29. June 2021 - Jeffrey A. McGuire

How we Write and Edit at OSP. Podcast 01

In this episode, we share how we create empathetic, clear, and trustworthy communication through OSP’s unique editing workflow and Editing Codes.

In this, our very first proper episode (!), Felicity Brand and Jeffrey A. "jam" McGuire share the way we think about writing and editing strategic content at OSP. We are kicking off with an introduction to our editing workflow and our Editing Codes and how they help us create authentic communication.

Welcome to the Open Strategy Partners podcast, "Communicate, Connect, Grow!" At Open Strategy Partners, we specialize in strategic product communication. We help you communicate the value of what you do, connect you with the people who need to know about it, and grow.

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A structured editing workflow

Just like staring at a blank screen or piece of paper can lead to writer’s block, editing someone else’s work can be daunting. Where to start? How much to change? And why? We approach this challenge, like most things we do at OSP, with structure. Structure gives you a starting point, ground rules, and learnable, teachable processes that can improve over time.

In writing and editing, our process starts with a templated creative brief.

The Brief and the Positivity Pass

The first step for an editor at OSP doesn’t involve writing, but instead reading. "Briefs" live at the top of every written piece OSP creates, and they make the scope explicitly clear to the editor (or clients, or anyone else!). Jam elaborates, "With briefs, you fill in who the target audience is, the challenges they’re having that we’re addressing, and what action we want them to take next."

After the editor scans the brief, the second step is to conduct their "Positivity Pass." Felicity Brand, a writer and editor at OSP, explains. "You read the piece through in its entirety, and you call out the pieces that are particularly well written and that really nail the brief." 

Felicity emphasizes the importance of the Positivity Pass. "It helps give the writer a boost, for a start. Everyone likes to see that their work is recognized. It also reinforces when a writer is doing something well, and we want them to continue doing things that way. And finally, it shows the writer that the editor has considered and recognized the effort put into a written piece."

Meet the Matryoshka: Our "Russian nesting doll" method

After the brief and the Positivity Pass come the four phases of the structured editing framework. Sometimes we liken it to a Russian nesting doll because of the way each phase encapsulates the next one until you’re down to the smallest unit. The four phases are:

  • A. Scope & Narrative Structure
  • B. Flow & Readability
  • C. Style & Phrasing
  • D. Choice of Words

Jam explains the first phase, "Scope and Narrative Structure is checking if it makes logical sense to go from A to B to C to D. And to identify if there’s anything extraneous. With Flow and Readability, I ask ’Is it well written enough, are there transitions between the sections, and are they well done?’"

After Flow & Readability comes Style & Phrasing, and finally, the smallest atomic unit, Choice of Words. Throughout each phase of the editing workflow, the OSP Editing Codes play a crucial role.

Jeffrey A. McGuire waving hands explaining editing procedure diagram

OSP Editing Codes

The Editing Codes we use are unique to OSP. Their invention and implementation a direct result of jam’s experience writing and editing professionally. He says, "Often, I would get a piece of writing back where my boss only had time to look at 20% of it, or it might disappear into the ’black box,’ and I’d never see it again. Or it’s published somewhere, but my ideas got turned around and changed, and it’s not what I wrote — but my name’s still on it."

His struggle is a familiar one for many writers and editors; good writing is subjective, after all, and there are often no standardized processes for editing. Jam says, "With our writing and editorial process, I wanted to get rid of the ’black box,’ and instead turn it into an exchange between peers, as well as a learning process." 

Jam wanted to define what "good writing" is more clearly. Translating that definition into concrete, actionable best practices turned into the Editing Codes we use at OSP every day. 

Felicity and jam’s favorite editing codes:

  • LEDE: Don’t bury the lede! Make sure your main idea is out front and obvious. An OSP favorite. 
  • LIST and WALL: A wall of text is not very readable or visually interesting. Use lists, bullets, and block quotes to break up your writing instead.
  • SPOCK: Be logical! Put sentences and concepts in an order that makes sense, make sure you explain yourself, and avoid logical fallacies.
  • CRISP: Keep things concise and snappy.
  • PAX: Avoid violent communication. No war or violence metaphors.
  • FUD: Avoid sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Instead of criticizing competitors, highlight the value you bring.

An OSP editor will keep these codes in mind during the Positivity Pass and the 4 phases of the editing process. We note where the work is strongest (with a ++ CODENAME) and where the text could use some improvement. This takes some practice but soon becomes second nature. Felicity admits, "The Editing Codes took a little getting used to. Initially, they seemed like a bit of extra work that I had to do. But now, these codes help me give feedback because I’m able to tie it back to the writing guidelines that we have at OSP. They are a great tool for me as a writer and an editor." 

