How to Measure the Value of Editors

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James MathewsonBy James Mathewson, Editor in Chief, ibm.com

Those who devalue the work of editors ought to consider history. Perhaps the greatest single contribution of an editor to a written work can be found in The Declaration of Independence.

Early drafts of the most important document of the United States of America show a lot of changes in word choice in the process of writing. Thomas Jefferson had a venerable editorial committee: John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who wrote extensive comments in the margins.

In a crucial draft of the Declaration, Jefferson smudged out the word subjects in favor of the word citizens. Archivists have the technology to see the change for the first time, using special spectral technology to decipher the intent of manuscript authors.

Imagine if Jefferson had used the word subjects rather than citizens. For many, it would seem that the United States was merely replacing one tyranny with another, rather than crafting a system of government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” It seems plausible that this one edit changed the course of history. Not all edits have the same effect, of course. But as an IBM study suggests, their value can be measured. 

Declaration of Independence by arellis49

"We hold these truths to be self-evident..."

Why do organizations devalue editors?

Editors are seen as an unnecessary step in the content process. “All they do is make it hard to publish what we want to publish on the Web.” I’ve heard it many a time; a few times from a person pointing the finger squarely in my direction. As much as I try to show that I’m just trying to help, that my efforts are just trying ensure that my company’s brand is represented in the best possible light, it doesn’t work. Somehow editors are viewed as an extra cog in the machinery. “When we go to a lean six sigma process, we will be able to eliminate editors.” That is just the latest in cost cutting models editors have had to defend themselves against.

Anyone who has ever written anything for publication can cite chapter and verse about how they have been saved by a good editor. Even if editors don’t make changes, having a second set of eyes with a different perspective on the audience allows writers to relax and create better work. But measuring their value is another story.

How to measure the value of editors

Because editors are often seen as unnecessary, we at IBM conducted a study to demonstrate their value for some of our marketing pages. We took a sample of unedited pages with high traffic from across our various business units and ran them through Dave Harlan, the editing lead for the group that creates a lot of our marketing content. We then ran an A/B test, where we served the unedited versions to a random sample of users and the edited versions to the rest of the users. We then measured engagement (defined as clicks to desired links on the page) on those pages over the course of a month.

The results were astonishing.

The mean difference in engagement was 30 percent across the set of pages. And the standard deviation was one percent–we got a 30 percent improvement on the desired call to action for the pages across the board. 

Now it was just one test and it needs to be replicated before we draw strong conclusions. Your mileage may vary depending on the quality of your editors (Dave is exceptional, by all accounts). But we can provisionally conclude that well edited pages do 30 percent better than unedited pages.

What would 30 percent better engagement do to your bottom line? I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions about how 30 percent better engagement might affect your business. But let’s put an end to all the talk about editors being unnecessary.

This post was originally published at Writing For Digital and has been reprinted with Mr. Mathewson’s permission.

James Mathewson is the co-author of Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, and editor in chief of ibm.com, where he sets standards and delivers education to improve the effectiveness of IBM Web content. He has trained 1,000+ IBM writers, editors, and content strategists on Web content quality and SEO techniques.

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44 thoughts on “How to Measure the Value of Editors

  1. Was it not Thomas Jefferson who served as the lead author of the Declaration? Perhaps the example is better seen as a skilled writer editing himself.

    If it took an editor to improve the response to the copy and call to action by 30%, then perhaps IBM needs better writers. Why depend on someone to fix bad copy? Isn’t the better solution to find competent authors?

    • Don’t confuse experts in the field with good writers. Even then, good writers usually benefit from good editors. Even the most attractive actors in Hollywood have someone else do their makeup and hair.

    • Every professional writer I know — and I’ve known a number of bestselling authors — wouldn’t dare publish a book without its going through the admittedly rigorous process that is the trademark of great editing. Much of the written work we revere as “great” and even “timeless” would come off as merely “good” or, in some cases, “fair” without the close attention of an editor. The best and most effective writing is a result of teamwork.

    • @David S. — Writing and editing are two completely different thought processes. Some people have skills in both realms, but it usually seems like their core strength is in one area. So if you replace [good writer + good editor] with [writer-editor], you’re probably going to come out with a worse product than the team approach would have produced. I’m sure there are exceptions—but there is always that pesky “two eyes are better than one” thing. =)

    • Just a note of clarification: Although Jefferson is commonly credited with having written the Declaration of Independence, we was the one who “penned” the document. The wording was determined by Jefferson, Franklin and John Adams. Adams was actually the one who finalized much of the specific verbiage that became the Declaration of Independence. But because it was in Jefferson’s handwriting, it is he who is given the credit.

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  4. This is an elegant post. Where is the share button? I will paste this link into my writers club Facebook. And I’ll contact you on FB.

    I joined FB and Twitter to share informative thoughts on writing craft and the publishing business. I’m glad to have found your blog through a tweet by IrisBlasi !

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  6. Enjoyed the post.

