Reflections on “words first” communications

Last fall, I adopted a new tagline for my writing business: “words first communications”. Here, I’m inviting you on a little exploration of this mantra and its origins. It’s a watchword that came to me suddenly, but as a result of many past experiences as a writer and consultant.

One recent project to inspire the tagline was a magazine where I was called in as writer/editor. The project was coordinated by design firm, and even from the planning schedule for the project, I could see that the editing was subordinate: the line items and time frame allotted to editorial were a mere fraction of those for photo shoots and design. The design team and client were each friendly and professional, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was a design-led project where words were secondary.

Making friends with design

Words were secondary?! The idea makes my blood pressure rise. Would the magazine exist if we hadn’t had a handful of stories to tell? It was not the first project I’ve been part of where more time and discussion were given over to photo shoots than story planning. Yes, you could argue that writing is a solitary activity, but so are the image arts. And there could be as much collaboration put into a feature as a photo shoot. What approach suits the subject: immersive, reported feature, first person memoir? Could an alternate form work for the words, an infographic, a slideshow? I think both words and image would be stronger if both sides worked more collaboratively, and ideas for each side were shared from the start.

As another symptom of design centrism, I also think we may be losing out on substantive editing. I’m not often heavily edited, which I take as a compliment, but I also wonder at the possibilities for improvement if more time were given to editing in some projects. I feel like the time for substantive editing today loses out in favour of copy editing or other essentials, but it’s as important. Yes, it’s a budget thing, but the results may well be worth the investment.

Words champion

So I’m taking up the case for words. I think they need a defender. I offer myself to my clients as someone who will pay attention to the words and even push back a bit (nicely of course) when design threatens to take over. If clients have a project that requires editing, I suggest a few hours of substantive editing be built in. I throw in basic fact check with all of my copy editing projects. Because I love design and image as much as the next person, but I still believe that words are where storytelling begins. And they need to sparkle as brightly.