Felicity adds, "Editing is a conversation. It’s not a hierarchical positioning of the writer being underneath the big scary editor. Any edits I make, I always revisit to see if the author has responded or what their take on it was because it really is a two-way street." Jam agrees. "The Editing Codes help us become better editors because you have to communicate why you did something along the way."

Creating good communication takes practice — join us!

We believe good communication is built on pillars of empathy, clarity, and trust. We strive to live those values through our editing workflow and Editing Codes. The codes are part of a living, breathing system that we’re still refining. We hope you’ll come and join us as we keep nerding out about writing, editing, and all things communication! 

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Episode Transcript

Here’s a transcript of this episode, for your AI-enhanced reading pleasure!  Please forgive our listening and typing robots if they got anything wrong, they do fast better than perfect.

Jeffrey A. McGuire  0:06  
Hello, this is Communicate, Connect, Crow the Open Strategy Partners podcast.

Felicity Brand  0:13  
Today, this is Communicate, Connect, Grow, the Open Strategy Partners podcast.

Jeffrey A. McGuire  0:34  
My name is Jeffrey A. McGuire. Most people call me, Jam, I am with Felicity Brand. We are at a company called Open Strategy Partners where we do strategic product communication. And we think a lot about strategy. And we think a lot about communication. We’ve started a podcast because we want to share our thinking and share the thinking of our friends and peers and colleagues. And we want to learn and we want to show you what we’re up to. And we want to talk about this. Kicking things off because it was really hard choosing where to kick things off, because there’s a lot going on, we decided to talk about editing copy. So editing is when someone’s written something, and you need to sort of bring it up to the delivery level, or the level where you want to show your client. So in the phase of our work, and I’ll make this super short. So Open Strategy Partners, we’re a group of technologists and communicators. And when we think about communication with our clients, hopefully over time, we want to enable you to do this as well, we have a strategic framework, that’s a lot of classic marketing stuff with a few bits that we’ve thrown in of our own. And we come up with, we want to talk about the official line, right is Communicate, Connect, Grow, we want to help you communicate the value of what you do to the people who need to know about it, to help you grow. So we do a bunch of strategic planning to understand who you need to say what to and in what ways, and then we get on with planning the writing. And we have a structure around that and we write it. And then at some point, somebody gets to edit it and there come in our editing codes. You do a bunch of editing, at OSP, Felicity, 

Felicity Brand  2:21  
Yes, I do. 

Jeffrey A. McGuire  2:22  
Why don’t you introduce yourself to us, tell us who you are and what you do and how editing codes feature in your day.

Felicity Brand  2:31  
Good day, everyone. I’m Felicity, I do do a lot of editing in my role at OSP. And that, I would say is primarily because I’m asynchronous. So because I’m based in Melbourne, Australia, it makes sense for me to edit my colleague’s writing while they’re asleep, so that they can wake up and have their, have their work reviewed by me and they can review my review and and get on with their day. These editing codes that we’re talking about, they were new to me when I started at OSP, two years ago, and they took a little bit of getting used to. And that’s because initially, they seemed like a little bit of overhead, bit of extra work that I had to do. It’s very easy for me as a writer to skim through what someone else has written, and try and improve it. But these codes help me to give feedback, because I’m tying it back to one of the writing principles, one of the writing guidelines that we have at OSP. Not only are they a great tool for me as a writer, and an editor, they can also be a very useful tool for someone who maybe doesn’t write as a day job. So you might be a developer, and you’ve got to review something that maybe someone in your marketing team has written, or vice versa. You may be in the marketing team, your dev has written something you need to review it, these codes can be your friend. So Jam, I don’t know if I answered your question. I really

Jeffrey A. McGuire  4:04  
I think you answered it wonderfully. And the cliche tech industry way to describe what you said is like we have "follow the sun editorial services". But the beautiful thing is that we can do these handoffs and all of the things that we do we have sort of modular processes that have a number of steps in them that we try to define and keep clear, because they’re well defined, we can hand them off to each other and it’s really a wonderful bonus to have someone significantly offset in the timezone who’s who’s so great at the job. In Cologne, Cologne is the is the place where there’s the legend of the heintzelmanchin and the Hansel mentioned are the little elves that would help the tradespeople finish their jobs overnight. So you know the story of the shoemaker who leaves all his stuff on the bench and gets up in the morning and then their shoes done and everything that was in Cologne, that story and there’s even there’s a fountain downtown that that celebrates them. So for a company that got started in Cologne, Germany, you are our first official hindson mentioned. And we can put that on your business card if you if you would like.

