JAPADOG is a wonderful little company that operates a food truck and restaurant in my hometown of Vancouver, BC with the stated mission of “making the world happy and alive through hot dogs!”
As you can imagine, some JAPADOG fans were devastated when this post appeared on Facebook:
As commenters began mourning the closing of the much-loved stores and carts and wished the owners well in their future endeavors, JAPADOG stepped in to clarify that they were just closing for the day.
This is a cute and harmless example (though the “I just had a mini heart attack” commenter might disagree) of a case where a few seconds spent editing a post for clarity could have prevented a misunderstanding. But the stakes aren’t always so low.
From accidentally tweeting images of national tragedies to unintentionally making light of domestic violence, the world of social media abounds with cautionary tales of brands reeling as slip-ups on social explode into PR disasters.
And while there have been some truly horrendous typos on social (such as Yahoo Finance’s now-legendary inadvertent racial slur), even a less cringe-worthy typo can do lasting damage to your brand. Research by Global Lingo has found that as many as 59 percent of customers won’t do business with companies that publish content with bad grammar or spelling mistakes.
A little good old-fashioned editing can save your brand—and possibly your job.
As an editor who started working back in the days when we’d print copy decks and mark them up with actual pens, I’ve seen many things change over the years. But the value of clear, precise writing hasn’t changed at all.
Here are my best tips to help you avoid the nightmares of a media manager and make editing a quick and painless part of your publishing routine on social.
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12 editing tips for social media posts
1. Edit like a trauma surgeon
Trauma surgeons use triage as a system to prioritize patient treatment and maximize the number of survivors.
As a social media manager, you might not have time to look up whether there’s one “l” or two in “traveling” (answer: it depends), but you should really spare a few seconds to ensure you and your team aren’t promoting your competitors or depicting implied sex acts in ads for a family restaurant.
Like a trauma surgeon, learn to identify life-threatening (or in your case, career-threatening) conditions and treat them first. Maximize the number of survivors.
2. Edit like Beavis and Butthead
Before posting something, read it like a junior high school kid looking for something to snicker at. If you’re not aiming for suggestive humor, fix it before the internet gets its dirty mitts on it.
For reasons that should be obvious if you’ve ever used the internet, supermarket chain @aldiaustralia soon regretted this tweet:
3. Handle humor with care
Social media and humor make a great couple. Everyone loves a good laugh… except when they’re trying to find out how to return a defective product you sold them. Or when they can’t figure out why an error message keeps popping up in the software they bought from you.
Before cracking a joke, be aware of the emotional state of the people you’re speaking to, and of the wider context in which you’re communicating. Anyone who works in customer service will tell you that the people in the refund line are a tough crowd.
And as a social media professional, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s never a good idea to make a joke in which the punch line relates to a person’s ethnicity, gender, or economic status.
To bring this point home, here’s a now-infamous and spectacularly inappropriate #TacoTuesday tweet by Dave & Buster’s sports bar that never should have seen the light of day:
4. Have someone else edit your work
If I had to guess, I’d say none of the examples I’ve included so far in this article were seen by more than one pair of eyes before they were posted.
As writers, we all have our blind spots. (I’m pathologically and inexplicably incapable of remembering with confidence that gray is spelled with an “a” and have to look it up all the time. Go figure.)
Fortunately, we work with other people. Even if you’re a solo practitioner, there’s probably someone in your life with a decent sense of style and taste who wouldn’t mind glancing over your tweets before you release them into the wild. And if you’re at an agency or brand, you’ve likely got a team member (or an entire team) who will be more than happy to point out that you really should stop using commas to join independent clauses already.
5. Rewrite anything ambiguous
As the owners of JAPADOG learned, ambiguity breeds confusion. Before posting, ask yourself if what you’ve written could be misunderstood. If it could, look for a clearer way to write it.
“Biweekly” is a good example of an ambiguous term to avoid:
Biweekly: Twice a week
Biweekly: Every two weeks
Sorry about that. https://t.co/8FBUonz7yq
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) August 6, 2016
When the dictionary apologizes for a definition, you know it’s time to look for another word.
6. Know the difference between good and bad compulsiveness
Yes, the rules of grammar and usage are important. No, every violation of these rules isn’t an error.
In The Elements of Editing (written in 1982, but still a good read), veteran editor Arthur Plotnik shares examples of bad compulsiveness (fussing over minor grammar and formatting rules) and good compulsiveness (obsessively rewriting a headline until it’s perfect).
