Don’t crowdsource editing (but you can crowdsource these other things)

Photo: Ken Lund

Last week, two different authors told me they were sending chapters to a bunch of their friends to get feedback. One planned to send it to 40 people. This is terrible way to edit.

Consider what happens when you crowdsource an edit

Anyone who’s ever read a Wikipedia article has seen the incoherent and personality-free results of crowd-based editing.

Consider an analogy. You pick out an outfit, take a few photos, and send them to 40 friends (or post them on Facebook). What will you hear back?

  • Padded shoulders are so out. Go back to the store.
  • I love how the padded shoulders make you look more forceful.
  • You’re an autumn — never wear a floral print.
  • I have that same outfit in green. I love it.
  • The top is fine, but you need a better bra.
  • Where did you get that shade of lipstick, honey?
  • Are you available to go out for coffee? I love the way you look and I’m single now.
  • Here’s the name of my favorite clothing store. They’ll help you.
  • A belt would make you look slimmer.
  • I like how you let it all hang out — we should all be proud of our bodies.
  • I can’t believe you asked me about this after insulting me last summer. I hate you. And you look like crap.
  • Perfect. Change nothing.
  • [20 people who didn’t respond because a) they didn’t care, b) they hated it but didn’t want to be mean, c) they forgot, d) they’re jealous, or e) all of the above]

What happens now? Either you cherry-pick the comments you like best, confirming your own biases, or you throw your hands up at the chaos.

This, in essence, is what happens when you crowdsource an edit. Even if you tell your correspondents what you’re trying to accomplish, they won’t necessarily understand and may not pay attention. Each will bring their own bias to the task. If the problem is structural, someone will copy edit the spelling and grammar. If the idea is controversial, some will love it and some will hate it — but it will be difficult for them to evaluate it dispassionately. If they recently had a problem with long sentences, they will critique your long sentences; if they just learned about customer experience, they will critique it as it relates to customer experience.

If your piece is almost perfect, you may get help in finding the last few errors. But if it needs development, these folks — who are likely not experienced in editorial coaching and aren’t getting paid — are unlikely to figure out which problems need to be addressed, and in what order, to solve your writing problem.

Compare this to what you get from one experienced editor

If you choose an experienced editor who knows your topic and audience and explain what you’re trying to do, you’re likely to have a far different experience.

Because the editor wants to maintain their reputation, they’ll commit the time and effort to a thorough review. They’ll also take your deadline seriously.

They’ll identify problems at whichever level they appear — problems with ideas, with structure, with graphics, with sentences, with writing tics and habits — and advise you on how to address them. If they’re any good, they’ll teach you to be a better writer along the way.

They’ll review the manuscript, not from their own point of view, but from the point of view of the reader — and that includes the perspectives of a diverse set of readers who may have different reactions.

And you’ll have a single marked up copy to manage rather than a collection of contradictory bits of feedback.

(By the way, if you’re thinking you might solve some problems by having everyone edit the same Google Doc — yes, you’ll see a single collection of feedback, including edit wars and potentially finding out which of your friends have now become each others’ mortal enemies.)

You’ll have to pay money for this edit. But your time is worth something, too. If you add up the time spent gathering and evaluating everyone’s comments, is that worth more than what you’d pay for a single good editor?

Crowdsourcing is good for making choices, not for deep feedback

Based on what I wrote, you might think I’m opposed to tapping your friends for help. That’s not true. Your friends can help in three significant ways.

If you’re testing out an idea, write it up in a blog post, LinkedIn post, or similar sharable location. See what reactions you get. People’s responses to your ideas can become valuable research as you plan how to develop the idea.

Friends are also good for helping you make choices. Post three book covers and take a poll: which one do you like best? Post three subtitles and ask the same question. These questions require your friends to react quickly, just as a reader or buyer will. If everyone likes option 1 and hates option 3, you’ve learned something valuable.

Finally, friends are helpful during the book launch. You can collect your friends together into a launch team, using a Facebook group, for example. If you’re not doing this, you’ve missed a great opportunity to generate enthusiasm.

Your friends can help. They want to help. But don’t try and turn them, collectively, into an editor. If you do, expect a lot of frustration and not a lot of clarity in managing the fountain of feedback you receive.

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  1. I couldn’t have said it any better myself, Josh. I can’t imagine crowdsourcing editing. As for subtitles and covers, though, my friends were an enormous help with my new one. They made me think of things that I didn’t in a controlled way.

  2. Or worse: Almost no one will respond. Everyone will think, “Jeez, look at all the people who have been asked to give this ‘a fresh pair of eyes.’ I can skip it and the writer won’t notice.”
    And your work will be published with embarrassing mistakes that “someone else” was supposed to catch.
    Sometimes I’ll send a piece to three or four colleagues, asking them to critique it “from any and all angles.” But I’ll invite them one at a time, tailoring my request to each person’s strengths. I’m asking them to give me an hour of their time. That’s a big ask, one that deserves a personal letter.
    And of course, by asking them one by one, I improve the response rate.

  3. I know it is de rigeur to beat on Wikipedia but the article creation process is not at all like asking random people for feedback. I really wish authors would not use Wikipedia as a punching bag so often.

    I was the primary author of this article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Christopher_Columbus which was featured on the main page. To get to Featured Article status is a lot of work, and it is a rigorous process. The folks who participated in the process of bringing the article to Good and then to Featured status did so in constructive and rigorous ways. There is a well developed article review process with comprehensive checklists. (see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_article_criteria)

    This page, linked from the article talk page, shows some aspects of the process for this particular article.

    Although it has been 12 years since the article went through the process, it’s still a pretty good article in my view. Not every article is Featured so not every article gets this level of scrutiny, but even for regular articles that never even made it to Good, the process of article improvement is not at all as you characterise it.

    (if your reply is to dredge up some awful articles, sure, awful articles exist, but you will have missed the point)