Felicity Brand  5:07  
Great Oh, yeah, just a T shirt, that would be fantastic.

Jeffrey A. McGuire  5:13  
I think I think that we can make that happen. The editing codes are one of the things that we came up with ourselves based on some of my experience, becoming a writer becoming a professional writer, and some of my frustrations with how that works in my experience, so I would have the experience of getting some sort of writing assignment blog about this thing, or make this article or here, you’ve got to, you’ve got to slot in a magazine, what do you want to write about? And I would say something and they say, Okay, give us experts. And then in all of these cases, I would write something and then sort of metaphorically chuck it over the wall. And, and I might see something back where my boss had time to look at 20% of it, and then got distracted, or I might never see it again. And it comes out with my name under it somewhere in public. And it’s not what I wrote, and my ideas got turned around and changed, or it’s better or I don’t agree, or it’s worse, but it’s just a total black box, and things disappeared. So early in the days of the company, we were trying to define what is quote unquote, good writing, you know, what’s, what are best practices? And how do we share the work. And there’s a number of things that we are going to talk about over time. One of the things is the writing process is very structured. So we have things that we call briefs, where you fill in, who the target audience is, what the challenges that they’re having, that we’re addressing with that communication, where we want them to go read more, or what we want them to do next, and so on. Less experienced writers, it’s hard to write and less experienced writers really, really struggle to get the words out sometimes. And we recognize and we respect that effort. And it’s really hard. If you’re not used to living in the editorial process, it’s really hard to get your writing back. And it’s just like all red lines, and all rearranged and just so different. And it’s hard to let go of your babies your words, that thing that you just struggled so much with. And maybe you think that the articles better for it. But if you don’t understand why then how do you write better than next time? So I wanted to get rid of the black box, and I wanted to be able to teach and I wanted to be able to learn. So I wanted to turn the writing and editorial process into an exchange between peers, and I want to turn it into a learning process. So if I’m editing your text, Felicity, and you give me something and we at OSP, we never say "This was wrong. And now it’s right. This was yours. Now it’s corrected," we say, "your original, and here’s my suggestion, or here’s a revision, or based on our principles in our documentation, you know, we don’t generally we prefer not to do this thing. So here’s what I’m suggesting." You can take any one of my suggestions about a choice of words, a turn of phrase, whatever it is, and you can say, boom, yes, I agree. That makes my piece better. Thank you. You can say, You know what? No, I don’t, I think I want to take that one, because X, Y, Z. And even though there’s no change, and even though we may disagree, you thought about this, and you you have a why you think it’s better and so it’s been justified. And then we should generally accept that, or, you know, duke it out which one is one of the one or the other. And in the third case, and this happens to me a lot, I write something, I get a suggestion back, and you know, hey, presto, I see there’s a third way that’s even better than both. And so working together significantly improves all of our output. And it’s really, it’s really gratifying. And it’s not a mystery anymore. And you can learn to be a better writer. And frankly, you can learn to be a much better editor because you have to communicate why you did something along the way. And we worked in one more thing can you tell us about your experience of this, and especially with what we call the positivity pass.

Felicity Brand  8:54  
The way we have our collection of codes, we have structured them according to the general phases of editing, which Jam, you like to talk about as a Russian doll analogy, but I’ll let you talk about that. So the positivity pass is there are no red pins, as you say, we do like to recognize the amount of work that goes into crafting a written piece. So the positivity pass is really important. It plays into the ethos of OSP. And that is that you read the piece through in its entirety. And you call out the pieces that are bang on, they’re particularly well written, that really nail perhaps the brief, the call to action. So that helps well it gives the writer a boost for a start. Everyone likes to see that their work is recognized. It also I guess, reinforces when a writer is doing something, well, we want them to continue doing things that way. And I suppose it does just show the writer that as the editor they’re not just picking out all the things that need to be improved, we have we have read it and considered it and recognize the effort, really,

