The secret to better content? Get your QA right. Here's how...
It’s all very well writing great content, but the real skill is in the editing process. Successful author, Nick Hornby, says:
“Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress…”
While, who could forget the shocking advice of Stephen King when he told us to:
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Even if it hurts, having a process for you and colleagues to follow to help you cut down word count, focus a topic, and hit the brief is essential. An internal process for your Quality Assurance (QA) is just as vital as having a content-creation process to begin with. They go hand in hand with one another.
If you’re in the business of content creation, you need a QA system which you can turn to and use to review every piece of content. It needs to be comprehensive and robust, ensuring the final piece that reaches your audience is bang on the brief. So here we share the essential steps to help you own your QA process.
Step 1: The big picture
QA should start when the content is being created. While it should never be the sole responsibility of a writer to check customer-facing content, it’s important that QA becomes a habit of their own writing process, rather than purely the responsibility of the editor they pass content on to. Encourage your writing team to QA themselves as they create content, giving them the tools to do so.
Top tip: Put the following points at the top of the document you use to draft copy, as a constant reminder to be checking them as you write.
During this first part in the content process, a writer needs to ask themselves:
Does it fit the brief?
- Every piece of content needs to start with a brief – and if you don't currently have this system, it's time to introduce it. How else do you know if you're producing the content your business really needs? How do you know if you're hitting the requirements of the content?
- It sounds obvious, but does the title of the content actually communicate what the resource is? Are you giving enough away in the title for a reader to be hooked and want to access the content? Try to create titles that display some kind of value for the reader: what's in it for them?
- Another obvious point, but still one to consider during the QA process: is the style appropriate to the format? For example, does it read like a blog post? Is it the right length for a pillar page? Is the structure right for a webpage? Is the tone appropriate for an email?
Does it speak to the intended audience?
- Who is your buyer persona? Is the content accurately targeted at this intended audience? Keep your buyer persona documents regularly updated and handy for the whole team to use.
- What stage of the buyer's journey are you writing for? Is the content appropriate to the intended stage – awareness, consideration or decision? You can't create accurate, meaningful content unless you know where your audience is.
- Is the desired next action clear? Understanding the buyer's journey also means understanding where to guide your audience next: if they're in the awareness stage, they aren't ready to consider a purchase so your CTA mustn't seem too pushy. What's an appropriate CTA for this content?
- Does the content sound like the attributed author? What kind of input does this author have in providing and approving the content?
Is this a well-written piece?
- As a writer creates content, they can be QA-ing the quality of their writing. They can ask questions like: Does it pass the TRUTH test (Teaches something, uses Reputable sources, is Unique, creates Tension, builds a Human connection between writer and reader)?
- Are you being succinct? Could you actually be saying more but in fewer words? Not only should the writer be working to a word count, but the content should be tightly written, engaging and direct – how concise is the copy? As famously minimalist writer, Ernest Hemingway said:
Once the writer feels they have hit each of these criteria, it’s time for them to pass on to their editor. If your business doesn't have a dedicated editor or sub-editor, someone else in the content team, or a colleague who is associated with the campaign, will still be a great choice to perform the next stage of QA. Whatever your resources, ensure a second person is built into your QA process.
Their first job is to check the exact same points as are listed above. If the writer and editor disagree about any of these points, they need to discuss and troubleshoot this between them: now is the point to action these changes. The ‘big picture’ checklist is full of fundamental decisions. If the content isn’t hitting the mark at this stage, the rest of the checks will be redundant as the content is essentially incorrect. Fix these points now, before you get any further.
Step 2: Zoom in on the details
It often takes a second pair of eyes which are fresh to the content to spot subtle errors. While a writer might consider themselves a perfectionist, it’s far too easy to read the same blog post over and over and miss the fact that they’ve made a typo.
The second stage of QA is largely about precision and accuracy. Once the ‘big stuff’ has been agreed in the first step, the editor now needs to search for any finer details that are missing or incorrect. Again, this is something the writer needs to be looking for in their own work, but it needs to be part of the QA process for the editor, too. This time the editor needs to ask:
Is it an accurately written piece?
- Check the spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG). Your writer – by the nature of their job – should be good at this anyway, but as the editor, it's worth double checking (and asking someone else if you aren't sure).
- Is the word count appropriate for the piece of content? We've talked about writing concisely, but you also need to check the copywriter has written robustly. Is there enough 'meatiness' to the content to feel of value to the reader? Or is there too much content?
- As we mentioned, typos are easiest to spot by someone who didn't write the content themselves. It's the editor's role to spot typos that might have been missed by the writer in the earlier QA process.
Does it offer a reader-friendly experience?
- Your content should be a joy. If not actually making a reader smile, then at least delivering well-written, engaging, educational content. In this QA step, check if the hyperlinks work and lead to the correct destinations – you don't want to disappoint your readers with broken links.
- Are any frequent word repeats standing out? We can all be guilty of over-using our 'word of the day', so make sure the editor checks whether some words could be swapped for synonyms.
- If you're writing about a particularly niche or industry-specific topic, can your buyer persona access the content? Or does the copy need simplifying? Don't make your reader feel out of their depth; create content that speaks their language and draws them in.
- Are any sentences or paragraphs overly long and complicated? The editor needs to identify and chop down or separate these overly wordy items – generally stick to 1.5 lines as the maximum sentence length.
Well-written, accurate content is the mark of a business that cares. If you’re going to take care in crafting your copy, it follows that you will take care in other aspects of your business, too, such as customer service, product development and delivery. It only takes one typo, an example of incorrect English or a broken link for a reader to question your attention to detail, and thus reconsider working with your business.
Step 3: The fine toothcomb
This final step in the QA process really can make all the difference when it comes to spotting errors and securing a fine-tuned, perfectly presented piece of content.
This step might be completed by an entirely new, third person who hasn’t had anything to do with the content yet, or by the editor who completed Step 2. In this final step, the editor needs to:
1. Look at the content in another format
- This means printing the content out. A good old-fashioned read of the copy on paper is like magic – you wouldn’t believe how much better errors stand out from the page than on a screen. Things like extra spaces, odd capital letters and too-long paragraphs instantly jump out once you see something printed.
2. Read it aloud
- Don’t just read the content in silence, read it aloud. In a busy office this can be tricky! But if the editor can find a quiet corner and even whisper it aloud, mistakes become so much more apparent. Things like word repeats, typos and too-long sentences soon stand out more obviously.
3. Sign the content off
- Having a formal final sign-off section at the bottom of the content for everyone involved to sign when completed, makes this a serious process which everyone feels accountable for. Whether it's a paper version of the QA document – fixing a top sheet to printed content and getting sign off on the same sheet – or a cloud-based or internal system, find what works for your business.
At ESM Inbound, we use the Playbooks tool in HubSpot to record and sign off our QA system as a virtual top sheet. We find this is a great way to keep a record of comments, and ensure everyone who sees the content is working from the same document to avoid confusion and repeat copies appearing.
However you choose to run your QA process, make sure you have one. With our tips, you have a working, tried-and-tested QA process to implement right away. With accurate content comes greater trust and happier customers: it’s time to step up your quality-assurance measures and apply them to every piece of content you produce.
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