Should You Edit Guest Posts? 5 Tips for Better Copy

There’s wide agreement in the blogging world about the benefits of guest posts, both for the guest blogger and the blog owner. There seems to be less consensus, however, about the logical next question: If you use guest posts, should you edit them?

In a way, I’m asking a trick question. As I explain below, the moment you accept an article, you’ve already started to edit it. Not to finish the job would do a disservice both to your guest blogger and to yourself.

The real question, then, is just how much editing you should do. To judge by the quality of many guest posts I read, the answer too often seems to be: little or none. Publishing a guest post exactly as it comes to you might seem the easiest way to proceed, but it’s a false economy. By following the five editorial principles below, you can maximize the appeal and impact of guest posts while minimizing your effort.

Give fair warning. If you plan to use guest posts on your blog, you should publish submission guidelines. If nothing else, it’s a great way of signaling that you welcome contributions.  But more importantly, by setting the ground rules and expectations clearly in advance, guidelines serve an important editorial function. When you let writers know what you need, they’ll do some of the editing for you.

It’s important, though, to keep the tone of your guidelines positive. The point isn’t to scare contributors off but to give them a helping hand. Good examples of clear but encouraging guidelines can be found on Copyblogger and ProBlogger; sound advice on how to write them is offered by One Stop Blog and Men with Pens.

If you only use guest posts on rare occasions, you don’t need published guidelines. But you should agree in advance with a guest blogger about how you will handle the copy, what publishing rights you are acquiring, and so on. The last thing you want is an unhappy guest blogger.

Choose wisely. Of all editorial activities, the most important is the decision whether to accept or reject a submission. When you publish a blog post, you are taking on legal and ethical responsibility for it. You don’t need to agree with your guest blogger’s point of view—in fact, it’s a good idea to look for a point of view that challenges yours. But you do need to make sure that it comports with the editorial mission of your blog.

Even if a guest post suits your mission, it may not warrant publication. If it seems too obvious, simply repeats other posts you’ve published, or will require too much work to make publishable, you may want to turn it down.

Above all, don’t agree to publish something before seeing it. Allow yourself leeway to turn something down once you’ve read it. It’s possible to reject a guest post gracefully and without creating hard feelings, but only if you haven’t already promised to use it.

Tidy up. At the very least, you must look for and fix typos and grammatical errors in guest posts. It’s one thing not to do this for your own writing: you have only yourself to blame. But you owe it to guest bloggers to show off their work in the best possible light by cleaning up obvious writing goofs. If your own grammar ain’t so hot, find a proofreader. There are plenty of good ones looking for work.

Avoid salvage operations. Once you’ve made the obvious fixes, you may see other changes that could improve the post. If they are relatively simple, you can suggest them to the author. But beware attempting too much reconstruction. I know from many years of rescuing submissions for B2B publications that with enough work you can make almost anything publishable. But the cost is high, and most of the time, you should avoid the effort. You’ll generally do better finding another author or writing your own post.

Ask for approval, not forgiveness. Editing is a collaborative art. No matter what changes you make to a guest post, whether it involves a single punctuation mark or a total makeover, you should allow your contributor to review the edited copy before publication. Most of the time, your contributors will be thankful for the fixes. But when they’re not, it’s better to find out before you click the “publish” button.

When you publish a guest post, you’re hoping to benefit yourself, your reader, and your contributor alike. A little thoughtful editing will help make sure you succeed.

Are you looking for a guest blogger? Or would you like to write for B2B Memes? Let me know.

Three Ways to Annoy People and Produce Great Content

At first glance, the idea behind content marketing is straightforward and appealing: by publishing great content, you can win friends, influence people, and achieve your marketing goals. But like all great ideas, it’s not as simple or as sunny as it first appears.

The problem is this: To make great content, you sometimes have to be a wee bit obnoxious.

