Technical writers, academic writers, medical and scientific journal writers, policy writers – these are examples of professional writers who wrangle complex topics. It’s commonly thought that only experts in complicated topical areas should write the articles, white papers, blogs, annual reports, field reports and position papers needed to communicate research, goals and accomplishments with the world and inspire audiences to action.

For the most part, that’s true. Experts are the ones who know their subjects best. However, it’s a common mistake to stop with the experts’ drafts. Although technical experts are proficient in their fields, they more than likely are not experts in effective communication of their work. If the audience is not technical, you may need assistance from a communication expert to get across your idea. If an element of persuasion is needed to get funding, influence legislation or earn public support, you may need a communication expert with a marketing background.

One human resources client I worked with shared multitudes of research papers online and through email. They offered the papers to their contract customers as a value-add and a way of establishing their thought leadership in training and industrial design – but the white papers were so complex and convoluted they seemed unfinished and were not useful. This not only did not advance the organization’s image but may have begun to erode the positive reputation it did have.

The social scientists who wrote the papers were doing truly exciting psycho-social research that promised to transform the HR landscape forever, but no one could understand what they were trying to say because their language was often dense, overly scientific and ungrammatical. Ultimately, with the materials as they were, no one was likely to consider the company the thought leader it wanted to be.

Complex writing projects such as those white papers should go through a round of professional substantive editing to optimize and clarify the message. Best results likely will come from a substantive editor who specializes in quickly understanding and communicating complex topics but who does NOT have deep expertise in the specific topic area.

Getting a Fresh View of Complex Writing Projects

Unless the writing in question is intended to advance an official body of knowledge among experts in a research topic area, the document probably is targeted toward important stakeholders outside of the field of study: funders, legislators, media, nontechnical partners, general public, etc. Annual reports are a perfect example. They usually are aimed at a less-technical audience that needs to understand the value of your work. Using a specialist in substantive editing to massage researchers’ work can help you fulfill both a need for research integrity and a need to get nontechnical audiences in your corner.

Most experts would agree it’s important for public audiences to understand their messages. But many subject experts don’t realize that a nontechnical audience may not understand what they’ve written. Without a clear explanation of the research, a lay audience is unlikely to understand or be inspired enough to take the action researchers and their backers hope they’ll take.

A trained substantive editor has the chops to manage complex materials and preserve research objectives and results, but also provides insight into the layperson’s point of view. The goal is to to draft a message clear and compelling enough for them to understand and care about. Another goal should be to help them engage with the message in a way that improves their work or lives.

An outside editor who is not too close to the work (as you may be) provides a fresh eye to help you accomplish the goals of the written piece. Even if you have staff in-house who can handle this type of editing, it can be time consuming. An outside editor can free up your own staff to work on other important projects.

Adding an Element of Promotion or Persuasion

In many cases, complex written pieces do involve some need for promotion or persuasion. A new training method for millennial workers, for example, probably can’t just be described to inspire action. In a white paper, a case must be made for it – not only providing justification for its use but creating excitement and desire on the part of the audience to look into it more and be committed to its use. Ultimately, a company releasing such a white paper wants the reader to consider calling to find out more about products or services offered.

A policy paper must strongly communicate a position on an issue in such a way that it overcomes objections and supports legislative actions. Scientific research in annual reports and field reports must be presented to funders in a way that inspires them to believe in the work and energetically apply dollars and influence to benefit your cause instead of someone else’s.

Not every editor is equipped to do this. There is a subset of senior substantive editors who can handle this dual need for research integrity and persuasiveness. These editors likely have a great deal of marketing experience and have mastered long-form copy, as opposed to research writers or editors who have excelled in academia. Professional writers and editors without a marketing background may be able to make the topic clear for lay audiences, but they may not have the experience needed to provide effective persuasion.

Substantive Editing Must Be Cost Effective and Fast

Although a senior substantive editor with this special skill may charge a higher per-hour rate than other editors, their work is generally faster. For that reason, this type of editor can be more cost effective (fewer hours and fewer headaches).

Most importantly, the work of the right editor will help you actually reach your goals for the content. The expertise of the editor helps ensure you’re not wasting your time and money on editing that just fixes grammar.

When the client mentioned above hired me as a senior substantive editor to work on the HR white papers, those documents suddenly became a viable asset in the company’s arsenal of tools to support its work and image in the industry. The papers were offered to current customers as a way of reinforcing the value of the company’s services and getting repeat engagements. They also were shared with industry stakeholders who could influence others’ opinions of the company. The papers were offered to potential topflight employees to demonstrate expertise and convince them to take employment offers. They even were used in direct marketing efforts to appeal to potential new customers. The cost of hiring the editor was recouped many times in the advantages gained.

For more information about senior substantive editing and how it works, watch this blog. Subscribe if you would like notifications sent to your inbox. If you need assistance with a project right now, call Kindra Foster at Foster Executive Writing & Editing: 402-601-5483. Or email