Jeffrey A. McGuire  10:07  
If we have a given code, color might be one where it’s like, so in the positivity pass, we can use all of our codes and we write plus, plus in the comments, and then the code and say, I love this turn of phrase, wow. Or, you know, your, you know, metaphor about a log jam, you know, in the process was so fantastic. And let’s extend that across the whole article. And the other thing, as an editor, we do do significant structural changes, and like really get into things sometimes. And we work in suggestion mode in Google Docs, and it ends up looking like nothing original Is there even when it’s not true. Marking things that we liked out of the gate also helps the editor not destroy the good work that the author has put into this. And I think that’s really important. So in terms of editing process, I call it the Russian doll, because we have our brief, which I mentioned before, and that tells me what the article should be about and what it should cover. And I can look and I can say at the broadest level, I can scan it, and I can say, Well, I think it hit all the topics. And I think that for now, that call to action makes sense. But I’m going to come back, and I’m going to reassess that right at the end. And then I’m going to look at that. So that’s the scope of what we do. And then I’m going to look at the narrative structure. Does this make logical sense to go from A to B to C, D? And is there anything that’s extraneous there, then the next phase is flow and readability. So then I really start reading is, is it well written enough? Are there transitions between the sections are they well done, and so forth, and on down to style and phrasing, and specific word choice at the smallest level, so I picture these, I picture these Russian dolls, you know, there’s some tricks along the way that I’ve learned, for example, basically, I try to write the, if I’m writing a draft of something, I try to write the introduction first, based on the information in the brief, and then plan out my sections, and write all of that, and then write the conclusion. And basically, by the time I’ve written the conclusion, either that actually becomes the introduction, and I write a different conclusion. Or I chuck out the original introduction, and I write another one, because I’m never in the zone enough at the beginning of the process to really nail what we have to get right up top. And as web writers, there’s a bunch of you know, it’s not just not burying the lede, it’s sort of getting keywords and key concepts, and and how is that going to fit into the meta description for search results, and all those extra wonderful things that we have to worry about in this day and age. So that’s the Russian doll, that’s the positivity pass comes somewhere right at the beginning of that, like in the first read, I think, in reality, Felicity, I bet you don’t do that in that order every time, right?

Felicity Brand  12:40  
No, not every time. I guess it depends if I’m familiar with the writer, certainly, if it’s a piece I’ve written a piece that I’m reviewing, perhaps that a client has written, I will, I guess be a little bit more formal about my workflow. Because I want to respect the writer, as we said before, who may not have writing as their day job, they may be a UX designer, but certainly I am. I’m very familiar with our collection of codes now. And I am so used to doing this workflow that yes, I think I am pretty good at working in a positivity pass, at the same time as editing the main, the main piece,

Jeffrey A. McGuire  13:22  
as I said, one of my goals was to have a process that was open, and flexible, and transparent, and kind of honest, and an exchange between peers. We would like to share what we do. So we are planning a series of kind of mini episodes of the podcast where we’re going to introduce and discuss briefly, each and all of our codes. And the codes are still definitely a living breathing system. I think we might retire a couple, I think there’s a couple missing. Maybe you’ll help us discover which ones are missing. So on the one hand, please subscribe to this thing to hear about all of these editing codes. Plus, we’re going to talk much, much more about our writing, editing, and communication practices. We’re going to have interesting guests on and we’re going to have entire episodes about strategy and planning and leadership. So in the end, we’re going to talk we’re going to have Communicate, Connect and Grow, sort of sub themes. Communicate is all about everything about communication and Connection is meeting interesting peers and leaders and thinkers, in technology, in communication, and so on. And Grow is all about our strategic practices. So I’m pretty excited about that. If you would like to learn more about how to be a better writer and a better communicator. Before we get all of these different codes out and all of these materials onto our website, you’re really really welcome to get in touch with us. Our website is obviously open strategy partners.com You can email us hello at open strategy partners.com, you can find us on Twitter, we’re at open underscore strategy. And what we have to offer is a series of writer enablement workshops, where we can take you through in in a few hours, we can take you through everything from a brief strategic overview through the conceptual use of the brief and into content production, choosing channels, doing the writing in the writing, the writing, and editing. And along with that, we’ll be very happy to share with you a full list of these codes as we have them now, and the writing documentation and so on. So we’re really, really excited about enabling you to do this, yourself and to do that, and to communicate better the value of what you do to the people who need to hear about it. And we’re putting all of this up on the website and into these podcasts as we go. But I think it’s gonna take a while because it’s been a while building and practicing it. Anyway, I’m pretty excited about that. I have one kind of cute workshop story about that, would you like to hear it Felicity?

Felicity Brand  16:06  
I’d love to jam.

Jeffrey A. McGuire  16:14  
You know, the amount of eye roll that you worked into that one was getting stiff competition with with my then 16 year old daughter who you know, was starting to get over me. So tell us an anecdote Felicity?

