Zapier's Deb Tennen on Proofreading

"Read it out loud."

Software automation tool Zapier is one thing few people know they need. They know they want to simplify their work, to turn contacts into customers and data into documents, but they don't know how to get there.

Enter Zapier's blog. Between software roundups and tutorials, productivity and remote work tips, if you're searching for something related to automating your software, chances are you'll find something from Zapier about it. It's where I wrote for over 5 years, and today's managing editor, Deb Tennen, keeps the content flowing from in-house and freelance writers.

Here's Deb on her writing and proofreading workflow:

What's your favorite thing you've written recently?

For Zapier content, this one from a couple years ago still brings me joy: No Email Should Take More than Five Minutes to Write. I was happy with how it turned out because it was really personal but still actionable, and I've had a bunch of folks tell me that they adopted this rule for themselves and are much more productive because of it. Of all time, I'd say it's this one: Dante’s Tenth Circle for McSweeney’s. I guess the trend is that I like it when I can get to tell the world everything that annoys me.

What's your standard writing workflow?

Editors shouldn't be allowed to write, honestly. I think because I spend all day reviewing content and figuring out how it should be structured and presented, I have it in my head that I can just start writing without planning. Like, in theory, I know how the piece I'm about to write should be structured, so I just...write. It's a terrible habit and has never once worked out for me. I always end up deleting and starting over multiple times. Not efficient—do not recommend.

If I was talking to someone who was writing for the first time, here's what I'd recommend (from an editor's perspective):

  1. Read. Learn what's already out there on the topic, how people have approached it in the past, and what you can bring to the table that others haven't.
  2. Brain dump. It's easy to lose good ideas as you outline because you get distracted with other ideas and flow, so start by getting everything onto paper.
  3. Outline. This helps you know if you actually have enough to say.
  4. Write. (No opinions on how/what order!)
  5. Review. Be sure there's a clear point/takeaway/reason for someone to read this, and be sure that each section flows into the next.
  6. Shorten the intro. It's always too long.
  7. Self-edit. Ctrl+F for words/phrases you know you use a lot. Make sure each sentence adds value.
  8. Grammarly with a grain of salt.

This is obviously specific to the kind of content I work on every day. I can't even imagine what the process would be like for e.g., a novel!

What's your favorite way to proofread your work and spot things to change?

  • Ctrl+F for words/phrases you know you use a lot. "Be sure" and "Make sure" are my top 2 offenders, but I have a lot of them.
  • Read it out loud.
  • Have someone else read it (editors!).
  • Grammarly, but don't accept everything it says. It's wrong half the time and another 25% of the time it de-voices your writing. But the remaining 25% is helpful! I have a bad habit of not catching when I repeat a word in the middle of a sentence (don't catch it on proofread, even). e.g., "I have a a bad habit." Grammarly will catch that.
  • Check each "aspect" individually. e.g., click all the links first; then proofread the subheaders; then read the first sentence of each section; and so on. Batch proofread!

What do you do with the things you cut?

I dump them at the bottom of the document until I'm sure the piece is done. I rarely have good ideas, so I don't tend to save anything for later.

What's your ideal editing workflow?

As an editor, I try to cater my workflow to the writer. If a writer is really protective of their words, I try to give them as much agency as possible—I'll leave comments and suggestions but will try to have them be the ones actually making any changes to the piece. At Zapier, most of our freelancers (which is who I work with) are more invested in the content than the words themselves, which means I go in and deal with the micro stuff (while maintaining their voice!) and only ask them to deal with macro changes (e.g., adding more content, offering new examples, things like that).

For my own writing, I'm super insecure (I'm not a writer!), so I always want to get my work into what I think is the best possible shape before sending it to an editor to review. Not a great idea for a lot of reasons, and one more reason editors shouldn't be allowed to write.

→ Check out Deb's work on the Zapier Blog, and find her on LinkedIn.

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