Special challenges come with editing for an organization or client with several different audience segments. It’s common in associations and the nonprofit world to have content streams for subject matter experts, legislative advocates, technicians, the general public and more. You’ll need to make adjustments in what you look for as an editor, depending on who the reader is for a given piece of content.
Here are some tips for doing substantive editing for multiple content streams:
Use appropriate terminology.
At the green building nonprofit where I work, a large segment of our audience is composed of professionals in the architecture, engineering and construction field. Climate activists and sustainability advocates constitute another segment. Both groups are extremely familiar with the language of green building and climate change mitigation.
However, other content is created specifically for target audiences such as emerging professionals, schoolteachers, local volunteers or the general public. These readers might stumble over excessive jargon or initialisms that are not spelled out on first reference. Editors are used to spelling out on first reference, per many stylebooks and in-house guides, but it’s not always appropriate.
For example, in an article for the general public about ways to be more sustainable at home, on first reference, you may spell out terms like “photovoltaic (PV)” for solar panels and “electric vehicle (EV)” for electric cars.
Why not just edit all the content for a potential reader who is a beginner, so you’re covered? If more of the readers accessing the content have a higher level of knowledge, they may be turned off by an approach that doesn’t seem to recognize their expertise. These folks know what an EV is, and they may wonder whether the content is truly intended for them or if it is useful for their work.
As a side note, even when terminology is at the appropriate level, authors who are subject matter experts may not think about varying their use of industry terms. In a substantive edit, explore ways to use synonyms or to rephrase in plain language, rather than repeating the same words too many times in a single sentence or paragraph. It will help the writing flow better and be more memorable.
Change up the structure and tone.
For an article geared toward a college student just exploring a career in the sustainability field, I’ll make sure the article structure is appealing. How long is the opening paragraph? Can it be reframed to be more friendly and inviting? Can subheads be added to break up the body of text? Can the text be streamlined?
Because I have access to the organization’s other online resources, I locate relevant links to add to the content invite deeper engagement, without lengthening the article itself. This is important for any article, of course, but especially for those who might not yet be familiar with our past content.
In contrast, for a technical update, the article can dive straight into the details without much in the way of preliminaries. Builders are clicking on it to get pure information, and while structural elements such as subheads are still helpful, greater length or density of text is expected and doesn’t need a heavy editorial hand.
When editing an article, I always try to ask what’s missing. Maybe it’s an event recap that doesn’t mention whether another, similar event is coming up; maybe there’s a research summary that doesn’t really explain how a particular conclusion was reached.
Query the author. If you pause over something, chances are the reader will, too. There’s no shame in asking for whom the piece is primarily intended, if it’s not clear, so that you can do your best job of reaching that person and knowing what level of edit to provide.
When you do your job well as an editor, you seamlessly smooth the author’s message so that the intended reader finds the best possible value in the article.
Takeaways: Questions to ask on a substantive edit at a multi-audience organization: