Firehead’s interview series on jobs we recruit for continues with Ali Turnbull, a leading content editor and strategist based in the north of England. What does being a content editor involve, what skills do you need to get into web editing and how much does it pay?
To the taxman I am the company director of fit to print limited, but you can call me Ali – or, on Twitter, @fit_to_print. I’m a web content editor and budding content strategist.
What does your job involve?
I work with web designers and developers to help their clients declutter and simplify their web content. If you look at the Skillset Hive that Kristina Halvorson often cites, you’ll find me buzzing around in the blue zone between the writer and the content strategist.
The wordsmiths on this diagram are blue for a reason – we have been out in the cold for too long while the designers and developers have strutted their stuff. As a result, there’s a lot of content up in cyberspace that really shouldn’t be there. For example, often I’ll find a client has told different stories, at different times, in html, pdf and print, and I’ll help them align their content across all media.
What does your work involve in practice?
At the top level, my work on a website begins with a detailed audit of existing content. I’ll help clients decide which pages they want to keep and which they want to take down, rewrite, or tweak. I don’t tell them this is content strategy, I just introduce a bunch of common sense by stealth, so that they end up thinking it was their idea.
At page level, I look at every word, as big on my screen as I can make it. I kick out the words that don’t help the client to persuade, inform or support their readers.
What kind of background or education do you need?
- The basics of grammar and spelling.
- A willingness to look things up and check where you are not sure.
- Being smarter about Microsoft Word than the average bear – if you’re in the UK, I recommend the on-screen editing day courses I’ve done with the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.
You don’t have to be an English graduate – I’m not. Through my career I’ve found the structure of scientific reporting – abstract-introduction-method-results-discussion-conclusion – has helped me ask the right questions and produce content that is consistent and well-structured.
How did you get into web editing?
After a career in journalism, I moved from print to web when my friend Daphne Metland, founder of BabyCentre, referred me for a job she couldn’t do because she was working for the competition. I turned 80,000 printed words from the Bounty babycare booklets into web pages – via a 56k modem. It was like watching paint dry.
What is the biggest challenge you face?
I often experience ‘London Bus syndrome’ – wait ages, and then three double-deckers come along at once. Cash flow can be tricky at times. All the experts say keep up the daily marketing but it’s hard when you have your face buried in a big editing project. That’s why Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are so useful for keeping and building a daily profile for my business.
What do you enjoy most about being a web content editor?
Working remotely: Being able to live and work on the edge of the English Lake District (but with decent transport to all the major northern cities). I can see Blencathra and the northern fells from my office window.
Range of subjects: I called my business ‘fit to print’ because I was, at the time, specialising in health, sport and fitness subjects. But then people started to ask me to work on topics I knew nothing about, like extreme fire juggling or chicken-boning machinery. Now I find it’s useful to start from a point of total ignorance, because I can put myself in the readers’ shoes and ask the questions they ask.
Using my butterfly mind: A mind that is always flitting from subject to subject used to be a disadvantage. Then came hypertext and lo! I could travel where I wanted. Better still, I can think about where the reader wants to go next, and what they want to do when they leave a web page.
What advice would you give to someone trying to get into web editing?
You have social media. Get your profile out there. Blog. Network. Be yourself, be different. Get people to know, like and trust you, and understand what you can offer them. LinkedIn is great for this.
What are the pay scales like?
Industry rates for writing and editing vary considerably but in the UK they start at around £130 a day; and content strategy work is from £350. My own rates vary depending on the project.
What are the training and development options?
For me, the best benefit of Twitter is the scope for continuing professional development. All those experts out there with blogs and tips for developing your core skills and promoting your business. Free!
Find people whose style you like and follow them. Listen to their webinars. That’s how I found Kristina Halvorson. I downloaded a free chapter from her Content Strategy for the Web (#4: content audit) and my business took off in a new trajectory. My other favourite is Gerry McGovern: a) because he talks task-based sense that really calls readers to action; and b) he has a lovely Irish voice.
Do you have a motto or guiding principle when you work?
I work with clients to make sure that whatever makes them great shows up in their writing, and their unique message is crystal clear. Sometimes this means losing a lot of words, but we never, ever, lose the meaning.
My message is that you can write less, and mean more.
Ali Turnbull has been an editor for more than 30 years in periodical, book and web publishing, and now runs fit to print, which focuses strategising web content. She can be found on Twitter @fit_to_print and on LinkedIn.
We also have to mention Ali for helping set up Bitesize Content Strategy – a service offered through Firehead as a budget, risk-free introduction to content strategy. See our Who can sort your content strategy? flowchart for more information.
Looking for talent?
If you are a client in need of a web editor or content strategist, please get in touch with us at Firehead. We have many talented communicators on our books who are available for part-time or fixed-term contracts or full employment positions across Europe. Visit our Client Services page to read more about what we do. We’d love to talk to you!