituents and continue to speak to them every day.

Editing is a thankless task.

It’s an anonymous task, but hardly a thankless one. Editors take pride in seeing a product they can be proud of. They also love to see the writers, photographers and broadcasters they work with blossom in their own right. One of my most rewarding moments was seeing a writer whose crude skills I had helped shape years ago receive a Nieman Fellowship.

Finally, editors take pride in knowing that their work has benefited their audience. No one will know or care that I cut 350 words from a marketer’s overwritten article this morning, but I’ll know that my time investment saved each person who read it a couple of minutes. And perhaps they understood it better, too. That’s reward enough.

ComScore Data Illustrates But Also Obfuscates

This graphic, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, says a whole lot about Facebook’s success and Google+‘s struggles, but it’s an incomplete picture of the true value of social networks. Here are some thoughts on what the numbers indicate and what they hide.

ComScore social network dataThe Journal piece was mainly intended to dramatize how badly Google+ is performing in the market despite Google’s huge search footprint. It does that very well.

“New data from research firm ComScore Inc. shows that Google+ users are signing up—but then not doing much there,” the Journal writes. Yup. That about sums up my experience. I organized some friends into circles, created a couple of pages and then sat there wondering how this was any different than Facebook.

I don’t know how Google can spin these numbers as positive. A spokesman quoted in the story protests that Google+ is simply a social networking layer on top of other services. That’s pretty lame, considering that YouTube has had its own social networking layer for years and that the previous social layer on top of Gmail – Google Buzz – went nowhere. A public flogging in the Journal can be the first step off a cliff for a company or technology struggling to make it, and this is going to hit Google+ pretty hard.

There are a couple of areas in which the ComScore numbers mislead, however. The low numbers for LinkedIn and Twitter look surprising, particularly when compared to Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr, but keep in mind that Twitter and LinkedIn are professional networks that are optimized for efficiency. Many LinkedIn members choose to receive messages as e-mails and only visit the site when necessary. I personally don’t spend much time on LinkedIn.com, but I get far more business value from it than I do any other social network.

The low number for Twitter is so misleading that it should be asterisked. For one thing, ComScore doesn’t measure mobile traffic, a fact that disproportionately penalizes Twitter. Also, only about 20% of Twitter activity actually occurs on Twitter.com. Most people interact with the service through third-party clients and services that use the Twitter APIs. Twitter doesn’t host any long-form content itself (like Facebook does) or frame others’ content (like LinkedIn) Finally, the whole idea of Twitter is not to have to spend a lot of time with it.

Give credit to Facebook. It has fended off competitors by adopting new features where appropriate without trying to be all things to all people. Google+ introduced circles, so Facebook added lists. It did not, however, try to copy the more expensive concept of Google Hangouts. Better to wait and see on that. The Facebook timeline is an effective counter to Twitter, as is the recently introduced subscribe feature. Facebook Answers rained on Quora‘s parade (remember Quora?). It’ll be interesting to see what Facebook has up its sleeve to counter Pinterest.

Facebook has responded to competitors by co-opting their best features without trying to stamp them – Microsoft-like – into oblivion. It is a gracious competitor in a business not known for much grace. Given a chance to tap dance on Google+’s miserable numbers in this report, a Facebook spokesman declined. That’s classy.

How Groupon Could REALLY Break the Mold

Groupon remained silent the second day after its offensive ad campaign ran on the Super Bowl. The Wall Street Journal quotes spokeswoman Julie Mossler as saying “we don’t really have anything else to say,” meaning that the defensive statement by founder Andrew Mason on the company blog on Monday would have to stand on its own.

Groupon is donating up to $100,000 to each of four charities whose causes were cited in the company’s ad campaign. That’s $400,000 (tax-deductible) against a Super Bowl Ad budget of at least $9 million, and that’s not counting all the media buys since then. So if Groupon has spent (conservatively) $10 million on media buys since Sunday and given $400,000 in matching donations to the causes it exploited, then its licensing costs amount to 4% of the total spend. Pretty good deal if you ask me. For a company that just raised $950 million in financing, it’s not even a rounding error.

Groupon likes to think of itself as working against the grain, so what if it REALLY broke the mold by challenging the model that has advertisers throwing absurd amounts of money at the TV networks for a football game every February? What if Groupon announced that it wouldn’t buy any Super Bowl advertising but would instead donate the $9 million ad budget as matching funds to those four charities? What if it further challenged the other big Super Bowl sponsors like GM, Coca-Cola and Annheuser-Busch to do the same? Do you think Groupon could get the same impact giving money to rainforests and Tibet as it got by sending the money to Rupert Murdoch?

I’m not sure, but it seems an interesting idea to explore, at least for an outfit that presents itself as a rule-breaker. How about breaking the rules of the world’s largest commercial stunt in the name of the environment and human rights while also challenging others in your community to do the same? Could it possibly have the same impact?

I’d sure like to see someone try it.