Plotnik’s advice holds up today. When editing, keep your focus on making content as effective and engaging as possible, and on catching errors that actually affect readability and clarity.
Another editor whose take on this I love is Carol Saller, author of The Subversive Copy Editor and editor of the The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A. Her book is a worthwhile read on how editors can “resist compulsions, banish insecurities, and develop habits of carefulness, transparency, and flexibility.” If you’re a word nerd, follow her on Twitter at @SubvCopyEd.
"Bake for precisely 8-10 minutes." #copyeditorbaking
— SubversiveCopyEditor (@SubvCopyEd) July 2, 2017
7. Choose your style authorities
A day in the life of a social media manager is far too short to waste debating whether to use the serial comma. (Want my opinion? Just use it.)
Decide on a few style authorities to use as a tiebreaker in these discussions (or better, to look up words and usage rules before you start arguing with anyone). If you work at an agency or in-house for a brand, your brand team may have sorted all this out for you already.
You’ll want a style and usage guide for general questions of style, plus a dictionary for spelling. Here at Hootsuite, we follow the Associated Press Stylebook for usage and style and Merriam-Webster for spelling (both have handy online versions, though you’ll pay a few bucks a month for the AP stylebook).
As your house style matures, you’ll likely diverge from at least some of the spellings and usage rules in your style authorities of choice—which is where your own style guide comes in.
8. Keep a house style guide
Every brand that publishes content should maintain a house style guide. A well-maintained style guide makes it easy for new writers on your team to get up to speed, and it ensures you’ll write content that’s consistent.
Established brands typically have more detailed and thorough style guides, especially if they’re in the publishing business. The Chicago Manual of Style is pretty much the gold standard for print, and the AP Stylebook is a popular one for journalism and general writing. I’ve long been a fan of the Mailchimp Content Style Guide, which perfectly strikes a balance between providing just enough guidance to write well without getting into overwhelming detail.
Your style guide doesn’t need to be beautifully designed or comprehensive, especially at first. Just create a document where you record style decisions as you make them, so you’ll never need to make the same decision twice. A cheat sheet of off-brand content or other words and phrases to ban is a helpful section to include.
If you’re ready to get started creating your house style guide, here’s where to start.
9. Know what works on your networks
Creating content that’s free of brand disasters, embarrassing typos, and inconsistent stylistic choices is a good baseline from which to start—but there’s not much point crafting perfectly edited content if it doesn’t inspire engagement and response from your audience.
Part of your job as an editor is to learn what resonates with your audience and do more of it. Learn how to measure the effectiveness of your content. Learn to use hashtags. Learn what works on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Help your team create and deliver more of what works.
10. Get help from technology
An editor’s job is to help writers deliver great content. Good old-fashioned copy editing is one way you can help, but there are a growing number of software tools that can do some of the heavy lifting for you.
Check out our list of writing tools and try using some of them with your team. I’m a fan of the Hemingway App for removing unnecessary verbiage, and of Grammarly for checking grammar, spelling, and internal consistency.
While you’re checking out Grammarly, I also recommend subscribing to their blog, if just for their cheeky editor-baiting welcome email:
11. Build editing into your social workflow
If you work at an agency or in-house for a brand, you probably already use social media management software to manage multiple social networks and accounts.
An essential feature of this type of software is the ability to manage approval workflows. Hootsuite’s Team, Business, and Enterprise plans let you set up your teams and workflows to prevent innocent errors—as well as not-so-innocent rogue posts.
HMV could have benefited from workflow and approval features during their very public Twitter meltdown:
12. Write well
If you’re going to presume to improve the content a writer has agonized over, it’s a good idea to put yourself through a little of that agony yourself.
At the very least, practicing the craft of writing yourself will make you a more sympathetic editor. It will also help you continue developing a nuanced feel for the finer points of language—something that’s indispensible in both writers and editors.
If you haven’t read The Elements of Style, get it and read it now. It’s a classic and a quick read that covers the elementary rules of usage and composition every writer should master.
And for guidance on writing for social media, you need look no further than the wealth of guidance on this blog. We’ve written a wealth of advice on how to write calls to action, clickable content, and content that converts. Want to write faster? Want resources for non-writers? Inspiration from people who will help you write better? Inspired tweets? It’s all here. Enjoy.
From saving your brand’s reputation to helping your team grow as writers, you play a key role as a steward and champion of great content. In the words of Arthur Plotnik, “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. We edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”