Felicity Brand  16:31  
Look, I don’t have an anecdote, I would just like to touch on the idea of editing being a conversation. So it’s not a hierarchical positioning of writer being underneath the big scary editor that you mentioned, we use Google Docs, we use suggestion mode, and we use comments. And any edits I make, I always revisit to see if the author has responded or or what their take on it was because it really is a two way street. You know, I’m really excited about these particular series of the podcast, the editing codes. And I really hope people will join us for a deep dive in a mini episode to learn more about how to apply them, because I think it’s really interesting. I hope other people want to nerd out with us about words.

Jeffrey A. McGuire  17:16  
So one time, we did a writer enablement workshop at a client’s office in Germany, and it’s a wonderful client. And they they they’re very good communicators, and they have a really nice company culture. And we had, we did sort of strategic preparation in the morning and designed a bunch of briefs and then had people write draft articles. And then in the afternoon, we had their sort of writing partner, like they swapped articles, and then they were, then they were supposed to, you know, edit each other. So we had this page of it varies from month to month. But you know, it’s been anywhere between 50 and 80 editing codes in our list. And the two founders of this company had each other’s articles. And one of them literally had a page of 70 codes, and went through the article, I guess, 70 times looking at each code and where he could possibly use it. And it was just like, okay, and it’s so systematic, and it’s so German, and it’s like, I trust a tech company that is that thorough, right? Like he was doing quality testing on this thing. But it was, it was, it was kind of amazing. And it was really beautiful. And the article came out pretty well, I hope they learned something, right. And the way we have these things listed, there’s a short bit of documentation next to each one and and we’re kind of expanding on that documentation. Now, as we start to publish these on our website. Do you have a favorite editing code Felicity or two?

Felicity Brand  18:47  
Oh, we have obvious ones lead don’t bury the lead. What else have I got. List, it’s good to break out your points into a list format to for readability. My favorite one would be

Jeffrey A. McGuire  19:02  
a close relative of list is wall. Wall is, is. Um, so we have, we have another set of concepts that we’re going to touch on a lot. So we think about empathy and clarity and trust when we communicate. And in terms of clarity, the wall code is a hint not to write a wall of text, use lists, use block quotes. Write another header because too many words at once are, you know, too many what it’s

Felicity Brand  19:33  
Exactly. It’s hard to choose a favorite how do you choose your favorite child Jam? No, they’re not my children. But they all get used apart from maybe one or two. And they’re all useful. I think they’re all meaningful so I’m not giving an example PAX. Avoid violent communication. You used COLOR. CRISP, try to keep your points concise and

Jeffrey A. McGuire  20:00  
Yeah and colorful rights nappy.

Felicity Brand  20:02  
The one that I want to introduce is FUD. OSP doesn’t use fear or uncertainty or doubt in, in their writing. So I’ve often wanted to sometimes call that out in written written pieces, but we didn’t have a code.

Jeffrey A. McGuire  20:16  
And now we do. Yeah, that goes that goes hand in hand with the idea that well, OSP have, we’ve made a series of mindful choices over the time that we’ve been working together, and we have decided not to do negative communication. We won’t create copy for you that criticizes the competition. We will help you turn whatever your thinking is into highlighting the positive of the value of what you do the benefits of using it the the good points, and so on. And we are happy to talk about the competition or make a comparison or what have you, but we’re not interested in in negativity. So I really love the code. I really love the code Spock, Spock. We’re gonna say that Yeah, yes. Because Spock means Spock is like, be logical. Put it in a logical order. Make sure you you you explain yourself.

Felicity Brand  21:14  
Yeah, that’s right. Avoid logical fallacies. That’s a great one. I do like Spock.

Jeffrey A. McGuire  21:20  
So I’m pretty excited about this podcast. I’m pretty excited about our work. And I’m, I’m really, really grateful to be working with you and all of our colleagues, Felicity. Let us do the wrap up the episode quiz. So if people want to learn more about communication from us, what can they do? 

Felicity Brand  21:42  
They could go to the website, open strategy partners.com, they could email us Hello at open strategy partners.com, they could hit us up on Twitter, open underscore strategy.

Jeffrey A. McGuire  21:57  
And in any of those channels, they could get in touch to talk with us about our writer enablement workshops. And if you have any other questions about how we work, those channels are great. If you would like to suggest a topic or talk with us or whatever. got questions about this already. We’d really really love to hear them. So Felicity, I think it’s beer o’clock in Melbourne right now. It’s sorry. And over here. It’s definitely next espresso o’clock. So at the sound of the French Canadian guitars, that was our brand new open strategy partners OSP podcast communicating Okay, the neck Connect. See you next time, everyone. Thank you. Thanks, Felicity. Bye bye.


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