If you’ve worked much with journalists and editors, you understand. The trait is not genetic, but occupational. They are as nice as anyone else, but if they do their jobs right, they will often rub people the wrong way. In my days overseeing a large editorial group for a B2B publisher, my counterpart in sales was fond of telling me that advertisers found our editors arrogant. They weren’t, and he knew it. But they were scrupulously insistent on getting their facts right, being open to all points of view, and serving the readers.  This sometimes made them look like jerks. It’s a perception that most editors learn to accept as the price of doing their jobs well.

Within a publishing company, there is high tolerance for irksome editors. But in a content-marketing setting, staff and stakeholders new to the publishing ethos may be less understanding.

Don’t let that stop you. If you want to produce great content, you must risk irritating people in one or more of the following three ways.

1. Care about details. In my experience, the most annoying of all editorial specialists are proofreaders. Why? Because they care deeply about details. Their role is to find mistakes and point them out to you.

This doesn’t make them many friends, and leaves them vulnerable to ax-wielding executives who declare, as one has in my presence, that there’s no value in paying someone to rearrange commas.

But commas and other details do matter. Editorial details are to content as fit and finish are to automobiles: they account for the difference between a functional product and a great one, and between humdrum and robust sales.  If you don’t believe me, ask As BoingBoing reports, by having user reviews on its site proofread, Zappos has demonstrably increased its revenues.

Proofreaders as a dedicated job function are well-nigh extinct, but the activity is just as important as ever. And their attention to detail matters not just at the end, when you’re proofing copy, but from the very beginning of the process. If you don’t worry about details when you’re doing the research and writing, no amount of proofreading will fix the resulting problem.

2. Keep asking questions. How do you get all those details right? By asking questions. Or more specifically, by asking annoying questions. The five W’s are just the beginning. You have to ask questions that may make you look skeptical or hostile. And you have to keep asking questions after everyone else is sick of the topic.

What’s more, the questions should not be limited to the people interviewed for stories. Everyone involved should be asking questions like why you’re covering this event and not that one, or how this story fits your mission, or what outcome or action you’re looking for, or one or more of Bob Steele’s 10 ethical questions.

If your goal is just to generate copy, you’ll never need to ask any irritating questions. But if you want to bring your reader as close as you can to an accurate and complete understanding of the topic, your questions will sometimes have to be probing and even disruptive.

3. Insist on finishing. As with any other product, obsessing over details and searching for and correcting flaws won’t do any good if you never ship. The practiced editor’s equally annoying solution here is a firm insistence on meeting deadlines.

As the deadline looms, people will inevitably beg for an extra hour to review copy, check a fact, or polish their phrasing. You must disappoint them. Others will want to get home in time for supper. You must resolutely point them to the vending machine down the hall.

Enforcing deadlines will not make you popular. But increasingly in the social media era, timely publication is a critical component of great content.

In listing these three editorial imperatives my point isn’t that deliberately unfriendly behavior is good for content. That’s not a strategy for long-term editorial success. Rather, it’s this: if you aren’t willing to ruffle some feathers now and then, your content will never soar.

We’ve Got Algorithms. Who Needs Editors?

In an article published last weekend on Mashable, Sarah Kessler asked the question, “Can Robots Run the News?” It’s an important question not just for journalists, but for anyone who creates or curates content on the Web.

The examples Kessler cites span the range of content creation, from automatically generated sports news to the use of algorithms to identify news topics. There’s obvious value to automated content creation, and as Jeff Jarvis has declared, “Data is (are) journalism.” But we should be careful not to confuse computed content with communication.

Computed content is a set of data; communication is the expression of an attitude toward, or perspective on, those data. Without a point of view, content is just an audience speaking to itself.

Using Web analytics from a test period to automatically choose between two headlines, as we’re told the Huffington Post does for its stories, can make sense—if both versions are true to the content. If you balance crowd-sourced feedback with the content creator’s point of view, you’ll have a productive conversation. But if the crowd takes precedence, it may simply replace content’s individual vitality with the bland mean.

Take, for instance, the English title for Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It may not have been crowd sourced, but it certainly plays to a corporate idea of the crowd. Is it really better than the literally translated original title, Men Who Hate Women? (That’s a rhetorical question. The original title nails the book’s central concern; the English version just wraps it in a pulp-fiction cover.)

Even in content marketing, where knowing what people want is critical to the content provider’s success, a one-sided conversation dominated by the audience won’t fly. For a conversation to work, there must be differences between the participants. The power of new media is the way it enables the audience to challenge the creator. That doesn’t mean, though, that the creator should stop challenging the audience.

This balance seems to be what Yahoo VP of Media Jimmy Pitaro is after in the company’s news blog, The Upshot. In her interview with him last week on All Things D, Kara Swisher noted that while some see computational journalism as a “‘democratizing’ of the news, others are more concerned about relying on algorithms to determine the best coverage and the implications for a society guided by its own searches.”

But as Pitaro noted in his video interview, “data and audience insights” constitute just one component of the content. In addition, Yahoo uses the “old-school” methods of “manually identifying topics” through its team of editors and writers.

Similarly, as Kessler mentioned in Mashable and as Claire Cain Miller explored at greater length in yesterday’s New York Times, the tech-news site Techmeme uses both algorithms and editors to produce its content. Why? Because “humans do things software cannot, like grouping subtly related stories, taking into account sarcasm or skepticism, or posting important stories that just broke.”

If readers didn’t care about such things, algorithms alone might be enough. But they do care. The same audience whose searches drive the algorithms also want the human touch in their content.  Until computers can pass the Turing Test, it isn’t likely that they will replace people in content creation.

Monetize Your Typos

Portrait by Joi Ito (, licensed CC-BY

Doctorow: Make money with typos

A while back, I lamented how social media seem to lead inevitably to the decline of editing and proofreading. I was given new hope this weekend, though, while listening to Leo Laporte’s podcast “This Week in Tech.” Towards the end, guest Cory Doctorow, the science fiction writer and Boing-Boing co-publisher, mentioned a publishing project that involved, among other things, offering readers incentives to alert him to typos.

Doctorow’s project, which he’s been documenting in his Publishers Weekly column, is a self-published short story collection called With a Little Help. His “freemium” model includes free e-books and audiobooks, donations, a print-on-demand (POD) paperback, a premium hardcover edition, advertisements, and a commission fee for a new short story.

Since this is a self-published project, Doctorow wants to keep expenses to a minimum, and that means no outlay for proofreading or copyediting. As he points out, the stories were all copyedited and proofread for their original publication in magazines, and his mother, a “king-hell proofer,” will help out. But the POD model offers a third option:

“Now, lots of people have used POD as a way of avoiding a lot of sunk costs in publishing ventures. But I want to see how far I can push it. With my previous books, my readers have sent in typos as they discovered them and I’ve fixed the electronic texts immediately, storing up lists of changes for my publisher to incorporate in future printings. But POD means that I can fix typos as soon as they’re reported, and what’s more, I can add an acknowledgment to the reader who caught it on the page where the correction appears, as a footnote. I have a feeling that readers will happily buy a second copy of the book in order to have a printing in which their name appears.”

As Doctorow put it on TWiT, he’s “monetized typos.”

The result is more likely to be a revenue trickle than a stream, and, if you took it seriously, it would give authors an incentive to include typos, or at least not to look for them too strenuously.

But the more meaningful exchange here is the payment Doctorow offers to his readers. By naming them in footnotes, he is rewarding them for finding errors.

Though it wouldn’t work in many forms of social media, this seems like a good tool for bloggers to employ. Of course, it requires the blogger to care enough to offer such an incentive. That comes naturally to a serious writer like Doctorow, but maybe not to the average blogger. It also requires a thick skin, something many writers manifestly lack.

So, in the spirit of Doctorow’s experimentation, I hereby offer a mention in my blog and a tweet to anyone who finds a typo or other error in my posts. If you’re a blogger, why not do the same?

