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Collaborating With Engineers Part 5 - The Fine Art of Editing

The-Fine-Art-of-EditingYou’ve received the first draft of a piece of content from your engineer-contributor. You open the attachment and stare. You think to yourself: What am I supposed to do with this?

What an engineer has written will almost certainly not be the most compelling read of your day. This isn’t like reading the New York Times or The Atlantic over your morning coffee.

It’s not the engineer’s fault for being boring - it’s just been a long time since their English composition class. Besides, composition wasn’t one of the critical courses anyway; engineering is understood through equations, not flowery language. You, the marketer, chose a different path. One where words mean everything and stories are exciting.

So, you try to read the submission, to make sense of the mind-numbing details, the jargon, the linear and logical train of thought. You think English cannot possibly be the author’s first language (it might not be). There are misspellings, “creative” use of punctuation, and every Important Word Is Capitalized.

You question the approach and your great idea at the time. Why did I ask for content submissions from engineers? The writing in front of you increasingly feels like a thousand-pound anvil on your chest.

The Raw Material

If you thought you would get a finished piece that you could quickly upload to the corporate blog, you were dreaming. What you have is the raw material - count that as a success.

From this raw material, you can fashion your marketing content through editing. The engineer has told you what is essential and why. It is up to you to make it readable, interesting, and - if you are exceptionally gifted - enjoyable.

An engineer’s storyline typically proceeds as follows: 1) here is the problem, and 2) here is the solution.This approach seems logical at face value, but the content is often presented with far too much data and complexity. Engineers pride themselves on being detail-oriented; documenting every single fact about a product or process for an article makes perfect sense to another engineer.

Recently, we had an engineer submit an article that was over 40 pages long. Maybe a nice light read for other engineers, but a punishment for a broader general audience. With every equation and technical acronym, your audience shrinks bit by bit.

Stephen Hawking, the only physicist of our time to garner a mainstream audience, was able to do so not through impressive displays of mathematics, but rather by the lack of it. His editor, the unsung genius of the best seller A Brief History of Time cautioned Hawking that every equation he used would halve his audience. The book ended up being published with only one equation: E= mc2

Hook Your Audience Early

Starting with the title of the piece – you’ll almost certainly have to change it. Engineers are very literal. A story about what’s new with the latest release will be titled “What’s New with the Latest Release.” A more compelling title will be up to you, the editor. We have found titles with numbers work, such as "Top Ten Surprises in the Latest Release." Titles in the form of questions work as well, like "How will the Latest Release Save Me Time?"

PRO TIP - Avoid clickbait titles. If your title has nothing to do with the story, readers will catch on quickly. They will stop reading and mark your author or your publication as not worthy of future attention. Also, avoid overly clever headlines that obscure the seriousness of the subject.

Similarly, in a podcast or video, the first few sentences or minutes will make or break the piece. The goal should be to capture the audience's attention right out of the gate. There are a lot of things out there to read; to watch; to listen to. Your piece will not be one of them if you can't grab the audience right away.

Early on is the time to state the problem, ask the question, or be provocative if you have to. If there is one place to use irony, wit, or humor, this is it. You likely will not find an exciting introduction in the raw material, so coming up with one will be one of your most important contributions to the editing process.

Editing 2

Find Your Angle and Stick to It

While the engineer will be generous in supplying a ton of raw material, it will be up to you to process and distill the information and expertise they provide. If you read our previous article in this series, your engineering and marketing teams may be working together right from the start of the process. If so, the marketers should already have found an angle for your engineers to focus on, but if not, it is critical at this point to find an angle that will make the raw information more appealing to a broader audience.

For example, we recently faced a 160-page PDF full of technical information on what was new in the most recent release of a popular design software program. The document quickly became overwhelming; it was packed with information but so lengthy and technical that it would be relegated to an occasional reference at best in its original state.

We took those 160 pages, and we distilled them down to a 2,000-word article entitled "Top Ten Features in the New Release."

PRO TIP - Be careful not to cut off meat when you intend to trim the fat. With the 160-page PDF, we were careful to extract the top ten features after conferring with expert users.

The first time you trim down an article might be done with sweaty palms and a rapid heartbeat. Who are you to change an engineer’s words?

But, if you’ve read our previous articles in this series, you’re prepared for this moment. You’ll already have communicated to the engineer that part of the process will be “editing for clarity” (you did that, right?).

Find your angle and stick to it. Doing so will help manage your content's size and scope and will ultimately result in the piece being far more digestible for the average reader.

Explain the Obvious

After you have your angle (which may have resulted in vast chunks of the article being left on the editing floor), you've restructured, and you've fixed the general style of the piece, now is the time to turn to the mechanics.

Rarely will you find an engineer with excellent language skills. So, chances are you will need to fix things like spelling and grammar. This part should be easy enough just from looking at the red and blue squiggly lines in your word processor. You will probably need to correct usage too, and you will not find Microsoft or Google helpful with that.

Correcting for readability and understanding is quite a bit more involved. Do not confuse readability with "dumbing the document down." An engineer, used to talking to other engineers, will make many assumptions in the draft you are reading.

Most engineers are comfortable and knowledgeable in their niche, and most of their written work is read by others in this niche. Typically, they don’t need to explain what is obvious to each other, so the responsibility falls to you to take their content and fill in the gaps to appeal to a general audience.

PRO TIP -  Don’t make the mistake of thinking your reader will get it when you don’t. If you don’t get it, it’s likely your peers and the rest of your readership won’t either. 

If you have to ask the engineer, “what do you mean by this?” then it’s probably best to weave that explanation into the article for all the others out there wondering the same thing.

The Power of Example

When discussing complex or technical topics with a broad audience - I can’t stress this enough – use examples.

For example (see what I did there?), we recently curated an article about NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. It was meant for consumption by NASA, rocket scientists, space geeks, and astronomers. All of whom would know the difference between exoplanets and rogue planets. If you know the difference between the two, then pat yourself on the back. However, in our case, we can not assume a general engineering audience like ours would know that information, so we elaborated on the distinction with a short definition and an example of each.

Examples allow laypeople to understand a topic in terms that make sense to them and in comparisons that make sense to them. If you're reading something from an engineer and a comparison or example springs to your mind while reading, add that example to the article – others will likely appreciate your insight.

Communication and Concluding Thoughts

I mentioned this earlier, but will strongly reiterate – be sure to keep communication lines with your engineer open throughout the editing process. You don't want anyone to be surprised by what you've cut from or added to their piece. You don't want anyone to be surprised by what you've cut from or added to their piece.

For example, if you're cutting down a 160-page document into 2,000 words, explain why you are doing this. They may resist such a drastic change to their document at first, but once you explain who their audience is and how they think, the engineer will come around.

Plus, the more you communicate, the more likely it will be that the engineer will understand your perspective and point of view. This will influence their future content submissions and should help them put together a first draft that is much closer to a final product than their first submission ever.

Editing can be an arduous process; it takes time, concentration, and a deep understanding of your intended audience to achieve success. Trust your engineers enough to share feedback with them, and the process will inevitably become more comfortable as your contributors gain more experience and confidence.


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