The managing editor’s guide to getting out of the way
Being promoted into your first managing editor role at a tech company is a huge deal. You’ve more than likely spent years as a top-performing individual contributor on a content team or at a publication, so there’s no doubt you’ll be able to handle the production parts of the new role.
But what tends to trip up those making this transition doesn’t involve writing or editing — it’s the people part of the job. Running a content team requires a different set of skills, and the best managing editors don’t manage. They lead.
To help you go from good to great, we asked content leaders at Notion, Webflow, Animalz, Parabol, and 360Learning to share their advice.
1. Hire the best writers you can find
Quality is everything. The greatest writers in tech are gifted storytellers who know the hero is the customer, not the company. They’re able to translate complicated technical descriptions into something everyone can understand. They care that they’re speaking to humans and that words have the power to inspire, educate, and motivate. They’re highly creative and collaborative, too.
Finding and hiring writers who fit this description is key to building a content team you can trust to put out impactful work. Otherwise you’ll likely be spending a ton of time editing and rewriting, which isn’t sustainable.
Here are some qualities experts look for when they’re hiring writers:
A strong point of view
“We produce a lot of blog content at Webflow — and when building out our team of in-house, agency, and freelance writers we look for writers from different backgrounds and perspectives who share the following two traits: 1. They are strong writers and 2. They have a strong point of view that translates well to the voice and tone we’ve set for the editorial at Webflow.”
–Liz Huang, Managing Editor at Webflow
“I like working with people who take an empathetic view in their work. That extends beyond understanding who you are writing for and what they care about, through to asking questions of their work like ‘Would this make sense to me if I were a beginner?’”
–Gareth Davies, Growth Marketer at Parabol
Project management skills
“It’s usually a combination of things. Writing skill, obviously. But you’ll also want writers who are excellent project managers, because often at a fast-moving company, they’ll be juggling many deadlines or workstreams. It’s helpful when writers can bring autonomy to all levels of their work.”
–Nate Martins, Content Lead at Notion
A passion for writing
“People need to really love writing to be able to stick it out in a fast-paced content publishing environment. So that’s the main thing: having a passion for clear, crisp writing that tells a compelling story.”
–Tom Baragwanath, Global Head of Content at 360Learning
2. Set up systems and processes
“Without systems, it’s really hard to track anything without constantly bothering authors,” explains Gareth Davies. “As a managing editor, I think it’s important to find systems that support async work and that empower authors to update the status on their work without nagging them for an update. Disruptions can break an author’s flow, and no writer wants to feel they’ve got the editor breathing down their neck.”
Consider implementing the following:
Details matter. Should headlines be in sentence case or title case? Oxford comma or no? What’s the correct way to write a date? A styleguide answers all of these questions, spells out what good content means for your company, and keeps your team’s writing consistent across the board. You need a styleguide.
Tom Baragwanath uses styleguides at 360Learning to help clarify basic editorial standards, tone, and purpose. “They help every one of our writers — myself included — to hone their copy to a point where it requires fewer edits,” says Tom.
At Animalz, a content marketing agency that works with tech startups, editors review articles using standardized checklists for each step of the writing process.
“The checklist helps keep [editors] focused on the same aspects of the draft and not focused on unnecessary details,” explains Gail Marie, former editor and current Director of Quality at Animalz.
Work with freelancers? Outlines are a communication tool. Gareth recommends them: “In previous jobs it was the author’s responsibility to outline a piece of content in their pitch. When working with freelancers, I’ve realized that I sometimes need to write up an outline for them to follow. That still feels weird to me, but you understand the value of it when your first piece of content comes back totally different from how you imagined it. Outlining helps you have more control over the end result if you’re working with an external writer.”
At Notion, Nate Martins instituted a creative brief process for content requests: “[This brief process] forces folks to put their ideas to the test. Is it worthy of its own content piece? What are the goals? Timeline? It helps other departments put the rubber to the road on a request, as opposed to just tossing an idea into the digital ether.”
