In grad school, my friends called me “rags to riches.” I could get changed out of my sweaty gym clothes and ready for a night out drinking and dancing in the time it took them to pick out a dress. Believe it or not, this skill—of taking a subpar starting canvas and dolling it up into something presentable to the general public—is one that I consistently use in my work writing and editing pieces of thought leadership.
While it would be great if every piece started with brand new research, data, and insights—compelling stuff that’s counterintuitive and desperately needed by the target audience—this is only sometimes the case. We’re often working with drafts that attempt to reframe an existing narrative or add some minor updates to an otherwise slow-moving industry outlook.
There’s something to be said for such pieces. Those that look at old research in new ways, or update previous recommendations for a new context, or recycle an old framework with a new perspective can still be beneficial to a reader. But how does one go about dressing these insights up and making that benefit clear? What are the keys to editing potentially underwhelming content into something entertaining and, ultimately, worth the read?
Push the authors for something more original
The first thing any good editor will do is make sure there isn’t a newer, more original angle to pursue. On kickoff calls with author teams, we always ask something along the lines of “What’s distinctive here?,” “What’s counterintuitive for your audience?,” or “What are we saying that hasn’t been said before?” It’s possible something new is hiding but the authors haven’t framed the story in a way to highlight it. By asking these questions, then, you can encourage them to think about their insights in a different way, potentially pulling out the freshest angle. It’s also possible these questions won’t be terribly productive and you’ll have to work to make the existing insights as exciting as possible. In those instances…
Consider the best format
One way to position insights that cover trodden ground is to work with a new format. Instead of a standard article, maybe the piece could become an infographic, a charticle, or even a roundtable or Q&A with experts. The same insights in a new form—think same old Annie, refreshed makeup and hair—can do a lot to liven up the content.
Lead with what’s new
Sometimes, authors and thought leaders are tempted to bury new information, hitting the reader with something surprising toward the end or framing their insights chronologically. However, time-pressed readers often won’t make it all the way through a piece of content, and in taking this approach, you risk losing your reader’s attention. If very little is new in a piece, consider putting the freshest bit toward the front. Leading with the newest insight—at least in the introduction but also probably in the body—can help get the reader’s attention and ensure they take away the most important information, even if they don’t read every word.
Make it tight
If the piece isn’t offering brand new thinking, then the thinking that’s presented better be buttoned up and darn near faultless. It could be tempting to overwrite in such situations to cover up the fact that the basic idea isn’t entirely novel. Resist this temptation. Don’t waste the reader’s time—and don’t try to fool them. Embrace your story for what it is and work to make what you’ve got as sharp as possible. Editors can ask the subject-matter experts lots of questions to ensure the story is nailed down and there are no leaps in logic. And if it’s seeming like there just isn’t a lot to say, revisit the format; perhaps what you really have is a blog post or a series of visual assets for social media.
Write active, compelling prose
This directive begs the retort, “Well, duh.” Of course, we should always strive for interesting writing. But in these cases, it’s even more critical that the writing be clear and entertaining. Writers have many tools at their disposal to achieve this. Consider avoiding jargon and canned phrases, choosing precise verbs instead of flowery adverbs and adjectives, employing schemes and tropes, using active voice, and writing shorter sentences and paragraphs. These pieces also present a great opportunity to try something nonstandard and attention-grabbing in the introduction. Starting with a quote, a case study, an anecdote, or a surprising fact or statistic can liven up the piece and draw the reader in.
It’s completely possible to write good content from ideas that aren’t entirely novel. It’s also possible that editors are more attuned to what has already been published on a topic than readers: while an idea might seem a little stale to an editor, a reader may be seeing it for the first time. So while it’s true that brand-spanking-new insights are the gold standard, recycled and refreshed ones can be A-OK too—especially with the right makeup.