    Editors are invaluable to the writing process. I know dozens of editors and they definitely add to the value of the book. Just read an un-edited draft of a mss and then the professionally edited version and the difference is dramatic.

    Anyone who beleives editors are not necessary to the book writing process doesn’t know how the process works. Editors are very important.

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  8. Anyone who doubts the value of editors and proofreaders should survey the dismal quality of professional and college textbooks, where typos and tortured prose frequently undermines respect for otherwise respectable content. Publishers who skimp on this element of product development do so at the cost of their own and their authors’ reputations.

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  10. Hurrah! As both an author and an editor, I know I thank the Powers That Be for my editors every time one of my works is released. There is so much we cannot see after we create a document. Our brain will normally perceive what we meant, what we think is there and what we wish to be there instead of the real words and the real errors we all make. If you want to look really dumb in print, just skip the editorial stage and see what happens. It is likely to be the proverbial s**t the hippies spoke of, believe me. Reliance on spelling and grammar checkers is no substitute for real live editoral review.

  11. Well said. I spent years writing, managing writers and doing field engineering worldwide.

    I saw the value to editors when good, clear text that was made that way by collaboration between writers and editors. Good writing helped make it possible to find problems and repair complex systems that had critical functions…mostly war machines of one type or another.

    I wrote for the early astronauts on the Apollo Program; Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. These friends of mine died in the launchpad fire. Part of the reason was that a memo, written by brilliant engineers but not edited, was not understood by the person’s it was addressed to. It failed to communicate. I caused the death of three great guys.

    Editors have value…

  12. Editors are like movie producers. You don’t notice them unless they over wield their power or unless they are conspicuous by their absence. They are the parent and guardian of every work and the check and balance of every sentence. They not only keep the message clear and well communicated but often have crafted behind the scenes the original concept contracting all the players. Whether fiction, technical writing, or legal contracts the creator left alone can often looses sight of the big picture and the perspective of the virgin reader. The editor insures there is enough surface tension in the words that the author has pulled from a vast ocean of ideas to form a perfectly formed droplet of finished thought. Editors carefully select and curate these droplets collecting them into springs that represent the publishers vision, or Parties platform, or lawyers case. They may have different names in different disciplines but the editor is an intrinsic, intimate, and invaluable part of the creative process whose absence is noticed and whose excellence is revered.

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  14. Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life these days that business and technical people must write – and usually under time pressures. While most are brilliant at what they do, many do not write well. Often their message is lost or hard to find.

    Editing (be it a simple peer review or a professional edit) adds value. As an editor with a general technical background, I uncover things that hinder the reader from understanding the writer’s message. I might not understand the ins and outs of the technical details, but I can follow the logic and point out any flaws in the way the information is presented. As well, tidying up the inconsistencies of formatting and the mechanics (spelling, grammar and punctuation) leads to a much more readable document.

    All technical and business writing must be about making it as easy as possible for your reader to understand your message – that’s where the editor gives you the edge.

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  17. The article prompted me to take a look at ibm.com. First thing I noticed was the headline “What do today’s C-levels think?” I don’t know what a C-level is, exactly. It seems like rather bad form to use jargon when trying to communicate. But maybe everyone else in the whole wide world knows what a C-level is. I clicked on the headline, which was a link, expecting to be taken to the article. But, no – I was taken to another page on the website, filled with lots of info, but I never did find the article about what C-levels think. I’m pretty sure that’s poor use of the medium.

    Just for the record, I’m former IBM-er and I loved working there. I think it is a great company. :-)

  18. I’ve worked as a magazine writer and editor and am currently a book editor and proofreader. Because of my editing background, I think I am fairly good at editing my own writing, but there is no substitute for another set of (trained) eyes. When my former managing editor read articles I wrote, he invariably found ways to make them better–ways I would not have thought of on my own, but that made perfect sense once I saw them.

    Before I started my editorial career, I used to read well-written magazine pieces and think, “Wow, this writer is so talented–I don’t think I could ever write that well.” Now I know better. Those articles were likely the products of collaboration between gifted writers and skilled editors.

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  20. Every writer knows what he or she means to say — it’s not always easy to change perspective and see how the reader will read it. Think of us (editors) as the first readers.

  21. Writing and editing are two very different things. I do both for a living. My writing must always be edited after I am through with it. However, it is difficult to have enough objective distance to edit one’s own work. I can make great improvements to my own writing in second and third drafts, but that is not the same as having an experienced editor give me his/her advice and impressions. At the same time, I have never known a writer whose work could not stand some editorial help.
    Regarding Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, I’ve seen scans of his original drafts and it definitely needed editing. I’ve no idea how this process worked, but I would think that having a skilled editor like Franklin on board was a plus. Certainly, it was Jefferson who wrote the document, but he had help in reducing it to the power and elegance that it achieved in its final form.

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  28. I live with my editor. I wake her up at 3 in the morning if I need to. I refuse to publish without her input. It’s painfully obvious how much better my stories are after the process. I’m also a better writer, and she’s a better editor, after each one.

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