Social Media and the Decline of Editing

Earlier this month, after writing his final column for Inc. magazine, Joel Spolsky blogged about his experience in the magazine world. His feelings, clearly, were mixed:

“Writing for Inc. was an enormous honor, but it was very different than writing on my own website. Every article I submitted was extensively rewritten in the house style by a very talented editor, Mike Hofman. When Mike got done with it, it was almost always better, but it never felt like my own words. I look back on those Inc. columns and they literally don’t feel like mine. It’s as if somebody kidnapped me and replaced me with an indistinguishable imposter who went to Columbia Journalism School. Or I slipped into an alternate universe where Joel Spolsky is left-handed and everything he does is subtlely [sic] different.”

What bothers Spolsky isn’t that his intent or his ideas were changed; in fact, he says, they were communicated more effectively. His problem is that his voice was changed.

Spolsky’s observation illustrates a key difference between traditional publishing and blogging. Publishing is about communication. Blogging is about speaking. Yes, blogging is about communication too, but the voice is essential—more so than in publishing, though it matters there as well. A blog, in other words, is conversational.

You can, and usually should, edit a written communication. But unless you want to be a jerk, you shouldn’t edit a conversation.

For traditional editors thrown into the digital world, that’s a problem. Why? Because much of what makes up the Web is a conversation, not publishing. Which means we don’t get to edit as much as we’d like. At best, we get to throw in a “sic” here and there (not counting wikis, of course, but that’s a topic for another day).

The blogosphere flash point for this conflict lately has been comments.  You can turn off comments, either altogether or selectively, but you can’t simply edit them. It’s as wrong as changing a quote. If you write it, I can edit it; but if you say it, I can’t.

From the old-media viewpoint, this just doesn’t seem right. Blogger Mark Schaefer wonders, for instance, “why newspapers, who have so staunchly defended the integrity of the published word, would suddenly open the floodgates of stupidity just because the forum has moved to the Internet.”

In a point-counterpoint blog post with journalist Jack Lail, Schaefer notes that “if I submit a letter to the editor of the newspaper and comment on a news story or issue, it has to come with clear proof of who I am, and even then might be subject to editing for appropriateness.” So why, then, he asks, “would the same newspaper allow the public commentary in their online versions to turn into a virtual free-for-all of hate”?

In response, Lail gives the new-media comeback:

“I don’t view comments as ‘letters to the editor.’ I often find them more akin to callers on talk radio, where people are identified as ‘Jim’ or ‘caller from Knoxville.’ (If you applied the ‘same rigorous identification standards’ to radio call-in shows, they wouldn’t have any callers.) The dynamics of online story comments are similar to what happens in forums and fairly open mailing lists.

They are, I think, a participatory experience unique to the online medium and whose benefits outweigh its negatives.

Intellectually, I side with Lail; emotionally, I’m with Schaefer.

I take some comfort in learning that Jeff Jarvis is torn about comments. No, he says, you don’t get to edit the “shit” out of them. But that doesn’t mean you have to like or accept the “level of discourse” they represent: “I’m coming to believe that comments—which I defended when I ran sites—are an inferior form of conversation.”

The solution he sees is not editing, but social controls of the sort found in Twitter and Facebook, built on “real identities and control of relationships”:

“The result is better discourse. I don’t find Twitter or Facebook littered with fools and nastiness and when I do stumble upon them, I unfollow; when they occasionally spit on me, I block (if only I could instead give them their meds).”

Jarvis doesn’t claim to know exactly how this can apply to comments, but “somewhere in there,” he says, “is a secret to improving discourse online.”

We may never uncover that secret, but the point is still valid. On the Internet, the only realistic  goal is not to improve individual expression, but to improve discourse as a whole.

So I’ll just have to face it. In the new-media world, editing is not what it used to be. I may yearn to fix Spolsky’s spelling or complete Jarvis’s sentence fragment at the end of paragraph six—but I’ll have to settle for blogging about it.

Comments, anyone?