“Give the Reader a Break”. These words sat for 60 years on a plaque on the desk of Bob Gottleib, one of America’s foremost editors, who died last week. Gottleib was referring to book publishing, but the words are highly relevant to content in marketing and communications, and too often ignored.
Gottleib meant many things in that phrase, as his autobiography makes clear: cutting boring copy and unnecessary formulations, ensuring clarity of narrative structure and writing, weighing the value of each word, and making sure that headings and labels are clear and helpful..
All that is the job of an editor working with the author, as Gottleib did for so many authors from Toni Morrison to Bill Clinton. As he explained, it’s not about making the book something totally different from the author’s vision, but it’s about making it the best possible version of itself. That means working with the author to challenge, advise and suggest. Some authors need little editing, others a lot. And some are open to editorial changes, while others highly resistant and defensive. The best editors get their authors to accepts change when needed, by making clear they are on the side of the author, doing the “clean up job” as Gottleibs put it.
In marketing communications, we often get so focused on producing content (and getting clients or executives to approve it) that we forget the importance of the editing role. Sometimes that is about us editing the work of people within our clients, so that copy works best for external marketing and media communications. Often when we write new content for a client, it is about a separate editing function within our firm, to make sure the client reviews the very best version.
We should also keep in mind that every time a reporter talks to a spokesperson and writes as a result, that copy will be worked on by an editor, who will be ruthless to a greater or lesser degree in cutting the unnecessary and unclear. Giving interviews with that editing function in your thoughts is important – am I saying something vital; or is this the first sentence to go under the editor’s knife, even if the reporter files it?
In any marketing function or communications agency, some people naturally specialize more in writing, and some are innately better at it than others. But everybody, no matter how great a writer, can benefit from an editor. [Including the author of this article – ed.] At Cognito we often have an editorial function behind the scenes, but sometimes we make it more visible to the client. Finally – having an editing function is no excuse for authors (inhouse or agency) not to try and say something interesting and relevant in the first place.
Andrew Marshall is the vice chairman of Cognito and managing director for Americas