A Fourth of July lesson in the value of editors

Editing The Declaration of Independence

Those who devalue the work of editors ought to consider history. Perhaps the greatest single contribution of an editor to a written work can be found in The Declaration of Independence. Early drafts of the most important document of the United States of America show a lot of changes in word choice in the process of writing. Thomas Jefferson had a venerable editorial committee: John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who wrote extensive comments in the margins.

In a crucial draft of the Declaration, Jefferson smudged out the word subjects in favor of the word citizens. Archivists have the technology to see the change for the first time, using special spectral technology to decipher the intent of manuscript authors.

Imagine if Jefferson had used the word subjects rather than citizens. For many, it would seem that the United States was merely replacing one tyranny with another, rather than crafting a system of government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” It seems plausible that this one edit changed the course of history. Not all edits have the same effect, of course. But as an IBM study suggests, their value can be measured.

Why do organizations devalue editors?

Editors are seen as an unnecessary step in the content process. “All they do is make it hard to publish what we want to publish on the Web.” I’ve heard it many a time; a few times from a person pointing the finger squarely in my direction. As much as I try to show that I’m just trying to help, that my efforts are just trying ensure that my company’s brand is represented in the best possible light, it doesn’t work. Somehow editors are viewed as an extra cog in the machinery. “When we go to a lean six sigma process, we will be able to eliminate editors.” That is just the latest in cost cutting models editors have had to defend themselves against.

Anyone who has ever written anything for publication can cite chapter and verse about how they have been saved by a good editor. Even if editors don’t make changes, having a second set of eyes with a different perspective on the audience allows writers to relax and create better work. But measuring their value is another story.

How to measure the value of editors

Because editors are often seen as unnecessary, we at IBM conducted a study to demonstrate their value for some of our marketing pages. We took a sample of unedited pages with high traffic from across our various business units and ran them through Dave Harlan, the editing lead for the group that creates a lot of our marketing content. We then ran an A/B test, where we served the unedited versions to a random sample of users and the edited versions to the rest of the users. We then measured engagement (defined as clicks to desired links on the page) on those pages over the course of a month.

The results were astonishing. The mean difference in engagement was 30 percent across the set of pages. And the standard deviation was one percent–we got a 30 percent improvement on the desired call to action for the pages across the board. Now it was just one test and it needs to be replicated before we draw strong conclusions. Your mileage may vary depending on the quality of your editors (Dave is exceptional, by all accounts). But we can provisionally conclude that well edited pages do 30 percent better than unedited pages.

What would 30 percent better engagement do to your bottom line? I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions about how 30 percent better engagement might affect your business. But let’s put an end to all the talk about editors being unnecessary.