Contextual Editing: Not Dead Yet

In the realm of content management systems, I periodically see discussion of contextual (context-sensitive) editing: fine-tuning the final phrasing or presentation of content to suit the situation in which it will be displayed.

There’s a debate brewing over contextual editing for content that is handled by a CMS. Specifically, is contextual editing a thing of the past – or should it be, at least for organizations that manage a ton of content via CMS?

I don’t think so, but I do think it’s often possible to shift more of the editorial work to the front end of the process…


If you’re using a major CMS, context-free content does offer attractive efficiency. It’s much easier to simply pull a ready-made “content object” from your repository and plug it in to your web site, intranet, catalog, or other venue “as is” – with no additional fine-tuning or human intervention required to make the final presentation smooth. There are many types of content (such as product information) which can be used fairly context-free in most situations.

Still, I think it’s a mistake for any organization to push for the goal of making contextual editing completely a thing of the past. Information does not exist in a vacuum. People rely on context in order to comprehend information. Without adequate context, entropy infiltrates in the form of confusion, misunderstanding, or disinterest.


In a recent thread in a discussion forum for content management practitioners, Claudia Allen (editor and content manager for the National Association of Colleges and Employers) expressed the dilemma well. I quote her forum posting here with her permission:

“Speaking as a writer and editor… Writing, and the goal of getting a message across, is more than throwing words at a page. It’s not like programming where specific letters/numbers are required. A good writer chooses words that convey meaning in more than the literal (dictionary definition) sense. An editor realizes this and massages copy to make the most of the words chosen.

“A CMS must be flexible enough to allow the crafts of writing and editing. Sometimes that includes a preview of what is to come. I’ve been frustrated at times with the homegrown system we use. I can’t see what I’m putting onto some pages until it actually appears. An example: Do I make a headline one deck? Two decks? Where do I split the headline to make it convey what I mean without making the page look odd or the headline lopsided. Do I go ahead and add the content to the data base, allow it to go live, and then go back over and over and fiddle with the coding until it looks right? (This is a simplistic example that I can – and have – learned to live with. However, sometimes I need to see the display before it goes live.)”

“This kind of flexibility is one (of several) hurdles that I face as I begin to talk to my superiors about adding a content management system. In the end…it’s the content on the web site that counts, not the content management system that places it there.”

As Allen indicates, the apparent efficiency offered by context-free editing can be offset by the need of dedicated editors to fine-tune the final content display. Good editors who care deeply about the quality of communication cannot abide context that feels choppy, incomplete, or patchwork. However, that’s exactly how context-free content objects often end up sounding if left untouched in the final presentation.

Still, for many organizations (especially large ones which publish a lot of content through many channels), there simply isn’t time to edit every final presentation of every piece of content.

So, what to do? How can you create context-free content objects that generally require little or no editing to work smoothly in various final presentations? And how can you identify situations where final editing is desireable or necessary?


A big part of the answer to the context dilemma lies in how content objects are created. Many context-sensitive problems can be avoided by paying close attention to how content objects are phrased and categorized.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Use simple sentences. When writing content objects, use short, simple sentences. Use present-tense active verbs and clearly defined subjects and objects.
  2. Use plain, precise words. Don’t say “better” when you mean “less risky,” and don’t say “interface” when you mean “discuss.”
  3. Avoid jargon, acronyms, idiomatic expressions, and buzzwords. These inherently rely on informational, organizational, or cultural context.
  4. Flag possible context issues. A crucial part of any CMS is the taxonomy, or list of labels, used to categorize each content object. Make sure your system’s taxonomy includes labels that describe possible applications or context for each content object, and allow you to flag certain uses as requiring editorial attention before final publication. For instance, say you have a content object that is a brief product description. You could use that content object free of additional editorial review on your intranet, or in external marketing materials. However, if that same content object gets included in a set of instructions (content application) provided for customer support (audience context), additional editorial review might be warranted. Therefore, that content object should be labeled with appropriate “editorial review flags” when it’s created.


The bottom line is, if you want most of your content objects to require little or no editorial review in most situations, be willing to put more time and care into how they are crafted. Successful communication requires careful editing – either at the front end or the back end. Doing that work up front, keeping diverse applications in mind, will indeed save a lot of work down the line.

Still, it’s important to remember that there will always be exceptional situations that require additional editorial care. Usually it is possible to foresee these. And for those you cannot foresee, you can always apply new labels to the content objects later.

Get used to thinking ahead for each and every content object you create. If your plan is to quickly crank out content objects and slap them into your repository, prepare for headaches, hassles, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities galore.

3 thoughts on Contextual Editing: Not Dead Yet

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  1. Contextual editing: not dead yet
    Amy Gahran has written a blog entry on contextual editing in a CMS. To quote: In the realm of content management systems, I periodically see discussion of contextual (context-sensitive) editing: fine-tuning the final phrasing or presentation of content…

  2. Contextual Editing: Not Dead Yet
    In the realm of content management systems, I periodically see discussion of contextual (context-sensitive) editing: fine-tuning the final phrasing or presentation of content to suit the situation in which it will be displayed.

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