3 Lessons on Cleaning Up Copy

This post was written by John White on Tue, 19 Oct 2010 09:28:35 +0000
Posted Under: creative brief,managing writing project,process of writing,rapport with writer,revisions

“Cleaning up” copy is harder and more nebulous than it sounds. When you want your marketing communications writer to go over existing text, keep a few lessons in mind.

Learning lessons on writingJean, a marketing manager for a new client, sent me a creative brief for some Web copy. As I was finishing the copy, she sent another short paragraph for review.

“I tried to update the existing copy myself,” she explained, “but it doesn’t feel quite right to me. Can you have a look and send me any suggestions?” I agreed and she sent me the copy with her changes.

The original text must have been written by a comatose monk. Jean’s version was an improvement, but it wasn’t as catchy as Web copy could and should be. I started in on it and learned (re-learned, really) Lesson 1.

Lesson 1: Editing is harder than writing from scratch.

This is understandable, but it bears repeating, because many marketing managers lose sight of it. To edit your text, I have to suppress the way it makes sense to me to express the same idea. This is like simultaneously pushing air into a bottle of soda and sealing it with a cap; a single-function machine can do it very well, but most writers are not single-function machines.

So, I decided I’d do Jean one better: I’d clean up the copy she sent me, and then I’d also rewrite it from scratch and let her choose between the two. I know the subject matter well and couldn’t resist the temptation to impress a new client.

Enter Lesson 2.

Lesson 2: No good re-write goes unpunished.

“Why did you rewrite it?” Jean asked me on the phone. “I just wanted you to look at my text and make suggestions.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I cleaned up yours, the way I thought you wanted, then tried a completely different take on it, given what I know.”

“The problem is that there’s a lot you don’t know about this topic,” she said rather sternly. “Besides, there are political strings attached to the original copy, and I have to live with them. I can’t drop a re-write on them as if it were a birthday present. Don’t do this anymore, because it frustrates me.”

This drove home Lesson 3.

Lesson 3: Writers don’t write. They suggest.

Everybody likes options, right? Well, not really.

It takes time and mental energy for marketing managers to weed through options. It’s unlikely they’ll prefer A over B and C just like that; more likely, they’ll prefer A, but can we take a little bit of B and the last point in C and put them into A, then take out the sentence in A that doesn’t fit now, then…

Sometimes the marketing communications writer is a one-stroke wonder, who nails the concept succinctly and delivers copy that yields only a few requests for change. More often, the writer’s job is to:

  1. absorb information from topic experts
  2. suggest in print how the topic should be explained (a.k.a. write a draft)
  3. incorporate seismic changes from the experts

It’s easier for marketing managers to decide how to add, edit or delete when they are dealing with a single draft (or suggestion).

Writers are better off impressing a new client by doing their homework and suggesting something solidly consistent with how they understand the product or service. Launching multiple arrows at the target may seem more artistic or generous, but it burdens the client with an unwanted decision.

It also punishes your hourly average.

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit:U.S. Army

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