There are few things worse than a hacked-to-pieces document arriving all tattered and soiling up your inbox. Any freelance copywriter knows that sinking feeling when someone sends back revised and edited copy. Honestly, stubbing my little toe on something hard and sharp on a frosty morning straight out of bed often feels preferable to having my carefully crafted copy trodden all over.

Yet I write a lot of case study articles for clients, and doing that involves cherry-picking disparate quotes from a telephone interview and threading it all together with copy that’s rich in insight and advice for the reader. So I’m frequently exposed to the brutal experience of witnessing how nervous an interviewee gets when they see themselves represented in black and white.

Here’s an example from a monthly case study I write for a consultancy who improve how companies communicate.

Words the interviewee spoke, paraphrased by me into copy:

“We asked people to speak honestly and work together, then decide what the best way to improve our company’s culture is.”

What the interviewee edited it to read:

“It was decided that staff must engage one another and form a strategic decision in terms of how to progress things forward with regards to the culture at ABC Ltd.”

Eurgh. I know.

The experience is brutal because the interviewee feels compelled to protect themselves behind a facade of corporate, passive and formal language. They diffuse clear and frank words (that they actually spoke, remember), with dilute and vague statements that wouldn’t sound out of place on 99% of copy written by faceless bluechip corporations.

MS word doesn’t make things easy either, peppering my copy with its indecipherable spaghetti nightmare of tracked changes. Sorry Bill, but there’s no amount of technicolor callout boxes can make hacks to my copy any more palatable.

Freelance frustration

What frustrates me most as a copywriter is that the interviewee’s edited quotations don’t sound like how people normally talk to one another, especially when they want to posit themselves as experts and impart knowledge in a genuinely interesting way – which is the goal of any good case study (like the kind I write, obviously).

Warning an interviewee not to offend me with their outlandish revisions would be pointless. People are too risk averse and nervous for that when they’re being represented in marketing newsletters, websites or anywhere else where they’re not immediately on-hand to defend their position.

I’ve even tried asking an interviewee to read their quotes aloud and ask themselves “would I talk like this in real life?”. But a painstaking read-aloud and red pen review of the minutiae is a copywriter’s job isn’t it? That’s what people pay us to do, not to do it themselves.

So a copywriter’s only resort is another edit and an authoritative reply that reads:

“Here’s how the copy will be published now that I’ve tweaked your quotes to keep them consistent with the tone of the case study.”

Paraphrased to:

“I binned your drivel and helped you say exactly what it is you wanted to say in the first place.”

Which I suppose is any decent freelance copywriter’s raison d’être after all.