When you’re a writer, everyone thinks they can do what you do. They think they’re good at writing and, well, it’s painful to watch.
They send a few emails and write a report so convoluted that it would choke a hippo, and suddenly they’re Pulitzer-winning writers and editors.
Now they want to dip their dirty fingers into your writing to “make it better.” So they root around in there like the bartender just put out a bowl of complimentary peanuts and they haven’t eaten in days. Only their idea of making it better is going to make things worse.
The copy that you spent hours on — the thing you’re educated and trained to do! — is made worse than when it was still just scribbled notes on a lunch napkin.
So, content marketers, who should be the final say in the actual language of your writing?
Ultimately, the person who pays you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say something when you’re the expert. And unless the person who pays you is a “my way or the highway” type, you should get the final say.
Years ago, when I was the crisis communications director at the Indiana State Department of Health, I was in a meeting with one of the Assistant Commissioners — my boss’ boss’ boss — and the head of our legal department phoned in with some “helpful notes” for a press release I had written.
When we hung up, I told the AC, “Yeah, I’m not doing any of that.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said. Because he recognized that writers write and that lawyers are not good copywriters.
When you’re a content marketer, specifically when you’re a writer, you should be the final arbiter of the best way to say something. Not your boss, not your client, not the graphic artist who took three English classes.
You’re the wordsmith. You’re the ink slinger. You’re the word nerd. You’re the one who studies language and pays attention to how authors structure sentences. You’re the one who reads David Ogilvy essays because the guy can outwrite most authors.
You’re the one who laughs at Oxford comma jokes (An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching the television getting drunk and smoking cigars).
You’re the one who has actually read books on writing. You listen to the Grammar Girl and A Way With Words podcasts because you like them. (Disclosure: I write for Grammar Girl once in a while.)
So why are you letting other people root around in your writing? Stand up for it and don’t let people muck around in what you’re trained to do and they’re not.
Now, this does not mean you’re the subject matter expert. Your SMEs should have veto power on their specialized subject.
You’re not a legal expert. Your corporate attorney should have veto power over the things that will put your CEO in jail.
And you’re not a design expert. Your graphic designer should tell you that your 1,000-word manifesto won’t fit on a 4×6 printed postcard.
But when it comes to putting the best words in the best order to tell the best stories? That’s all you.
So you’d better know your stuff.
It really does mean reading books on writing. And listening to Grammar Girl and A Way With Words. And reading David Ogilvy. And stealing from your favorite authors.
Because when the time comes, you’re going to need to defend your work and show that you know your shit.
One time, a client pointed out an error in one of my articles I had written for him.
“You can’t end your sentences with a preposition,” he said.
“Actually, that’s not true,” I said, and I explained to him how that should have never been a rule in the first place. I recited the history of Robert Lowth and how he created this rule in his 1762 book, A Short Introduction to English Grammar. (Read about Robert Lowth here.)
“Oh,” he said. “You clearly know more about this than I do.” And when it came to language and word choice, he let me do my thing from then on. But it did take me speaking up and showing that I knew my shit.
As a writer, you need to study language, grammar, and punctuation. You at least need to know the rules (and the non-rules) of writing so you know when you can break them. You want to be able to tell people why their 4th-grade grammar lessons are incorrect and explain how common usage says we can now do things like start sentences with “Hopefully” now.
So be a student of language and the mechanics of writing. Because when it comes to defending your work and your choices, you need to be able to stand your ground and show why people need to just let you do your work.
Because the next lawyer who tries to tell me how to “fix” my writing is going to hear my equally valid opinions on how they should practice law.
Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Me. I took that photo.)
Photo credit: Oil painting by Robert Edge Pine ((1730-1788))