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Sunday, October 17, 2004
Let's talk turkey. We're here for the money. So is everyone else we work with, from the boardroom to the basement.

The only way e-editors and writers can justify their pay packets is by adding real value to the material they handle.

So there is no more important issue in the e-editor's world than the struggle to demonstrate and quantify the business value of getting the words right.

Metrics-mad managers want to bring it all down to tidy numbers, so that they can report 7% year-on-year increases in quality alongside their 9% increases in quantity.

But we all know what happens in practice. When quality proves too slippery and revenue improvements obviously reflect a lot of other factors besides editorial excellence, the managers default to counting things — documents, pages, reports, words, characters, semi-colons or whatever.

Unfortunately, though, more isn't necessarily better. Big numbers aren't always better than small ones.

A short document that expresses everything the unedited draft expressed, but in half the length, will always have a heightened impact on the reader.

It is more likely to be read. And the mere fact that it will take half as much of the reader's time, while delivering the same amount of content, implies a degree of concentration that's important in itself.

Dilution is death, editorially speaking.

Even the e-editor's timeless mantra — "Shorter, clearer, stronger" — incorporates an element of redundancy, as any document that is made shorter and clearer by a good edit will automatically become stronger.

The business value of this type of compression is best illustrated in the field of advertising — one of the few areas in which it is sometimes possible to ascribe the success of a business initiative to the way it is phrased.

The best advertising is often hugely concentrated. Mo Drake's three-word mid-Sixties brainwave, "Beanz meanz Heinz" was used, on and off, for three decades. "Vorsprung durch Technik" has remained a resonant and powerful slogan for Audi for many years now, even though it is almost universally misunderstood.

Each of these three-word endlines could claim to have a sustained commercial impact. They became items of intellectual property, with a value that was proved every time they were deployed.

Outside the fields of poetry ("If...", "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves...", "Let me die a young man's death...") and tabloid newspaper headlines ("Gotcha", "Freddy Starr Ate My Hamster", "War on the World"), advertising is just about the only place where such compression and verbal precision is valued.

And since few of us are ever going to make a living as poets or be given a national newspaper to play with, it's probably the ad agency copywriters who have most to teach us.

Pure aesthetics won't pay the rent. We need to add value by making the organisations we work for or the products we promote more prominent and more successful. And that means there should be an element of unabashed marketing thinking informing all the decisions we make, even down to individual word choices.

We should be learning from the advertisers how to grab our readers' attention and hold on to it, mercilessly, until we have got our messages across.

We should be looking for every opportunity to point to improvements in quality that have made a difference in the marketplace.

And we should be resisting every attempt by middle managers to use quantity as a proxy for quality.

E-editor has done a lot of work recently on developing quality assessment tools for written documents, both before and after editing. This is almost ready for publication, and we will share it with you on the main e-editor site as soon as we can.

In the meantime, just dinning the idea of "Shorter, clearer, stronger" into the heads of all those who write and edit for you will carry you a long way.

As a slogan, it may not have the punch of "Beanz meanz Heinz". But those three little words will make your readers love you, and that has to be the first step towards earning your next pay increase.
Friday, October 01, 2004
What does a senior e-editor who is suddenly without a department to run or a page to proof do next? This week, the answer proved to involve making a first visit to the new British Library — and causing unexpected havoc in the process.

The library has been open for five years or so now. But we've been working, and this was the first chance we'd had to spend some time there, explore the facilities and organise the coveted Reader's Pass.

Like all great public projects these days, the library took many years to build, cost twice what it was supposed to and sparked plenty of criticism and controversy. But we loved it. And it is an extraordinary experience.

Simply being able to stand in a room with Magna Carta, Scott's last Antarctic diary, a Gutenberg Bible, Leonardo's notebook, the Shakespeare First Folio, the Beatles' scribbled lyrics for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and the Lindisfarne Gospels is quite something. To find that you are almost alone there, with just a dozen or so other people, and that all this is accessible free of charge, is startling.

But the incident that turned this inaugural visit into an e-editor's busman's holiday concerned a huge, blue-ish display panel outside the Graham Greene exhibition.

As two of e-editor's cast of thousands stood reading the interesting and rather well written blurb for the exhibition, we suddenly stopped in our tracks.

The write-up was describing the population of Greeneland in the usual sort of terms (failed priests, accidental heroes, unhappy lovers, disillusioned spies, pious gangsters and so on), when it suddenly made reference to world-weary "ex-patriots".

Now that could have been right. It sounded right, of course. And since almost everyone in Greene's world carries the guilt of some traumatic personal apostasy, they could have meant that all these characters had turned their backs on patriotism.

But they didn't. They meant that they were expatriates.

The British Library had got it wrong. And e-editor had spotted the mistake.

The telephone conversation with the woman in charge of the temporary exhibition was initially frosty. They probably get their share of cranks and loonies at the British Library.

Then the penny dropped. "Oh God. You're right, aren't you?" she said. "Expats. Expatriates. That's it. You can tell from the context. I wonder why no-one saw that before. Now I'll have to get on and have the whole display panel remade."

It wasn't much. As a contribution to the national culture, it was pretty minor. But this was the British Library. Foreigners go there. Native speakers of the language see it as the repository of standards and excellence. It has to be right.

What e-editor's representatives did was just what any alert professional would have done. But there can't be many people who can claim to have corrected the British Library on its English.  
The live blog for everybody who lives and dies by the word. The UK's top guide to editing better and getting more respect for it is at www.e-editor.co.uk.

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