By Chris Williams published June 21, 2010

How to Avoid a Never-Ending Edit Cycle (The Dangers of “Just a Few More Changes”)

Meet Lou. Lou is a marketing manager for XYZ Corp.

Lou receives new website content from his copywriter and sends it to the internal team to review. The sales manager emails him afterward. “I love it!” he says. “I have just a few small changes to make.”

Lou’s brain twitches. A “few small changes,” you say?

Lou receives the “edited” content. Lou must now resist the urge to yell obscenities that’d make a college football coach blush.  Why? Well…

  • All five of the most common grammar mistakes? They’re now present.
  • A five-line paragraph has been made out of one sentence.
  • “Few small changes” translated in this case means, “Let’s double the length by talking about ourselves incessantly!”

So Lou has his writer edit much of this out and sends the content in again. The sales manager responds with even MORE “small changes,” like…

  • The content’s entire progression – moving the reader from Point 1 to Point 2, all the way to the call to action – is now mangled by 4 unrelated topics.
  • Corporate-speak has been jammed in at every possible point.
  • The entire piece is now virtually illegible.

So Lou has it edited once more. His writer tries desperately to fix the content! Another draft comes back. Lou pleads for it to be approved.

But the VP says, “Oh wait! I forgot a few more things until just now!”

As most of the marketing pros reading this know, this never-ending cycle of edits happens all the time. And too much of that time, what comes back to us for review is some weird mutated content that’d make HP Lovecraft stare.

A Project Backfiring: The Dangers of Back-and-Forth Content Changes

The reason this happens is simple. People want to give their own input, their own “two cents.” However, when boundaries aren’t set (or someone decides they’re a better writer than the one they are using), “two cents” can become “a suffocating pile of pennies” pretty fast.

When that happens, edit cycles lengthen. And when edit cycles lengthen, the project is in jeopardy. Risks like these can pop up:

  • Multiple edit rounds create more work to fix, eating up project time.
  • Everyone involved is in an awkward position. Who will be the one to stop the back-and-forth?
  • Lost time disrupts the project cycle and pushes back deadlines.
  • Everyone loses sight of the content’s original purpose – to inform/persuade CUSTOMERS.

Oftentimes people don’t even realize that too many edits will affect their audience readership. Content that’s been edited to death can actually harm readership – by turning off an audience from any engagement the client had with their previous content.

Now of course, editing is necessary. Maybe the writer didn’t get a piece of information and its absence shows. Or something isn’t explained accurately. That’s why content should always be reviewed before it goes live.

Taking over the writing, though, isn’t a good idea. Isn’t this why we use copywriters in the first place?

How to Break the Edit Cycle and Still Deliver Content Your Clients Will Like

Don’t let endless editing ruin the whole project. Take steps ahead of time to put a limit on the content editing cycle.

These are four suggestions anyone involved in marketing can use to break a lengthening edit cycle.

Have a plan
If there’s a content strategy in place beforehand, it can serve as a buffer against endless edits. “Not in the plan” comes close to “not in the budget.” People are less likely to keep changing things if they’re aware it will mess up someone else’s plan.

Remember that you don’t have to do it all at once
If the client/manager wants to add more things every round, suggest leaving further additions like this for the future. Content is no longer static; maybe a change that they want now might be better used next month? Offer this as a suggestion.

Remind them of their wallets
Remind the client/manager that you’re in danger of exceeding the project’s alloted time.  This is especially effective if you are have hired a copywriter:  you’ll have to pay extra if they want another round of edits. Hear those brakes squeal.

Stick to Two Rounds of Edits
In initial project discussions (and your standard contract), lay out  a clear editing policy. I call it “getting ahead of the collapse.”

As a freelance copywriter, my recommendation for such a policy? Stick to one simple principle: Two rounds of editing incorporated in every project. Any more costs extra. You can use this same principle when using internal copywriters as well.

Be specific about this too. Point out what each round entails.

  • First round: Major changes (e.g. rewriting segments).
  • Second round: Style changes and/or minor edits.

Avoiding a never-ending edit cycle is always preferable to breaking one in progress. But as marketing pros, we will run into both many times. So take the precautions you can ahead of time to avoid an incessant editing cycle. And if one comes about anyway, try to break it using these steps. Whichever works best at the time.

Have any more tips to improve the editing process? Got a “never-ending edit” story like this one? Share it with us in the comments.

Author: Chris Williams

Chris is a freelance Web writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Whenever a project or shiny object isn't distracting him, Chris blogs about Web writing, content marketing and (occasionally) SEO at blue-ferret.com. If you're in any creative industry, follow his heavily-satirical "Copywriter's Internal Monologue" tweet series at @blueferret.

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  • jefflogden

    Sounds like the definition of a camel “A horse designed by a committee.”

