When Editing No Longer Helps

Error Whether you work in communications in a corporation, an agency, a not-for-profit or the public sector, you’ve probably encountered people who don’t know when to stop editing.

Editing is one of the most important stages of the writing process. With even one round of editing you can see drastic improvements in quality. You can see your writing improve from being average to being good. From just another release on the wire to something that’s worth writing about. From the delete button to the ‘I’d like an interview’ email.

With each subsequent round of editing, the return on your time investment will likely get incrementally smaller. At some point you need to make the call to stop; to accept that it’s just not worth making more edits. Ideally, that’s the point where the improvement will be worth less than the investment in time.

Working in the public sector, time was of little object. The focus was on producing the best product while balancing all of the competing interests. I would frequently see materials on version 20 or higher, half way through the approvals process.

On the agency side, it’s a different story. Consultants typically bill by the hour, which means you need to make a call on when additional investment simply isn’t worth it for the minimal benefit. Sometimes that means telling your client that their best course of action is for them to stop making changes, which isn’t always easy.

How do you know when that’s the time? There’s no hard and fast rule, but these are useful indicators:

  • When you see the piece beginning to revert to previous versions
  • When you see changes that could be produced with a thesaurus
  • When you see people tinkering with minor wording deep in the release
  • When you see the work increasing in length unnecessarily
  • When you see information irrelevant to the topic being added

If you start to see any of these signs, think – are they improving the release, or are they just changes for the sake of it? It might be time to put the writing to bed and move on.

What other signs do you look for?

  • Two ‘tips’ (such as they are)…

    I’ve been involved in accounts where we’ve had to impose limitations on our client’s ‘edits/changes’ simply because after a certain point things not only began to lose meaning & focus, but the jobs were costing the agency more than what they were getting. To do this we had to first get the client to sign-off on a writing brief that clearly stated what the expected end product was supposed to be (topic, focus, etc). Then we had to help the client a) understand what is expected in the review process and b) establish a realistic internal process for them (taking egos, etc. into consideration). Then we wrote right into our agreements/contracts how many ’rounds’ of review were included (usually 2). if changes/corrections needed to be made because the agency didn’t get something right, we swallowed that. If the client tried to change things beyond the scope of the initial brief, thereby requiring edits, then they had to pay for the time to do that. This process turned out to work very well indeed!

    From a writing standpoint I’ve often employed the writing equivalent of offering up a red herring. That just means including a section of text that you know the client will edit… it begs for it! By giving a client the chance to get ‘their 2 cents’ into the creative process they are often mollified to the point of not wanting to mess with other parts. Maybe it’s more of a distraction tactic, but if you know the nuances of the reviewer, this can be very helpful.

  • It’s funny, this is one of the principle common challenges that I faced both in my former life in the music business and in my current role as a PR consultant for tech companies – when to leave well enough alone.

    In the studio, a band can tinker and, thanks to the wonder of multi-track recording, add layer upon layer onto a song. A guitar riff can be recorded and erased and recorded ad nauseum (see Guns N Roses’ Chinese Democracy for an example of just how long the editing process can be drawn out!) It’s the role of the producer to say “when.”

    While we’re big believers in the fact that everyone needs an editor , it’s good to have a set of guidelines as you’ve suggested above by which to govern your editing, to ensure that it’s not a “make work” proposition and is truly enhancing the finished product.

    In our experience , the more cooks in the kitchen or the bigger the organization, the more daunting and protracted the editing and approvals process can be. By presenting clients with the proviso when leading into the editing process that they are to review materials for technical accuracy rather than for writing style (everyone on earth when given the same raw material will write something different for the finished product), we’ve found that this helps alleviate the thesaurus and minor wording problems you’ve mentioned above. They’ve hired us for our expertise as writers and communicators; as such, they should feel comfortable in leaving the brunt of the language used and materials written in our capable hands.

  • See, an editor would have caught my html problem leading into the final paragraph of my comment! 🙂

  • Linda – because I’m such a nice guy (!) I fixed the HTML for you 🙂

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  • Thanks, Dave. We just proved my very point! 🙂

  • Tay Exley

    I’m currently studying Editing in College so I found this article extremely helpful. I just finished grad school and I know that over-editing is one of my major problems. It’s hard though when you have so many professors saying that the writing should only take 20% of your time and the editing 80%. How do you keep everything in perspective with that? I’m hoping some of this develops when you’re no longer connected with the work (at least in any authorial fashion).

  • Dave, great email. I am experiencing the paralysis of analysis with getting my first newsletter out. I have a mailing list of 10,000 and I’m trying to make it perfect so that no one unsubscribes! But, I’m making it later and later in the month because I’m trying to make it perfect. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

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