Surviving the editor’s red pen

MytshirtOne of many things I do daily in the course of my public relations practice is edit. Believe it or not, I enjoy it…sometimes. Our scribe team groans when I hand out difficult persuasive stories, but when they nail it, nothing makes me happier than to leave copy unchanged.

So how can you escape the red pen of a heavy-handed editor?

My editing pen is not actually red. It’s pink. Once upon a time, I edited executive correspondence for a company that needed me to wield the editing axe on 600 people. Did I like correcting every single letter, article or blurb destined for clients, partners and the public? No. I would rather eat glass. Hand someone a page bleeding with red marks, and it’s an instant flashback to that shriveled-up English teacher you hated in elementary school. However, someone had to be the heavy and tell the president that her grammar wasn’t perfect and that it reflected on the company. #amigoingtogetfired? Anyway, to earn my seat back at our Thursday night happy hour, this word nerd switched her editing pen to pink instead of red. It worked, and my corrections caused much less anxiety for all parties concerned.

Returning to the original question, how can you escape unscathed by your editor? Below are my top five tips. I know they sound obvious, but please understand that not all editors are innately evil. The words just need to play nice.

  1. AP Style. It should be your second language if you work in public relations. If you are rusty, study your AP Stylebook until it sticks. The good news is that most people learn and embrace AP Style quickly with application.
  2. Punctuation. Nothing gets my engine fired up like a missing comma between two independent clauses or a semicolon connecting two sentences. (I loathe the semicolon.) Commas are easy to miss when you are on a roll, but they are also easy to catch when you proofread. If punctuation is not your forte, re-read the punctuation section or your AP Stylebook until it sticks. (Full disclosure: I am not compensated by The AP, but I would love to be.)
  3. Typos. They are my kryptonite. I type so fast they spew from my careless fingers. They also hide themselves from my eye when I proofread my own copy. To compensate, I use the “phone-a-PR-friend” approach and share my copy with a buddy or colleague I know to be ruthless at proofreading. Be careful not to overuse this approach or else your friend will cease to be your friend. Maybe rotate friends…or improve your typo-catching skills. If you figure out how to do the latter, please share. Sometimes reading it backwards helps, but everybody struggles to see their typos.
  4. Flow. Once upon a time, there was a story drafted by a gifted writer that had all the research elements, but it wasn’t knitted together right. All the evidence for the case was in plain sight, but reading it was like choking down a gallon-sized bowl of dry bran cereal with no milk. Rather than tossing it back for a rewrite, I put my hands in it to show what it needed. That was the hardest story I ever edited, and I thought it might beat me. One Sunday afternoon, I was editing it at the dining room table while babbling about my challenge with my husband. Inspiration often comes from the most unexpected places. My beloved shared one of his “when-I-was-in-the-military” stories and suddenly the light bulb went off on how to tie it all together. I could tell that the writer had done the drudgery but hadn’t found the path to the hook. The pieces were there. I just helped the story find its natural flow.
  5. Storytelling. Nothing is more memorable than a good story, but in PR we have to tell a story and make a point at the same time. You have to grab people right away in the lead, whether it’s a feature story, news story, speech or ghost-written op-ed. One writer I know is notorious for pulling you into a scene in the lead with the five senses. What would you see, smell, hear, taste or feel? It works for her. One reporter friend always starts his story off with a person’s name and situation. He is particularly fond of things that conflict. Imagine booming voiceover: “Joe Smith is a pastor by day and a pimp by night.” (OK, I made that up, but you get the point.) Speak in a style consistent with the brand of your client or company. A speechwriter for the White House once said that when he heard his own words, it was in the voice of the president of the United States. You can still tell a good story whether it’s in your voice or someone else’s. Dive into research. Interview a person who lives the issue you are describing. Do whatever it takes to take your readers on a journey that makes them gleefully join your cause.

I don’t edit for retribution. I do it to make the work better and to help good people develop into great professionals. A good editor will talk to you constructively about your mistakes, so you don’t make them again. If I have coached people, and they continue to commit the same crimes, it’s like neon signs blinking “I didn’t proofread” and/or “I don’t care.” Good writers are invested in their work, but you have to divorce yourself from your pride of authorship. All of us can benefit from a second opinion, and sometimes it can hurt to hear it. Even if you become a syndicated columnist someday, you will still have an editor, and editors have to be able to “speak the truth to power.” It’s a good day when I can put the pink pen back in the drawer without using it. Happy writing!