    Jeff Ogden, the Fearless Competitor
    President, Find New Customers
    http://www.findnewcustomers.net

  • http://lauracreekmore.com Laura Creekmore

    Great points….and I'll add this one. You need to tell your stakeholders both WHY and HOW to edit when you send them a document in the first place. How about instructions that say something like:
    *We are wrapping up this copy by X date, and we need your input. Please let me know if we have missed a major point that customers need to know.

    And then don't forget to say something like:
    *Our editors will update all suggested additions for continuity, web writing best practices and corporate style.

    Then you're letting people know the boundaries in advance, and you're also letting them know that they don't have the final word.

  • http://www.scheierassociates.com Bob Scheier

    As another free-lance marketing writer, amen! I make the “two rounds of content” part of my regular agreements. Your suggestions for backing off the editing cycle are excellent. My question to others out there: What's the typical “edit cycle” (in edits and time) for a 300-400 word blog post? I want to know if I should be pushing back on my clients harder… 🙂

  • http://www.writespark.com Janice King

    Marcom managers will certainly relate to this post. Another scenario that can come up is when the subject experts haven't finished their thinking or discussion about marketing messages, product positioning, or even product features and benefits before the writing begins. Then they use the draft document as a way to organize their thoughts or as an internal political tool. Recognizing when this kind of activity is going on can be helpful for reducing wasted time and effort during reviews.

    I recently wrote a blog post about being a good SME that has useful points for document reviewers: http://writinghightech.typepad.com/writespark/2

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    I'd forgotten that one! Those poor camels.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    That's a good point – we tend to work better when we know boundaries. I'm also reminded of a point to make regarding the “how” of edits: “Highlight or call out any edits you've made in the original document.” Comparing document versions to find little tiny changes = big waste of time.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    I think that depends a little on the post topic Bob. If it's a detailed how-to or tech-related, you can afford a few days to a week “in cycle” to make sure everything's accurate. If it's related to a current news topic or hot social media discussion, that cycle's short!

  • http://www.globalcopywriting.com/ globalcopywrite

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the good tips defining what should happen in the “two rounds of edits”. I use this as part of my standard contract but haven't taken the extra step of defining the purpose of those edits.

    I've discovered, through experience, it pays to find out in the scoping part of the project who will be involved in the review. I recently had a project where the COO had final sign-off. He wasn't in any of the planning meetings and I didn't know he was going to be part of the approval process. The other thing I didn't know was that he was a frustrated writer. He took my already lengthy 12-page white paper and turned it into 24 pages. Because he was everyone's boss, my client was afraid of offending him. The short story is I was asked to “Rewrite the content but make it sound like you wrote in in the first place”. My hair is growing back in the spots where I pulled it out and my project fee ended up doubling but it wasn't a pleasant situation for any of us.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    Blech! Sympathies on that one. I had something like that happen with a case study project a couple years ago. It was for a small business, so I only dealt with two people…up until first revision though. Then in stepped a VP I didn't even know about, who had come from Sales at a bigger company. You can imagine the kind of things she did to that poor draft!

    Very good point about learning who's involved during scope. We've both learned that lesson the hard way! (Maybe I was blocking the whole incident out when I wrote this…)

  • Jody

    Boy, do I wish I had this advice, and the authority to enforce it when I was writing regulatory documents. I was forced to have signoff from 6 different departments, none of whom really knew why they were being asked to sign. And the they felt obligated to ask for changes in each copy. AAAUUUGGHGHGHGH!!!

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    Six departments?! Yikes. That's about all I can say, yikes. Were the documents applicable to all of them?

  • Marcello_dichiera

    Well I can see it is all the same, I thought just in Italy we are so picky… my experience was that after 3-4 rounds of editing just one day before the printing approval of a product magazine all the production was stopped by the head of Sales…

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    That sort of thing (sympathies by the way) falls under the “have a plan” umbrella. The head of Sales should have been informed of an editing limit/timetable, in order to curb last-minute monkey-wrenches like that. Now, because they WERE head of Sales they could have ignored this; I don't know how it was for you. Sometimes we just get tripped up.

  • http://www.WebDesignWebsiteDevelopment.com Web Design Services

    This is a great read for anyone, in any industry. Setting clear boundaries at the outset of a project will save you tons of headaches down the road!

  • Jennifer W

    I’m going to revive this thread based on an experience I had just a week ago, and add:

    Use a creative brief and write to an outline.

    I’ve used them internally, and on both the client and agency side. Having a creative brief gives you the “superordinate goal” you need to stop the edit cycle in its tracks. Make sure, too, that your creative brief includes a solid outline of the piece, and get sign-off on it. When anyone’s changes counter the initial direction as outlined, you can point to it. It stops endless niggling over semantics or personal preferences / style from sidetracking the point: what is this piece supposed to say? to whom? what is the call to action? is it clear?