I know a high school English teacher who refuses to use red pen when editing her students’ work. “It’s like bloodletting, all that red ink on paper. It weakens writers,” she says. So she bisects her students’ sentences in blue, convinced the color, not the cutting itself, does the damage.
Similarly, employees from cubicle to corner office play a “track-changes” version of pass-the-patient with nothing but the best intentions. More often than not, what starts as a second opinion leads to a few minor stitches for a split infinitive, then escalates to invasive surgery as personal styles and legal hedging trump purpose. At the end of the procedure, the writer’s left with a Frankenstein’s monster of crowdsourced pieces and parts that no longer effectively communicates or resembles anything remotely human.
As a brand consultant, I help companies manage voice and language — intangible assets of growing value in a noisy, commodity-filled marketplace. Just as a strong brand must fulfill its brand promise through operations, brand voice must survive the perilous trip from the writer’s word processor to the eyes and ears of the audience. Transforming crowdsourced editing from destroyer to enhancer of brand voice requires more than a strategy document and a box of blue pens. I recommend three approaches to protect this valuable asset from death by a thousand cuts:
1. Practice an ounce of prevention to avoid a pounding of “cure”
As an organization, identify and distribute top-line voice principles to your writers. Rather than restricting expression, clear content guidelines engineer consistency regardless of topic or audience and provide a filter writers can use to self-diagnose problems and resuscitate their writing before the first draft hits an editor’s desk. Voice principles also give writers, editors, even in-house lawyers, objective and consistent criteria for feedback.
When developing voice principles, ask:
2. Promote a change in habits, not a “quick fix”
Another way to ensure consistency is to establish pre-writing processes and writer partnerships. By standardizing the questions writers ask before drafting, you can ensure a common throughline across all writing while still empowering individual expression. Five minutes of conversation and alignment between writer and editor before drafting begins can save hours of editing and rewriting on the back end. And writing partners, especially when coupled with shared voice principles, generate more nuanced perspectives and help writers fix small problems that can trigger a future “track-changes” bloodbath.
3. Avoid language transplants
Every writer has his or her own style. It’s a rare editor who can transplant new language without leaving a scar on the writing and the writer. Encourage editors to annotate copy using the “insert comment” feature, rather than tracking changes. When editors guide with questions and comments in the margins, writers retain control over their writing, and the end result won’t feel stitched together. As writers see, apply and internalize feedback, they’ll generate stronger first drafts. And knowing the crowd won’t be co-opting their work half-way through the procedure will lead to more confident, independent and successful writers.
To manage voice as an asset, organizations must clearly identify the vital pieces and parts and provide editors and writers with shared criteria for consistent and objective diagnoses. Only then can the editing process effectively strengthen brand voice internally so it can live and breathe in the marketplace.
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