Frequently Asked Questions: What Kind of Editing Do They Need, and How Much?

By Christina VasilevskiChristina Vasilevski hi-res image cropped

Frequently Asked Questions. If customers ask certain questions so often that your company requires a dedicated FAQ page, the answers should be so obvious that they write themselves, right?

Not quite.

Creating a user-friendly FAQ page can take a lot of work—and, frankly, I think it’s kind of fun. In fact, I’ve become known as the de facto “FAQ person” on our content team because I like revising them so much. They allow me to get my hands dirty; with FAQs, I get to rearrange sentences and phrases wholesale, cut deadwood, and put myself into the place of the reader to ask questions. Then, when the stakeholders provide feedback on my changes, I get to go to town and create something useful, organized, and correct.

In short, working on an FAQ list can be an editor’s dream. Plus, since the content in question is so customer focused (and since most organizations that create FAQS have the good sense to realize that customer satisfaction leads to more money), FAQ documents involve a lot less ego than other forms of content. You can put all the bloated corporate jargon you want into a Mission Statement page, but a truly useful set of FAQs will keep the bloat to a minimum.

However, you may need to edit a few sets before you get the hang of it. In this article, I’ll discuss the lessons I’ve learned from editing several FAQ documents for a large Canadian telecom company, and the ways in which FAQs compare to other types of copy.

Use Common Editorial Sense

First off, don’t get too frightened of the whole concept of an FAQ. Good FAQs should follow plain language guidelines, including:

  • Addressing the reader directly by using the words you, your, and yours
  • Avoiding jargon wherever possible
  • Using simpler words and grammatical structures to convey complex ideas
  • Using the active voice
  • Sharing information in a conversational way

Structural editing principles also apply to editing FAQs, just as with other documents.

I’ve also found that the workflow for FAQs is similar to the workflows for other types of documents that I’ve worked on in the same environment: after going through a few rounds of revision with stakeholders, I then send the file to our legal department for a quick once-over, after which it goes to the translation department.

Discuss only a single important concept per question

When substantively editing copy, you have probably learned that you shouldn’t cram multiple ideas or concepts into a single paragraph—or have probably given the same recommendation to the authors you’re working with. This advice holds true for FAQs. However, instead of restricting ideas to separate paragraphs, restrict them to separate questions.

For example, the FAQs that I edit often involve informing customers about changes in the company’s TV and telephone services, or telling them how to take advantage of a new product or service. In such instances, it’s more reader friendly to have questions that address each of the following topics individually:

  • Who is eligible to get a new service or device upgrade
  • How to register for the new service
  • How much this new service or device will cost
  • How long it will take for the upgraded service to be rolled out across an entire area or city

This advice sounds straightforward, but there’s an important corollary to remember, which is…

Don’t ask a question and then refuse to answer it, or hide relevant info in the middle of an answer when it deserves its own separate question

Four months ago, I edited an FAQ document about reserving a new smartphone in advance of its official launch date. The original draft of the FAQ asked the following two questions in sequence:

  1. How much will the reserved device cost?
  2. Will my $XX reservation fee be returned to me?

There were two big problems here. The first is that Question #1 was asking the wrong thing—the FAQ document was meant to discuss the process of reserving a device, and product pricing is technically independent of the reservation process.

The second problem is that Question #1 didn’t mention a reservation fee at all, even though it should have—the reservation fee, and its associated amount, were first mentioned only in Question #2, and mentioned in such a way that it assumed the reader already knew about the fee!

When I realized this, I created an entirely new question from scratch to address this issue, and made a comment about my decision for all of the stakeholders involved to review. The final version of the FAQ ended up having this sequence of questions instead:

  • Will I be charged anything when I reserve my device?
  • How much does it cost to reserve a device?

Even though I created a new question from scratch, this was still a benefit to the FAQ document as a whole; because of my revisions, the revised document with the new question was still shorter than the ambiguous, obfuscatory original.

Keep an eye out for repetition

Sometimes FAQ documents can be several pages long. One of the risks of this is that the longer the document, the higher the likelihood of repeating your answers from one question to another. Your Subject Matter Expert may state in the answer to Question #8 that customers can call the help line to find out if their account has been suspended, and not remember that this information was also mentioned in Question #3.

In such cases, most project managers or SMEs I’ve worked with are happy to merge the two answers together or delete the repetitive answer entirely. Like most types of web content, brevity counts, and your colleagues will probably welcome any way to reduce the word count without sacrificing clarity.

Don’t forget to make the content fit your company’s voice/brand

The company that I work for has two major brand identities. One brand is geared towards mainstream users. The other is geared to a younger, Millennial demographic. As a result, I often have to look at two FAQ pages at once that contain the same information but are written in very different styles for very different audiences.

This means that when I edit these FAQs, I have to make sure that the content I revise is not only factually correct, but also tonally correct. We might refer to “customer care representatives” in one document, while in another document, we’ll call the same types of workers “customer service rockstars” instead.

Basically, what this means is that your FAQs should not be the philosophical equivalent of cardboard — functional but completely boring and non-descript. Instead, think of your FAQs as a lush meadow — inviting and comfortable to visitors.

 

If writing and editing web content in general is something that you’re still nervous about, it helps to remember that many of the philosophical concerns behind good editing are the same no matter what the medium. However, if this article has given you a hankering to learn more about web content and content strategy in general, I highly recommend the following two books:

 

Christina Vasilevski is a writer and editor in Toronto, and a member of Editors Canada. She has applied her editorial skills in a variety of contexts, including content management, web development, and content strategy. She’s currently working with a major telecom company with their user experience and digital content team to develop apps and web experiences for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Visit her website  www.christinavasilevski.com or connect with her on Twitter @cvasilevski or LinkedIn ca.linkedin.com/in/christinavasilevski/.

One thought on “Frequently Asked Questions: What Kind of Editing Do They Need, and How Much?

  1. Ann Marie

    Thank you for this valuable article on editing FAQs. Christina’s article is the best information I have seen on this topic. Lots of practical advice!

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