How to become an excellent editor

If you work in charity communications, it’s probably your job to edit other people’s copy, from articles for your magazine, newsletter, website and annual review to jargon-packed reports.

If you’re lucky, contributors will send you work written exactly to brief, in the right tone of voice and house style, in need of nothing more than a quick polish.

But who are we kidding? We all know pieces from colleagues in different departments, volunteers and others can need lots of work.

So what’s the most effective way to edit? Here’s my three-stage process for you to try:

Stage 1: Get the audience and purpose clear

Before you start editing anything, ask yourself two questions: Who is the audience for this piece? And what do I want them to do when they’ve read it?

Write your answers down, put them above your desk and bear them in mind with every word you edit. Does the piece give your audience the information they need? Is it written in a tone and language they can relate to? Does it inspire them to take the action you want? If not, sharpen your editing scissors…or send it back to the writer to fill in the blanks.

Stage 2: Look at the order and flow

Is the copy in the most logical order? Does it start with the most important point? And follow up with supporting information and background material in descending order of importance? Before you get into the heart of editing the language, do some moving around if the piece needs it.

Stage 3: The 8-step elimination checklist

Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of improving the language, sentence by sentence. In everything I edit, I get rid of eight things, with one aim: to make the copy tighter, shorter, easier to digest and more likely to keep people reading – then take action.

They are:

1. Long sentences and paragraphs. Make sure sentences are a maximum of 30 words and paragraphs no longer than 4-5 lines.

2. Long words. Is there a simpler, shorter word you could edit in? Then do it. ‘Help’ instead of ‘assistance’, ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’ and ‘before’ instead of ‘prior to’ are just a few examples.

3. The passive voice. Make the verbs in your piece active to create more powerful, shorter sentences. So instead of ‘Katie was helped hugely by our counselling’ (passive), try ‘Our counselling helped Katie hugely’ (active).

4. Redundant words and phrases. Every word in the piece should add meaning. Look out for those that don’t, and edit them out. Isn’t ‘Your donation is vital’ more effective than ‘It goes without saying that your donation is vital’? And doesn’t ‘Children are suffering’ get the point across better than ‘The reason why we do this is because there are children suffering’? Cut the waffle!

5. Nouns. Never use a noun when you could replace it with a verb. Verbs always have more impact. Doesn’t ‘We aim to engage young people and reduce crime’ work better than ‘Our aims are engagement of young people and crime reduction’?

6. Adjectives and adverbs. As Mark Twain said: ‘When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.’ Take his advice. Edit our unnecessary and excessive describing words.

7. Jargon. Your audience should understand everything you write, the first time they read it. If they don’t they’ll probably stop reading. That means getting rid of – or explaining – any specialist language.

Don’t just look out for obvious technical or scientific terms. You might use them internally all the time, but charity buzzwords like ‘empower’, ‘deliver services’ and ‘service users’ can alienate supporters if you let them seep into your external comms. In doubt about whether a piece contains jargon? Get someone from outside your organisation to look it over.

8. Clichés. The more a phrase is used, the less impact it has. If you hear a phrase all the time, like ‘She was as sick as a dog’ or ‘He was as happy as Larry’, replace it in the piece you’re editing.

Need some copy edited? Contact me now.

A plain English checklist for charities

The Plain English Campaign believes that “everyone should be able to read, understand and act on public information after a single reading”. That’s surely something all charities should aim for too. What could be more important than making sure your charity writing is readable?

So before you start leveraging synergies to achieve world-class outcomes on key deliverables, stop and think. Here are six questions to ask yourself every time you write something for your charity:

1. Have you used long words where short ones would suffice do?

Why say “sufficient” when you could say “enough”, or “excessively” instead of “too”? Whenever there’s a short, everyday alternative, use it.

2. Have you used passive verbs instead of active ones?

Passive sentences clog up your writing. Make them active instead: the cat sat on the mat (active – it’s the cat that’s doing the action), not the mat was sat on by the cat (passive – the mat’s not doing anything, so why make it the focus of the sentence?) Instead of saying that a decision was made, tell us who decided.

3. Are you using nouns when you could be using verbs?

Look out for nouns like “completion”, “provision” and “reduction” – you’ll often find they’ve taken the place of perfectly good verbs (complete, provide, reduce).

