How to avoid causing tantrums when you change someone’s text
01 Jun, 2020
Messaging, Personal productivity, Writing and layout
One of the worst tasks in communication is to edit text contributed by a co-worker or client. The problem lies not in any difficulty in editing the words, but in dealing with people who don’t like their text changed.
Whether it is a holiday article written for the staff newsletter, the draft text of a report or the body copy in a direct mail brochure, you change the words at your peril. Not so long ago, I edited some of the text in an employee newsletter and was glad I just had to cut blocks of text to fit tight space rather than change the wording. This was easier to justify than editing the text. That particular person has very fixed attitudes and would have wanted to debate any changes to the wording.
You seldom emerge unscathed from editing someone else’s text. You will invariably cause some degree of wounded pride. At worst, they will never speak to you again!
That’s why many communicators avoid asking for contributed articles for newsletters. They much prefer to interview people and write the material themselves. That way they never have to tread lightly on peoples’ fragile egos. However, if you need to accept text from someone else, here are some tips for preventing tantrums from the aggrieved party:
Practical tips for rewriting someone else’s text without causing tantrums
- Read all the text first. It is tempting to start editing immediately, but resist the urge because you can form an overview better by scanning first. You can then decide how much text overall needs to be cut to fit the available space or what structural changes need to be made.
- Print the document in hard copy rather than trying to read it on screen, if feasible. Research in 1997 by the Nielsen Norman Group found it is 25% more difficult to read words on screen than words in hard copy – your eyes have to physically work harder on screen. And you will notice different things within the text by reading hard copy. More recent research discussed in a 2019 article points to print still being ahead, but variables like the reading purpose, the style and typography of the text plus type of digital screen, eg desk top, laptop or smartphone will affect how close the result will be.
- Contact the original writer to briefly explain your intended changes after you have an overview of the extent of any changes you will need to make to the text. Ask their permission to make changes. A fundamental law of human nature is that people will respond better if you first explain why you need to do something – in this case, why you want to change their text. For example, if your target audience comprises frontline employees, you should write the words specifically for that audience, not for managers. Explain to the person who wrote the initial draft that you wish to amend the text to focus tightly on that audience. Be as impersonal about this as possible; don’t allow emotions to color the issue – say how this (genuinely) fits the editorial objectives of the publication for the issue or even the broader objectives of a communication program. Ensure you discuss this with them beforehand; if you tell them afterwards they will see you have presented them with a fait accompli and will resent that. Put yourself in their shoes and you will understand they have every reason to be unhappy. You wouldn’t like to work laboriously on some text, only to find that someone else has changed it without saying anything to you. Worse still, if you don’t let them know at all about the changes and they pick up a copy of the finished product with all the changes to their words, they will never trust you again.
- If you aren’t dealing directly with the original writer – the project may be managed by someone else – ask the other person, “How much rewriting do you think is necessary?” and “How sensitive is the original writer to my making changes?” The project manager may tell you if the original writer is sensitive. You can assure them you will use as much of the original content as possible, confirming this in a covering email to the project manager and/or the original writer before you start making the changes.
- If the original writer is likely to be sensitive and is important to you, such as a senior manager or a client, it may be advisable to seek a second opinion from someone whose view is likely to be respected by the writer about the extent to which the text needs to be rewritten. You can refer to this third party endorsement of your view, if necessary, during any discussions.
- In dealing directly with the original writer, start by complimenting them on their material. This is much better than starting by telling them about the faults in their material and the need for changes. But don’t overdo the compliments or they will want to know why you need to change such wonderful copy!
- Having gained the permission of the original writer, you can return to the text. Read the text again while making notes on it. Hard copy is easier to work with. You can refer to the notes on the hard copy for editing on-screen.
- When editing on-screen, you can easily do a word count and analyze the reading ease, and check spelling and grammar. Microsoft Word will do all this for you. Nevertheless, many people don’t bother with this elementary quality check, which lets them down. Make a note of unnecessary jargon and try to replace it with plain and simple English. In reports especially, managers may try to use technical language and big words to impress senior management.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Sometimes certain managers or clients will insist on certain elements of grammar or spelling that may not be strictly correct. If you are aware of the specific sensitivity, and know that person won’t change their hardline attitude, try to delete that troublesome item from the material altogether so it isn’t an issue. If you do need to retain it, then do so without making a major scene about it. You might lose the minor battle over the phrase or word, but you are better to save your energy for carrying the day on other larger structural changes you may have in mind for their precious text. This is an accepted negotiation tactic: give the other person a minor concession while hanging on to the major things you want out of the deal.
External writing should address the wants of the reader
If you are an external copywriter or marketing communication consultant, and you are given someone else’s draft to improve, your approach is slightly different. You should do your own detailed research into the subject matter, trying to draw out the key benefits of the subject in a way that will strike a chord with your target audience – their WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”) chord. Don’t just list features, go one step further and show the benefits to the user. This is the important part of the text. You might need to interview salespersons, or review product specification sheets, customer complaints, or even consumer review and evaluation websites. This research may take you away from the previous marketing messages but bring you closer to what customers really want.