Five Key Tips for Web Content Editors

Language changes over time, and so do the ways in which we use and access it. This has been a fact editors have had to contend with for centuries, but the development of internet culture and media has completely revolutionized traditional approaches to writing and editing in a short amount of time.

The definition of an editor has changed drastically over the last decade, and the most common job descriptions for editors now feature titles like ‘web content editor’ or ‘online editor’.

So what does an editor do in the digital world?

What does a web content editor do?

Due to the nature of working online and every organisation being different, the word ‘editor’ means many different things to many different people – from traditional ‘editor-in-chief’ roles to simply inputting data. For the purpose of this post, we’ll consider an editor anyone who fulfills any of the following as part of their job description: proofreading, correcting, copy editing, line editing, or checking professionally written content that’s published online.

Editing web-based content is a little different than editing traditional media, such as print. The rules tend to be more flexible, which brings more opportunities for expression, but also a unique set of dangers. However, while some things have changed, other key editing concepts remain the same.

This post will go into some of the unique challenges faced by online content editors, and provide some basic editorial guidelines for web-based writers and editors. Oh, and memes. There will also be memes.

Five key guidelines for web content editors:

1) Be consistent

Inconsistencies in spelling or grammar are even more noticeable on web pages. If US-style spelling is used once (“recognized”) and the same word is then spelled in UK English (“recognised”) immediately after, any good web editor reading the page should experience physical discomfort.

The same thing applies to things like capitalization. While most style guides would reasonably recommend avoiding unnecessary capitalization whenever possible, some online contexts can leave room for more creative usage. 

Capital letters can be used in unconventional ways, often for comedic effect – think of your favourite Twitter memes, or amazingly well-written longform series like Queens of Infamy by Anne Thériault. The key is to make intelligent decisions based on context, and stay consistent with those decisions throughout whatever copy you’re editing.

Screenshot of a post showing a deliberate use of capital letters for comedic effect.
You might question the use of a Twitter meme to illustrate a grammatical point, but you can’t deny that this is a damn good upper-case “No”.

Consistency is key. The internet has killed linguistic prescriptivism – there is generally no wrong or right answer to the most interesting grammatical questions – but stylistic consistency is one of the best ways to tell if someone knows what they’re doing. 

Some problems stay the same no matter what platform you’re publishing on, like the infamous Oxford comma. If you’re going to use it, use it. Don’t write one sentence with an Oxford comma, followed by a similar one without it. Make your editorial decision (after an inevitably heated argument with your colleagues) and stand by it.

Maybe, like in the above example, you want to be a bit looser with capital letters and punctuation because it better conveys the casual and funny nature of the writing. That’s fine. Adjust accordingly. The easiest approach is to pick a style guide you agree with, then make adjustments depending on the situational realities you’re facing. Be smart, be consistent, and…

2) Know the rules before you break them

With that being said, you should know the rules. Base your writing on a solid foundation, then make intelligent diversions from that foundation in order to make it as effective as possible. If you’re breaking a rule, do it in a smart and conscious way.

One great example of breaking the rules is the en dash (–). This is a beautiful piece of punctuation that’s found a new life in the digital age. Plenty of reputable websites, including The Guardian, will use the en dash to signify a natural break in a sentence.

An example of The Guardian's editors using an en dash for their online content.
An elegant en dash courtesy of The Guardian.

Some, including the BBC, will simply use a hyphen. Technically, these approaches are both wrong. Somewhere out in the world (likely in North America) is an old-school editor who is deeply offended by this.

But just because something is ‘wrong’, is it… well, wrong?

The en dash is a perfect medium between a hyphen and the longer, clumsier (yet technically correct) em dash. Most modern audiences, especially those on a smartphone, are going to be deeply put off by seeing two large and clunky dashes taking up a chunk of their screen, while just using a hyphen itself could be taken as a sign that the writer or editor simply didn’t know any better. The en dash is very much the middle ground here – long enough to make a statement, and to show that it’s an active choice, but less obtrusive than an em dash.

There are plenty of people who will disagree with this assessment. In general, stylistic choices like this one will come down to the most senior editor within your organisation, and may be restricted by existing style guides or conventions. Whatever rule you decide to break, stay consistent, and understand why you are making the decision – you might have to defend it.

3) Adapt your work for a digital audience

First impressions are key. Tests show that 79% of people will scan your page for content, rather than read word for word. In those first few seconds of scanning, people will decide if they’re going to read it or not. Part of your job as an online content editor (or writer) is to draw them in, and make people realise they want to read your content.

A meme about online content and readability.

Making your web-based content more digestible for the modern attention span doesn’t mean compromising on quality. You don’t need to dumb down what you’re trying to convey – you just need to make sure people can actually read it. Get to the point quickly, and remember who’s reading your content.

As of 2020, over 50% of traffic is likely to be smartphone-based. The reality is that while you are likely writing and editing on a laptop or desktop PC, a substantial portion of your audience will be reading it on a much smaller screen.

