Sometimes you need an editor more than you need a writer

13 February 2023

A contact of mine got in touch with a request: they needed to write some case studies about work they’d done, so they have something to show to prospective new clients. Could I help?

I couldn’t, as it happened, because I had too much on. But I did share some advice: “Maybe what you need isn’t a writer, but an editor.”

In the past, I’ve found myself being much more helpful to clients when I’ve acted them as a critical friend, going over early rough drafts written by the experts who know the work, and helping to re-write and improve them.

The problem with hiring someone to write copy for you is that the task of transferring knowledge from the person-who-did-the-work to the person-who-writes-the-copy is always much longer, much harder, and much more prone to misunderstanding than anyone anticipates.

Consequently, there’s always more back-and-forth than expected. It can get tedious and frustrating for all involved. Writers get frustrated that the experts with the knowledge aren’t explaining themselves clearly enough, or completely enough.

Experts often have expectations that working with a writer will save them time writing, only to find that they have to spend just as much time patiently explaining stuff repeatedly to a writer who’s trying to absorb the expert’s knowledge and experience in a fraction of the time the expert spent accumulating it all.

This is why it’s often better to hire an editor: you can skip over a lot of that troublesome knowledge-transfer stuff, and make better use of each person’s existing skills. Use what your experts know as the basis for a rough draft that’s probably more correct than anything a copywriter will be able to produce. Then use what your editor knows to turn accurate-but-dull words into something more creative, more lively, and more accessible.

In practice, that looks like this:

Get the experts who know the work to start things off with a bad first draft. Encourage them to keep it rough, and to worry more about getting facts down accurately than on writing good prose.

Next, hire an editor to sense-check, refine and rewrite.. The editor is there to turn rough copy into something more human. And they can do it faster and more efficiently if the expert has already made sure that the relevant facts are in place.

If you’re in a position to get the expert and the editor sitting side-by-side (physically or virtually) for a while, even better. They’ll be able to swap ideas for smaller snippets of text, faster. This is more effective than swapping drafts of entire docs, and spending hours in the comments sidebar. Nobody enjoys that.