Several weeks ago I was listening to a This American Life podcast in which their host, Ira Glass, took an inside look one of the editorial meetings at the The Onion. I was fascinated to learn that for every 16 stories in their bi-weekly paper, they brainstorm 600 headlines. While this level of editing isn’t feasible for most B2B content marketers, there is a lot we can learn from The Onion’s editorial process. (Hat tip to The Beaverton Style Guide for this nice set of articles directly related to this.)
How the process works
First, here’s a great explanation of the general process from Joe Randazzo, the Editor-in-chief at the The Onion:
Basically the way it works is on Monday everybody pitches 15 headlines. We have about 10 people on staff, plus about 20 contributing writers who also pitch 15 headlines. If two people in the room vote on it, it goes on the to the next list. So we narrow them down from about 600 headlines to about 100 to 125, and we talk about them at another meeting on Tuesday.
From those, we choose the 16 or so headlines that make up the whole issue. We assign them and brainstorm what the stories will look like. When we put together every issue, we are trying to find a good balance of stories that are national and international in scale along with local or smaller things, or observational humor. We spend about an hour or so brainstorming those stories on Tuesday afternoon, the writers spend Wednesday writing them, and then we have draft meeting Thursday where we go through first drafts and rip them apart. Then they write second drafts on Friday, which the editors go through on [the following] Monday, and we go through a first round of editing, make notes, there are rewrites and then a second round of editing. On Friday, I’ll go through [the] final issue and make a last pass. I usually don’t have to make too many changes, but I might punch up something that needs it.
As content marketers, what can we take from this?
Focus on headlines
I’m not going to tell you how important headlines are (you know that), but I will share a tidbit from another interview with Joe Randazzo. He was asked, “Would you be willing to write a headline about your own mother?”
His response: “I would do this, yes, but I wouldn’t put her name in it per se, and if you’re asking me to do it on the spot right now I cannot. It’s a torturous affair to write a headline. It takes many minutes of torture, sometimes hours, and it would just be humiliating to me and demeaning to all of us for me to come up with a headline on the spot for you today.”
Takeaway: Don't underestimate the importance of headlines. Here are a few tips on creating great titles.
Have you ever struggled with coming up with ideas or making a piece of content work? One of the best things to do is to start brainstorming with others. Great content doesn’t happen in a bubble.
Takeaway: Schedule a standing editorial meeting with key players to talk about the editorial plan:
- What new ideas do you have?
- What has worked well – and what should you do more of?
- What hasn’t worked well – and how would you improve it?
It may also make sense to review key pieces of content in a collaborative format as The Onion does with its headlines.
Don’t use every idea
I read that “writers discard 50 ideas for every story that makes it into the paper. What’s more, they’re perfectly happy to set aside headlines for weeks or even months to mull over the just the right word or phrase that will make a piece sing.” Are you that choosy with your content?
Takeaway: Instead of driving towards the quantity of content your produce, think about quality.
Be critical about every piece of content you create. The first (or second or maybe even third) draft typically isn’t the draft you want to use for public consumption.
I love this quote from a story I read about The Onion from the Washington Post: “Nearly every word that appears in print is conceived, refined, brainstormed and edited in committee, which calls for near-bedsore-inflicting stretches of seat time in the writers’ room — on average, about three solid days of meetings each week.” OK, maybe this isn’t realistic for you, but are there ways you can improve?
Takeaway: Even if you don’t have the time to finesse every word, find someone – an editor, another marketer – who can be very honest about the content you are creating. I’ve had editors apologize for making suggestions to my work, but as I have told them, the worst feedback I can hear is, “Great job!” as that doesn’t drive me to be better. Find yourself a great editor!
Remember that great content is a lot of work, and it doesn’t come easily – to anyone. Here are the three biggest things I think content marketers need to realize:
- Be realistic about how long it takes to create content and plan accordingly.
- Don’t work in a vacuum. Find creative and constructively critical people to collabortate with.
- Develop a process – and stick to it.
Learning about The Onion‘s editorial process has made me look at how I handle content, and I hope it gives you some ideas as well. What else would you add to the list above?
Image ©Onion Inc.
About the author: Michele is the Content Development Director of the Content Marketing Institute where where she works with a fabulous group of contributors who know a lot about content marketing. She's also a B2B content marketing consultant who has a passion for helping companies use content to connect with their ideal buyers. You can follow her onTwitter @michelelinn or read more of her posts on Savvy B2B.