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A Fourth of July lesson in the value of editors

July 4, 2010

Editing The Declaration of Independence

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.

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.

52 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2010 3:30 pm

    I love this article!
    With my first manuscript in its third draft, I’m finding the amount of good editing I do will be directly proportional to me finding a Literary Agent who wants to represent my work. For me, the storytelling is easy, its the post process, or crafting after the initial orgiastic creation that is challenging.
    If anyone reads this and has any opinions on good resources to learn the craft of editing, I would welcome them.

    Russ Viola

  2. July 15, 2010 1:57 pm

    Thanks so much for this post, I’m a web editor who regularly comes across just the sort of challenges you mention.

    In fact, I have left a previous job and not been replaced, because the organisation’s opinion of editors was so low.

    It’s fantastic to see the value of good editing demonstrated clearly like this, I will be pointing people at your post!

    • July 15, 2010 7:22 pm

      Thank you all for the great comments,

      I’d like to replicate the study with a larger data set and perhaps multiple blind editors to control for the variable quality of editors. I’m trying to get that funded. I’ll publish an update if I’m successful.

  3. July 20, 2010 1:00 am

    Keep up the good work, I like your writing.

  4. global citizen permalink
    July 20, 2010 11:53 pm

    Nice, bookmarkable, but it’s a great pity this article is so US-centric and not more internationalised. The web is a global medium. Did you know that the fourth of July and the document of which you speak don’t mean a thing outside the US?

    • July 21, 2010 4:07 am

      I understand. But it was published on the Fourth of July, two days after the discovery of the hidden text in the original manuscript. So it was highly time sensitive. Also, whether you want to believe this or not, the US was the first country to declare independence from an imperialist government in the modern age. The Declaration has served as a model for subsequent independence movements around the world. I would think that history is relevant to all global citizens.

      • Charlie permalink
        July 27, 2010 3:38 pm

        I think you are still missing the point – outside of the USA, no-one really cares about your independance day, but many of your readers _are_ outside the USA. As a result you missed a chance to engage that part of your audience, rather negating your own personal value, though possibly underlining your main point – did this article go through an editor before it was published?

      • July 27, 2010 6:27 pm

        Do you care about Bastille Day? I do. Do you care about the annivsary of the Berlin Wall coming down? I do. I think you are overgeneralizing when you say “no one really cares”. Maybe people you know don’t care. But a lot of people I talk to outside the US care.

        Also, you’re kind of missing the point. The intro is about the Declaration. The point is about the value of editors. You can fail to care about the Declaration but still care about the value of editors.

  5. July 27, 2010 6:39 pm

    Regarding your experimental design: I wonder whether it was ETHICAL to force those unsuspecting users to read UNEDITED pages. I do feel kinda sorry for them. (Seriously, thanks for this post.)

    • July 27, 2010 8:09 pm

      I should clarify. Those pages were already up in our environment. Dave just made the existing pages better. All our pages go through some form of editing. But not the extensive editing that Dave does. One of the things we stress is that pages are never done. But too few pages are re-edited after they are published. If more companies iterated like this on their pages, I think they would see drastic improvements in results.

  6. August 2, 2010 3:08 pm

    interesting piece, and great that you could go out and show the difference with comparative tests. 30% improvement is way too important to be ignored.

    but then, as you’ve suggested yourself, you got a fabulous editor in Dave.

    What about the environments that engage average Joes for writing, and average Joes for editing?

    Just to illustrate this further, what if Dave is asked to ‘coach’ the writers so that they make the final output, in their regular work, 15% more effective than they were doing earlier.
    This 15%, spread over sufficient number of writers, will still be a markable improvement, and much pleasant than to have a super-power editor doing all the editing for all the writers…

    This is sort of a thing I do come across regularly, so the above reasoning is not just a counter against giving proper attention to editing, or rather to any other value adding service. Asking to hear about your experiences about the same (and to avoid the situations of the example found in Ian’s comment)

  7. August 3, 2010 3:19 pm

    Hello James. This is very interesting. Do you have these results available as a (academic) paper or report that I could have? I’m writing on a related subject, and I would love to quote/reference your results if possible.

    • August 6, 2010 9:52 pm

      We never published our results externally. I wish we had. Perhaps I could dig them up and submit the report to an academic journal. Do you have any suggestions as to the particular journals that might publish this kind of thing?

      • January 28, 2011 9:22 pm

        Your report would be of interest to, at the very least, professional editors’ associations, most of whom likely publish journals and newsletters for their membership. Such journals might be happy to publish an abstract of your study.

        See the Editors’ Association of Canada, the NY, NY-based Editorial Freelancers Association, and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the U.K.

  8. Meredith Kinder permalink
    August 23, 2010 8:23 pm

    While reading this fantastic article, I wondered if there are similar studies out there? Have other companies gathered metrics like this and published them? Does anyone know?

  9. Alan permalink
    September 1, 2010 9:05 pm

    It has to do with critical thinking skills, or lack thereof. People don’t value editing because they don’t value thoroughness, re-vision (literally, looking at things again), and a broader expertise that isn’t tied to a specific skill set that’s going to completely change in the next 4-5 years.

    This ROI on the call to action is only one side of the coin, of course–there’s also the guarding against catastrophic errors. Editing truly is a stewardship of branding and content in all facets.

    I do think that “editing” as a concept could itself be rebranded. Not that its skills would change (although they have certainly grown more complex in the web content era), but just to converse with higher-ups in a way where it’s more readily apparent what happens when one “does editing.”

  10. November 15, 2010 5:58 pm

    Thanks for making it clear that editing is part of the writing process, not a luxury just tacked onto the end. Anyone who’s worked as a professional writer–in journalism, publishing, or (as I have) technical documentation at IBM–knows that it takes two types of intelligence to communicate effectively in the written word, and it takes two brains to process a single piece of writing through both types in the most efficient manner possible.

    Sure, writers can use the technique of letting their manuscripts go cold in order to try editing themselves, and this will catch a certain amount of the editing that’s necessary. But it won’t catch it all. And, besides, it takes forever.

    I’m an independent editor and published author who learned my craft through all three forms of professional nonfiction listed above, as well as fiction and poetry. I work mainly in fiction now, mentoring aspiring writers through the process of producing professional work. And I love it–not just for the work itself, which I enjoy a lot, but for the constant stream of enthusiasm and gratitude I get from clients who are thrilled to learn the real differences between amateur and professional writing and to see those differences sorted out in their own manuscripts.

  11. April 26, 2011 12:10 am


  12. June 23, 2011 10:32 pm

    Social Media has become the breeding ground for writing errors and bad fact checking. If ever there were a need for good editors, it is now. The problem is that everyone is moving so fast and does not want to take the time to edit until after the glaring error is published and its too late.

    • June 29, 2011 6:57 pm

      You’re right.
      I think the writting chance over the years but with social media it will be faster.
      We’re ever searching for a great resource of information like that site!
      Thanks again James.

  13. October 22, 2014 3:08 am

    I do trust all the ideas you’ve presented on your post. They’re really convincing and will certainly
    work. Nonetheless, the posts are very quick for newbies.
    May just you please prolong them a bit from subsequent time?
    Thanks for the post.


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