“As an agile marketing team, we do periodic retrospectives on our content production where people can add anonymous thoughts. Sometimes I will run a retrospective with an individual author to reflect on how our work has gone together. Other times, we’ll do one as a team to identify what’s going well, what we can improve, and where the biggest opportunities lie. This helps our team continuously improve the way we work together,” says Gareth.
3. Get out of the way
For new managing editors, it’s tempting to get in the weeds of each draft and fix everything yourself. But if you’ve hired the right people and you have solid processes in place, there’s no reason you should be spending your time this way. You’ve got to let go of your old job.
As Liz explains, “When transitioning from pure content creation to managing an editorial operation, my biggest piece of advice is to remember that your job is to free up as much space and remove friction so that those who are writing and creating have as much room as possible. A not-so-great comparison, but — your job is to be air traffic control and their job is to fly the plane.”
“Personally, I’ve found it tough at times to remember it’s my job to ensure a consistent company voice across all of our content and not to jump too deeply into any one piece of writing,” says Tom. “You have to trust your team to hold the pen.”
Liz emphasizes the importance of removing friction so your writers can do their job. “Remember that though your opinion and perspective are important, you need to let the content creators do what they do best, which is create.”
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t edit work at all. Editing is still part of the job, but great managing editors do it with tact and aim to improve writers, not just documents.
Gail Marie acknowledges that “the editor+writer relationship is unique in the workplace because of the vulnerability required of the writer.” Even when they’re writing about something that feels technical and distant — like the ins and outs of developer productivity tools — it’s still their writing. Keep that vulnerability in mind and approach your meetings with kindness and empathy.
Here are a few ways great managers empower writers to do their best work:
Ask for feedback
“Without feedback, you’re flying blind. Ask for feedback from authors. ‘How did my edits feel to you?’ ‘Is there anything else you want to see from my edits?’ ‘Is there anything else I can do to help you?'” suggests Gareth. This is also a way to build trust with your team.
Schedule regular one-on-ones
Especially for remote teams, one-on-one meetings are a must. They’re an opportunity to check in with people to see how they’re feeling, address concerns, celebrate wins, and set expectations. You could even use them to work through a difficult assignment or brainstorm ideas.
One weekly 30-minute meeting with each direct report is typical for content team leaders. However you run your one-on-ones, always do two things: show up on time and be fully present.
Set goals together
Objectives help your team members focus on specific areas, whether that’s increasing traffic or boosting conversions.
“If you can take a piece of content and have it point directly to the goal it’s supposed to accomplish, then that helps ensure everyone’s work is valuable and there’s a through line from everyone’s work to its impact,” says Nate.
Find the right tools
Tools are another way to remove friction, improve processes, and focus on impact. Collaboration tools are especially vital for tech startup editorial teams that operate asynchronously.
It’s all about finding the right tools for your team. Here are some examples:
- Parabol uses Notion for their content calendar
- 360Learning uses Trello to keep everything clear and transparent with their publication schedules and campaign plans
- Webflow uses Asana and ClickUp to manage tasks
- Notion of course uses their own product to create editorial calendars like this one
4. There is no perfect formula
With so much on a managing editor’s plate, mistakes are bound to happen and things will go wrong. And that’s okay.
“The systems you start out with won’t always work. They might need tweaking or become unfit for purpose at some point. Don’t be afraid of experimenting and adapting,” says Gareth.
Liz recommends consistently auditing your processes and making small, real-time tweaks: “This also ensures that you won’t have to constantly make large, sweeping changes that could be disruptive and/or unproductive to the rest of the team.”
Just be careful to avoid “over-process-izing” your workflow. Nate warns that “there’s a point where it will actually slow you down. With more experienced writers, for example, we started removing the outlining step of their work once an idea was approved.”
For managing editors, the work is never really done — content marketing is always evolving, and startups change quickly as they scale. As Liz summed it up so well, “There is no perfect formula. So constantly be looking to learn, change, and grow so you ensure you’re serving your team the best you can.”