By taking the doing element out of a sentence, they make your writing lifeless. Instead of writing there was an increase in our training provision, it’s better to write we provided more training.

4. Are all the words necessary?

Have you said something is “totally unique”? Stated the obvious by saying that “it goes without saying”? Described something as “new and innovative”? Stuck in the word “currently” to describe something that’s already in the present tense?

Go through every word you write, and ask if it really needs to be there. If it doesn’t: cut.

5. Could your sentences be shorter?

Long, complex sentences are hard to follow. Aim for an average sentence length of 15-20 words (fewer online) – though make sure you vary your sentence length too. Try to trim anything over 30 words – it might be better to make two sentences.

6. Is there any jargon?

Because you’re surrounded by the professional vocabulary your charity uses, it’s easy to forget that some words mean nothing to an external audience.

Look out for specialist language, and ask yourself if you’d have understood it before you began working in the sector. Could you imagine reading it in The Sun or hearing it on the ITV news? Would your mum understand it?

If not – make sure you explain what you’re saying. Or better still find a plain English alternative.

Can I help you edit out the jargon in your writing? Contact me today.

Get inspired: Five of the best annual reports

The annual report. Every charity’s got to produce one. A few choose to just satisfy the Charity Commission’s regulations with a basic document showing their financials for the year.

But most take the opportunity to produce a marketing document the organisation can use to show its impact to key audiences – and attract their support.

So how can you make your annual report brilliant? It can be difficult year after year.

I’ll be giving advice in my ‘Make your annual review shine’ Masterclass at the Charity Writing and Communications Training Days on 29 and 30 October 2015. We’ve also got an Inspirational Talk from Teach First’s Rachel Cook on how the organisation produced its award-nominated annual review.

But in the meantime take inspiration from the five fantastic annual reviews below – some of the best of the past year.

  1. Teach First

What’s the concept? Teach First shows the impact it makes sending high calibre graduates to teach in schools in deprived areas through a collection of first person stories from pupils and teachers.

Why is it brilliant? It shows, it doesn’t tell. Instead of reams of text explaining what the charity has done this year, it uses real voices to explain its impact – which makes the publication so much more lively, engaging and likely to be read cover to cover by potential supporters.

See Teach First’s All of Us annual review

  1. British Heart Foundation (BHF)

What’s the concept? The BHF takes us on a journey through its 2014 achievements online and in print by way of an arcade game…

Why is it brilliant? It’s a clear, crisp and clever theme that just can’t fail to catch the eye. Most people who read annual reviews will skim them; the BHF recognises this and uses short, snappy text, interspersed with real life stories and stats, getting key messages across with a punch.

See the BHF’s Big Change annual review

  1. Keech Hospice Care

What’s the concept? A mix of achievements, case studies and stats illustrated with children’s drawings effectively shows Keech’s impact over the past year. It won the 2015 Third Sector Excellence Award for best annual review, beating bigger charities like Anthony Nolan.

Why is it brilliant? The language is clear, powerful and easy to understand. Who can resist a title like ‘A Story Like No Other (and some bits about money too)’? You can’t help but read on. It does away with a dull chief executive’s welcome, replacing it with an introduction from Millie, age 10, talking about the difference Keech has made to her family.

See Keech Hospice Care’s A Story Like No Other annual review

  1. Alzheimer’s Research UK

What’s the concept? The charity uses the Graham family’s powerful story of how their husband and father’s dementia has affected his and their lives, broken up into parts throughout the publication, to illustrate the need for more funding for research. I interviewed the family and wrote their story.

Why is it brilliant? Real life stories are undoubtedly the most effective way to show your charity’s impact. This takes the traditional case study to the next level, and packs a big emotional punch that can’t fail to engage the reader.

See Alzheimer’s Research UK’s annual review

  1. Dogs Trust

What’s the concept? Dogs Trust takes ‘good storytelling’ literally with this annual review, which takes the form of a fairy tale, complete with heroes and villains, myths and facts, and even a love story…

Why is it brilliant? The publication has a really clever concept guaranteed to grab its audience’s attention. At 20 pages of clear and concise text, it’s not too long – and of course it’s packed with pictures of cute dogs.

See Dogs Trust’s Once Upon A Time annual review

Need help with your next annual review? Get in touch.