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Effective thought leadership is only as strong as this relationship

The author-editor working relationship has the power to drive your thought leadership, and brand, forward—if managed correctly

Karen Houston is a senior editor for Long Dash's newsroom projects. She manages publication operations for leading global professional services firms.

This piece originally appeared as an article for ANA’s Marketing Knowledge Center’s Industry Insights.

In an era when every brand has a story to tell — and countless platforms on which to tell them — it has never been more important to get those stories right. Audiences have come to expect it. Whether they are average consumers or C-suite executives, they need brand stories to be useful. They want stories that enlighten or educate, not promote or sell.

And brands, especially B2B businesses, have come to embrace storytelling and thought leadership to build authority and trust with their audiences. Many view it as a tool in winning new business. Yet, according to a recent Harris Poll, only 20 percent of executives think their own brand’s thought leadership is effective. In essence, most thought leadership fizzles.

But that doesn’t mean a brand’s “thought leaders” — its subject matter experts, or SMEs — don’t have anything worthy to say. They hold the keys to the most compelling stories behind a company’s philosophy and its products and services. They just need some help.

One of the most effective ways to support and empower these experts is driven by an important relationship — the one they share with their editors.

Editors are the bridge between a brand’s experts and its audiences, translating knowledge, data, and insights into something accessible or even entertaining for audiences. When an SME hands over their article to editors, they’re sharing more than empirical knowledge. They share their particular voice, intellect, and creative decisions that reveal their personality.

When an SME hands over their article to editors, they're sharing more than empirical knowledge. They share their particular voice, intellect, and creative decisions that reveal their personality.

And now an editor will mark it up in red. Or not. There’s an art to managing this relationship, especially since it involves working together toward one goal — the advancement of the brand.

From our experience as editors working with our clients’ SMEs, here are a few things that will positively guide this relationship.

It’s not about you

As editors, we facilitate. We aid in bringing stories to fruition. We (hopefully) make them better. But this is the author’s work first. An editor shouldn’t inject their voice into the article. If something sounds a little goofy, but there are no errors, it won’t confuse the readers, and it’s the author’s voice, let it be. It doesn’t have to be the editor’s style to be clear, error-free writing.

Bringing the experts into the editing process by asking questions instead of going straight to making changes helps to retain their voice and ensure consistency of tone across the piece. When authors participate in the editing process, they’re collaborating with the editor, rather than being corrected by them.

Invite rather than instruct

Instead of deleting words outright or slashing and rewriting sentences without explanation, make the work collaborative and approach everything from a place of curiosity.

Here are examples of comments that are an invitation to collaborate:

  • Can you help me understand what you meant by this?
  • Am I correct in thinking this refers to XYZ?
  • The construction you have here works and is grammatical, but what do you think about this option: XYZ?
  • This part is not grammatical, so we need a different word here. What about XYZ?
  • What do you think of XYZ or something similar?

These questions leave room for authors to work with an editor’s feedback and infuse it with their own voice. They show that the editor is open to hearing the author’s perspective.

When an editor needs to delete or change something, it’s helpful to explain the decision in a comment. This way, the writer knows editorial decisions are not arbitrary. Then, provide at least one alternative suggestion so writers aren’t left at square one.

Editors should also provide positive feedback. If something is delightful, say so. “I like this!” The author may be more receptive to feedback when it’s a mixture of constructive and positive comments.

Save them (and yourself) time

Set expectations before authors start writing. Prompt writers to answer questions, such as: Who is the audience? Why does this story matter? What is it trying to achieve? What should the piece avoid? What is the tone? And logistical considerations, such as: How long should it be? How are sources cited? When is the deadline?

Meet in the outline and draft phases to ensure the story is headed in the right direction. Making little adjustments as it comes together is better than an author putting hours into writing something that isn’t quite right.

Show them what they achieved

Once the piece is published, show the author their published work and thank them for their contribution. If the story performed well, share engagement metrics. If it received positive feedback from colleagues to share, let the author know.

This is a crucial part of working with authors and a good practice for relationship-building. It gives the author a sense of achievement and gives editors the opportunity to express gratitude.

Make it easy

Nobody likes seeing a red pen all over their precious article. The way editors provide feedback impacts how likely it is that the author receives and considers the edits. It’s a subtle and maybe even a subconscious communication, but it’s powerful.

And remember, editors are also recipients of feedback, too. The points above apply to how editors receive feedback — with curiosity, the benefit of the doubt, and the knowledge that both parties are working toward the same goal.

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