Reading Between the Lines

by Alison Lueders

Part of web editing is mechanics – correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on. But some clients also value your perspective on their message. Especially if they have done several drafts themselves, they often discover they are “too close” to really see the content any more. Your fresh pair of eyes can be invaluable.

When clients are stuck trying to articulate their message, some clarifying questions like these can help:

  • What does this mean?  In the simplest case, an unfamiliar word or phrase prompts a look up in the dictionary, Wikipedia or a basic Google search. 9 times out of 10, that clarifies things and you move on. But occasionally, learning what a term means doesn’t make the overall point any clearer. So make a point of asking. A client’s explanation may shed entirely new light on the content as a whole.
  • Can you say more? Put yourself in your readers’ place. If the content raises questions in your mind, then readers may have those questions too. Rather than leave them unsatisfied, elaborate. It may mean adding more text or an explanatory link, but clients sometimes assume their readers know more than they actually do.
  • Who are you talking to? If a client says, “Everyone,” there’s a problem. It’s the same thing as saying “No one in particular.” Fuzzy writing is sure to follow if underneath, your client isn’t sure who their potential customers are. Helping your client identify their audience (if they haven’t already) may go beyond what we normally think web editors do. But a discussion about this can vastly simplify the editing process.
  • Might you consider saying it like this? Light re-writing to make a passive voice active, a word choice more impactful, or a long point more concise can make a surprising difference. But you always need to strike a balance between “cleaning up” the writing and maintaining or enhancing the author’s voice. When the two conflict, err on the side of what the client wants even if it is not what the rules say to do. Often, those points where the client feels most strongly reveal a lot about their values and priorities that you can use to shape the overall content.
  • These are my take-aways – is that right? Articulate – briefly and powerfully – what you think the client is trying to say. One of my clients, a life coach, had drafted 7 pages of web copy. After reading them, I said, “What I take from this is that you specialize in helping people see the extraordinary in the the ordinary places and artifacts of daily life – and thus feel happier.” Not only did it confirm that I was on the right track, but it was clear that the client felt relieved that her message was indeed coming through to someone besides herself. And then we could set about making it stronger, clearer, and more compelling. That’s a happy customer – and one who is likely to come back.

I know that many web editors lack the time and client attention to ask questions like these. But if time and circumstances permit, think about the message itself and see if you can’t make it better by asking questions like those above.

Do you have a favorite “clarifying question” that has worked for you?

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2 thoughts on “Reading Between the Lines

  1. Great article and some good reminders about how to clarify our clients’ messages. I find the question that always helps to bring the client out of their own perspective is similar to your point about takeaways, namely: “What action do you want your audience to take after reading this?” It’s a basic question, but many clients (as you say) are so close to the material that they have forgotten how – or if – it supports their strategy. Refocusing the conversation on what the audience is supposed to do with this information often helps.

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