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M*A*S*H and the art of copy-editing

You know what triage is don’t you? It’s when a bunch of people all turn up at A&E (the emergency room) together and the specialist nurse checks each one to quickly decide who needs treating first and who last.

It’s like the scene in M*A*S*H where Hawkeye and Trapper John (or BJ depending on your era) go round the casualties just flown in assessing who needs treatment NOW.

And the thing is, it isn’t the ones screaming the loudest who you treat first. If they’re able to scream, they can wait. It’s the silent ones you need to get a doctor to ASAP.

Now I want to teach you the triage approach to copy-editing.

Because often the problems that scream the loudest aren’t the ones you need to address first.

Let’s say you’ve written your first draft. Or your copywriter has submitted theirs. You take a cursory glance over the first paragraph and you notice a spelling mistake, or maybe some clumsy grammar.

The mistake screams at you – “my style hurts” – and before you realise it, you’re combing the rest of the copy looking for more examples of misplaced apostrophes, spelling errors or nouns being used as verbs – “impacted” perhaps. Pedants in particular love doing this. But you know what?

They don’t matter. Or not yet.

Instead, you need to take a look at all the patients. Because it’s the quiet ones who often need help first.

Here are some sample problems you could find in a first draft. Arrange them in the order you think they should be dealt with. Then let’s see if your thoughts and mine coincide.

  • Lack of benefits copy
  • Poor choice of typeface
  • Loose structure
  • Spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes
  • Using library images
  • Weak or self-indulgent headline
  • Refers to reader as “some of you”
  • Insufficient emphasis
  • No, or seriously confused, call to action

OK, now we’ll arrange them into the three main groups for treatment, in order of seriousness.

Very serious – require immediate treatment

Weak or self-indulgent headline. Most pieces of copy have a headline. And if they do, it needs to be strong. Playing around with puns, not drawing the reader into the body copy, or telling the whole story are all near-terminal errors. Fastest repair job? Appeal to the reader’s self-interest.

Sample treatment: “How to save £5 a month on your mobile phone bill without making fewer calls”

Lack of benefits copy. This patient has plenty of description but it’s all about the product, not about the prospect. You feel yourself shouting “So what?” right in their ear, but they’re too self-absorbed to hear you. We need to start figuring out what the reader wants to hear, not what we want to say.

Sample treatment: “By joining the East Anglia Koi Breeders Club you can enjoy your hobby more and even make a little cash.”

No, or seriously confused, call to action. This is your main selling weapon: if you don’t ask for the order, all the fine writing in the world comes to naught. So you need to state what you want your reader to do, preferably in the imperative mood.

Sample treatment: “Order now”

Moderately serious – can wait

Loose structure. Maybe the beginning feels like it should be in the middle. Or the testimonials are too near the end. But the copy is selling and the headline is a lulu. This can wait for now. Even if you sent it the way it is, it would probably bring in orders.

Refers to reader as “some of you”. This is far from ideal. Your reader knows they are an individual, not a group. But it isn’t fatal. As long as the benefits copy is strong enough, people will keep reading.

Spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes. OK, now you can take a look at usage. Not because you’re producing a work of literature. But because if you leave the mistakes in, the reader gets distracted from your message. Now they’re trying to cure the patient… when they should be buying something.

Minor injuries – leave till last

Poor choice of typeface. Yes, yes, I know. Typefaces can make a big difference. But until you’ve fixed everything else, they must remain in the waiting room. As long as you don’t see something egregious like Comic Sans in a letter to company presidents, it’s OK for now.

Insufficient emphasis. Is bold OK here, or should it be italics? Maybe some fake highlighter would work. Or underlining. Yes, or maybe we could animate the whole thing with dancing squirrels. This is what’s known in the trade as “tiddling around” and it MUST wait until everything else is fixed.

Using library images. So it’s a library shot of smiling executives. It’s not great. But it’s more of a professional’s niggle. Most of your readers probably won’t notice. And it’s not worth worrying about if your order form is confusing.

And I’m telling you this because

When you’re reviewing a piece of copy, yours or someone else’s (especially someone else’s), it’s very tempting to jump on the first mistake you see and start with that. You can waste a lot of time treating minor injuries while the patient bleeds to death in front of you.

Follow my copy triage process and you can guarantee you’ll have fixed the most important things – even when time is short.

Categories: Editing and Maslen on Marketing.

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