Remember to split your content up into easily scannable sections. For the most part, every paragraph should have a point to it. If someone scans your post, is there something that appeals to them? Does it make them want to read more? Try to think about how it would look to someone with fresh eyes, who’s seeing the page for the first time.

Not sure how something is going to look on a smartphone? Right-click your Chrome browser page and hit ‘inspect’, or simply type in ctrl + shift + i. You’ll be able to see how your text displays on a variety of devices. If you’re mostly aiming for a desktop or laptop-based audience, you won’t have to pay as much attention to this – but you’d still be surprised at how many people will visit your site on a significantly smaller screen than the one you use to edit it.

4) Use SEO wisely

One of the key differences between web content editing and traditional editing is the looming spectre of SEO. Search engine optimization is the industry standard – of course. Everyone wants their content to rank better than their competitors. It’s natural to think about SEO as a crucial part of content, and it certainly has its place in terms of getting effective results.

However, good SEO is not the key to good content. Good content is the key to good SEO.

A meme showing the importance of useful content that serves an actual purpose.
JohnMu showing us the way, courtesy of SEO memelord Izzi Smith.

One of my earliest memories of trying to get better search results came when I was around 15 years old, and had just started my first blog. I remember the rush of adrenaline as I typed popular keywords into the footer of my page, and changed the text colour so that it would blend seamlessly with the background. Soon everyone searching for ‘hot New Zealand singles’ and ‘best DMX song’ would find my own personal blog, and presumably be sorely disappointed.

You might have guessed that this was not a great long-term SEO strategy. 

Ever since people began to realize the benefits of ranking well in search engines, they’ve been trying to game the system. Plenty of editorial departments put stock in pumping their articles full of SEO keywords, and follow arbitrary guidelines in a misguided attempt to rank highly. In the end, they are almost always outperformed by competitors who use less keywords more effectively.

Over the years, plenty of my articles and curated pages have ranked #1 in the organic results on search engines like Google. Other times, results have been inexplicably disappointing, even though our editorial department followed what many people at the time considered best practices. In other words, if someone guarantees that you’ll be the top result on a search engine overnight, they’re lying to you.

There is a fine balance to strike when writing or editing for SEO. Make sure you do your basic keyword research, and by all means try to target a few specific keyword terms. Think about your topic, and create a focused post that’s useful for people. Google’s algorithm changes frequently, and we have two certainties:

  • Well-written, original content that’s focused on specific topics and answers the user’s search intent tends to do quite well.
  • Any attempt to game the system will eventually be taken care of, and become outdated.

When editing online texts, stay focused on quality content. Use keyword research to determine your title, and preferably your sub-headings. If the rest of your post is well-written, relevant to the topic, and provides better information for the user, you’ll likely do quite well. The second you sacrifice grammar, meaning, or quality for the sake of fitting in another keyword, reconsider your choices.

5) Communicate with your writer(s)

Digital writing and editing roles are varied. Every position is different, depending on the organisational structure involved. Some writers are given clear briefs, and deliver 1,500 words to deadlines. Others are given access to a keyword research tool and told to figure out their own posts on their own time. Some web editors work closely with an in-house team of creative writers, while others might never actually meet their writing staff in person.

There’s one thing that stays the same for all web content editors, regardless of their situation: the need to communicate clearly and effectively with the copywriters involved. Whether this is through informal communication in an office environment, formalized reports, or regular feedback sessions, it’s important to make sure that writers and editors are all on the same page.

A meme of Gandalf, to illustrate the choices web content editors face when proofreading and editing content.
Pictured: A veteran web content editor prepares to edit a writer’s first draft.

Sharing regular feedback with writers helps everyone involved. The writer finds out ways in which they can continue improving their skills, and has a fresh pair of eyes to identify potential weaknesses in their writing. Meanwhile, the editor will spend less and less time fixing recurring issues as they are gradually eliminated from the copy.

How to deliver feedback is another topic entirely, and too expansive for this post to cover. But if you need to communicate one thing, it’s this: every writer needs an editor. Nobel laureates use editors. J.K. Rowling uses editors. There’s no shame in someone identifying parts of your work that weren’t 100% right. There’s no growth without adversity, and it’s better to address things like typos or wrongful comma usage than to ignore it.

Tucker Max, co-founder of Scribe, puts it very well:

“The mistake would be to hire the one who makes you feel good. That’s not the goal of an editor. You almost want to resent your editor—but in a good way. I like it when I feel almost mad at my editor because they pointed out a flaw that I had not seen.

That is the editor who will make your book better, and that is the one you want to hire.”

While in this case he’s discussing editing books, the same concept applies when editing content for the web. Talk to the writer, or writers, in whatever way makes sense for your organisation. Deliver honest feedback in a respectful way, and continue motivating each other to continually create even better copy.

Are you a web content editor, or aspiring to be one? Are there any tips or guidelines you think should be added to this list? Feel free to get in touch. I’m always happy to talk about online writing, editing, and content in general.

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