How to Succeed in Editing without Really Trying: A Primer in Surviving (and Thriving in) the Approval Process

There are three words that make business writers cringe. More than “Can you spin this to make it sound good?”; more than “We really need a blog post on how we leverage our resources to maximize our core competencies…” – there are three words that keep communications types up at night. Those three words?

The Approval Process.

It is the bane of many a good writer’s existence. And, implemented poorly, it can serve as a soul-draining experience that sucks the life and passion right out of a semi-idealistic writer looking to make a difference.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The biggest problem? Often those who are involved in the routing and approval of copy don’t truly know what they’re doing. Worse than them? There are frequently those along the routing path who think they know what they’re doing.

And that’s where copy routing and approval often gets derailed.

This isn't writerly vanity coming out. In no way, shape, or form do I think that any writer – myself included – should be allowed to run free with no checks and balances. It is the nature of any good writer to want to challenge him or herself, to do more, to try new things, to play with words in an attempt to make the same old business news item, product launch, or splash page appeal to the demographic that exists in their mind – a consumer public that’s ravenously hungry for dynamic Web content; a group of potential customers champing at the bit for your next witty missive on widgets.

An effective approval process keeps everyone on brand, on voice, and on target. What it doesn’t do, however, is stifle creativity and impose one’s personal preferences and biases over and above the brand message.

Most importantly, an effective approval process can help your bottom line, increase your responsiveness to your customer base, and allow you to maximize the return on your communications by allowing rapid, responsive, and effective flow of approved copy to its required destinations.

An ineffective approval process can cause cost-overruns, delay projects, put contractual obligations in jeopardy, and frustrate the bejeezus out of your oft-maligned communications staff.

And while it’s often the case that non-writers are placed into roles requiring content approval, the system can work – and, courtesy of the additional perspectives provided by people with non-writing backgrounds, work very well – as long as approvers and managers remember four key things about content creation:

  • Trust: Whether you have an internal communications writer on staff or have hired an agency to help, trust is a big part of success. Your role on an approval process is to ensure that all content remains on brand, on target, and is effectively conveying the right message to the right person at the right time. Most of the “editing” should, in fact, be done up front. By talking effectively with your communications and marketing staff at the beginning of a project, you can ensure that everyone is on the same page. An effective communicator or writer should be able to do that. If the results aren’t what you expect, then the best editing is a conversation to ensure everyone understands the branding and/or the message. Often the writer doesn’t see the changes that are made afterwards, so if there’s no discussion, then the same issues will keep arising.
  • Remove Your Self: No, that’s not a spelling error. An effective editor removes their “self” from the equation. I referenced this in my recent post on being a better communications writer, but too many non-editors placed in positions where they’re required to approve content feel they need to do something to show that they’re working. They’ll make changes based upon how they would have said something. It’s not about right or wrong; it’s about different. As a writer becomes more comfortable in an environment, they’ll start to either (rightly) challenge those changes or merely resign themselves to the inevitable and stop caring. The former can cause unnecessary friction; the latter robs your copy of vitality. The best editors allow the writer’s voice to flourish, confident in their own ability to not need to artificially assert their authority.
  • Remember the Motivation: You’ve asked for new copy because you’re not happy with how the old one read, yet when it comes to you for review, you start inserting old terminology, complaining that older features aren’t still there, and questioning why you’ve taken this new direction. It’s important to remember the source of your dissatisfaction in the first place. Why would you want to go back to something you didn’t like in the first place?
  • Think Big Picture: Is that minor edit really worth its time? Is the change you’re suggesting vital to the end product or is it just a personal preference? How long will that change delay the end result? On another level, does your approval process truly need to have so many people? What are the risks involved? Can you minimize the number of people who need to sign off – and can you empower certain people to make final decisions so that you don’t have to wait for your busy managers to find time to review?

Thinking big picture is the key to editing success. By focusing on ensuring your content is on brand and in the right voice (and, of course, making sure there are no spelling/grammatical errors), you can help speed the process along to its successful conclusion.

After all, your writer’s vanity and the approver’s ego don’t really matter -- the only audience that truly matters is your customers. And they just want effective, digestible content that tells them what they need to know and gets them where they want to be as quickly as possible.

That’s the true Big Picture – and it's the only one that matters.


Questions Answered

How can I improve copy routing?

How do I fix the approval process?

How do I deal with non-editors editing my work?



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