keys to good copyediting
- Audience level and type of language
- Brevity at all times
- Use a content strategy
- Simple isn’t dumb, it’s smart!
the audience is the key
rely on an experienced copy editor
Since the early 1980s I have been copy editing the work of professional journalists, commercial authors, subject matter experts and government communicators.
The chief aim of any document is accessibility. How do you make a document accessible? The most effective strategy is to write for your audience. Using language and phrasing they are familiar with will reduce barriers to understanding and responding.
I pioneered the use of Plain Language for the state of Oregon. As an example: I ensured plain language was used in complicated unemployment insurance documents. This resulted in reduced calls to call centers and increased compliance with unemployment rules.
I have met with stakeholder groups to formulate how a document should be approached from the visioning stage through final completion. An example of this is the ODOT State of the System Reports. As a professional communicator, I am able to understanding the needs of the producers as well as the intended audience – finding ways to fulfill both needs.
I have edited an enormous number of documents over the years. For example, I served as final editor for the ODOT Bridge Report Forward, taking content created by subject matter experts and honing the tone and voice to the intended audience. I am a fast editor (from my days under the daily deadlines of TV news) but also thorough. I have also edited documents created by multiple authors so that they appear as if written by one author.
I spend time with a document not just correcting spelling and grammar but focusing on things like passive voice and sentence construction so that the intent is clear. Subject matter experts tend to write as if more words equals clarity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brevity is the key to understanding. Albert Einstein said, “the genius is in making the complex simple.”
Many people try to cram as much text on a page to save space. I believe that using plenty of white space and common visual elements helps guide the reader through the document. Use of headings and visuals can also help break up the text. For accessibility, I focus on ensuring the document is accessible during its creation, using tools readily available. At the Oregon Employment Department, I oversaw the Limited English Proficiency Program which included ensuring documents were accessible. At ODOT I advocated for proper usability and accessibility standards for documents presented on the agency’s website.
As the chair of the Oregon E-Governance Board I introduced Content Strategy to the state of Oregon. Part of content strategy involves writing with brevity and clarity. At ODOT during a web redesign, I challenged my web editors to cut 90% of the content from the website. They laughed at me but took the challenge. In the end we cut over 93% of the content, and our site won a national award.