I Was the Editor for Marcus Sheridan's They Ask, You Answer (2nd Edition) & Here's What I Learned
By Liz Murphy
Whenever you have a meeting with Marcus Sheridan, and he starts off with, "Hey, bud..." one of two things is about to happen:
- You're about to be on the receiving end of a (likely deserved) "teachable moment," about something you need to do better or work on for the future.
- He's about to lay a big, meaty, terrifyingly awesome challenge at your feet, but you've got to be the one who ultimately says yes.
This is exactly what happened to me one chilly day back in February. We hopped on a quick Zoom call late in the afternoon, and Marcus started in right away:
"Hey, bud. Thanks for making the time for me today, I really appreciate it. I'm going to be doing a second edition of They Ask, You Answer, and I'd like your help.
Be forewarned, this is going to be a lot. We want it ready for IMPACT Live in August, so we have less than 30 days to pull it all together and get it to the publisher. So, if this is too much, tell me. I understand."
Without even thinking, I blurted out, "Yes! Yes, absolutely. I'll make it work."
There was no way in h-e-double-hockeysticks I was going to say no. Even though I had never been involved in a book publishing project of this scale, and this was probably going to be one of the biggest professional challenges of my career, to-date.
The good news is, we did get the manuscript in on-time to the publisher -- it included 30,000+ new words, as well as a facelift of some of the pre-existing content.
But there were a lot of long weekends and crazy, sleepless nights to get to that moment, and here is what I learned.
🔎 Related: What is They Ask, You Answer?
#1: If You're Going to Be Someone's Editor, You Need to Learn to Think, Write, & Talk Like Them... & It Can Get Weird
If you're familiar with Marcus Sheridan, you know he has a particular way of communicating -- more so than your average person. His cadence is measured, his word choice is distinct (he's a big fan of the word "specifically"), and no one out there sounds quite like he does.
Here's an example from IMPACT Live 2017:
Feels a bit like going to some sort of inspirational marketing church, right?
That's why I knew one of my first challenges was going to be onboarding myself to Marcus' communication style.
Even though he is the author of the book, I knew I couldn't make sound changes or editorial recommendations if I didn't know how to think, write, and talk like he does like a reflex. I always had to approach everything I edited on his behalf as if I were a second Marcus, so his voice would never get lost through the process.
How did I do it? I put myself through Marcus Bootcamp.
First, I read through They Ask, You Answer twice. Yes, of course, I had already read it previously, just as many digital marketers have. But this was an entirely different ballgame. So, I spent the first read-through studying his pacing and structure, and then I spent the second read-through hyper-focusing on his word choice.
I highlighted. I underlined. I made notes in the margin. I questioned my sanity. Etc.
Second, I watched every video of his talks I could find over a three-day period. It was like an immersive experience, where you're trying to learn a new language. Except, I didn't get to go to Spain and eat tapas while learning my "new language."
Rather, I was in my home office most definitely looking like an obsessive lunatic to the rest of the outside world.
This photo was taken of me after someone stupidly asked, "Hey, how's the whole book thing going?" while I was in the middle of watching one of Marcus' talks.
I know this all sounds a little nutty, but it worked. My dedication to really understanding Marcus' voice, tone, and storytelling style enabled me to be that extended version of his brain when I was reading through his work.
Instead of just copyediting, I was able to make reworded suggestions aimed at making his ideas ring through more clearly.
Of course, there was one other tactic I employed to test whether or not anything I wrote or suggested for the book was authentically Marcus. If I wasn't sure a particular passage I had written was "landing" properly, I would stand up and pretend to speak it as if I were Marcus on stage giving a talk.
I'd try to mimic his mannerisms and his cadence to the best of my ability, as my dogs looked on, understandably baffled and somewhat alarmed.
Somehow, speaking what I had written out loud would immediately bring forward any style issues that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks. I did have a couple of people walk in on me while I was doing that once. That was fun and not in any way embarrassing.
Again, to some of you, I may seem like I went overboard in my attempts to develop my Marcus voice reflex. But if you want something to become second nature -- the way an author's voice must be if you're an editor on a book for someone else -- this is the level of deep understanding you need to get to.
#2: When It Comes to Publishing a Book, Everything Takes Longer Than You Think It Will
OK, this is a lesson I learned the hard way.
Intellectually, at a high-level, I knew that the book publishing process was something way outside the realm of my understanding. I had never edited anything at that scale, I had never managed so many different moving pieces for a content project, and so on.
On the other hand, I'll admit I thought I was a bit of a smartypants about managing very complex content projects with aggressive deadlines. I oversee our long-form pillar content strategy, I help inform our editorial content calendar, and I can be a content creation machine, as needed.
But if I were to put any saying on a commemorative t-shirt regarding my experience as the internal editor for They Ask, You Answer (2nd Edition), it would be:
WHEN I SAY SOMETHING WILL TAKE TWO HOURS, I MEAN THREE DAYS.
If you're ever involved in a book project (as the writer or the editor), hear me when I say this -- you need to throw everything you think you know about time budgeting out the window.
Everything will take longer than you expect.
The specific reasons why will vary from task to task, but overall it comes down to the scale of what you're working on.
There were moments where I had the time to keep going and hit whatever self-imposed editing deadline I had set, but I had to stop for the sake of my brain. I had gotten what I call "word drunk." Meaning I could no longer make sense of what was in front of me. I had to walk away to reset my brain.
It was strange, because I was used to pushing through when dealing with reasonably-sized content projects. But when you spend eight hours a day, multiple days in a row, trying to work through the same manuscript -- with no context switching of any kind -- you're going to mentally cry "Uncle!" at a few points.
I had never hit such a mental wall before, and it was humbling.
Then there was the manuscript building. Oh, that pesky manuscript.
First of all, when I say manuscript building, what I'm referring to is the time after all of the editing and writing is done, and I'm simply assembling the final manuscript that will be sent to the publisher.
But even though Bob tried to make me feel better by saying, "I bet you can just send over the Google Docs," that was not the case.
Instead, I had two pages worth of formatting rules I had to follow from the publisher.
The margins had to be set to a specific measurement. The spacing, paragraph format, and font settings had to be on point. There was also a very strange hierarchy I had to follow for chapter titles, headings, subheadings, etc. You couldn't just insert the images you wanted where you wanted them. You needed to use a predefined labeling structure, the photo files needed to be done a certain way, and you needed a photo index, as well as an artwork index.
And that's just the tip of the "formatting rules" iceberg.
You couldn't make any mistakes either because, as the publisher stressed many times across multiple emails in bold and underline -- as well as at a few points within the manuscript rules documentation itself -- noncompliance would likely result in the manuscript being "rejected," which would lead to a potential delay in publication, and other unsavory consequences.
Given how important this book was not only to Marcus but also our company -- as the They Ask, You Answer philosophy is at the heart of how we do business and work with our clients -- I knew I was being trusted with an important responsibility.
Once more, I felt sincerely honored to be trusted in such a way.
But whenever I mentally played out what would happen if I screwed up, I started dry-heaving quietly at my desk.
Anyway, I allotted about six hours to assemble the manuscript.
I mean, at that point, I wasn't doing any more copyediting -- aside from a few touch-ups and final polishes, here and there, of course. It was just assembly and some formatting.
How long would that take, really?
Uh, fun fact -- a very long time.
Instead of six hours, it took 13 hours. I don't know how or why. All I know is that every time I looked up at the clock and thought maybe only 20 minutes had passed, 90 minutes had actually flown by.
Thankfully, everyone was understanding of the fact that I wasn't running one or two hours behind in delivery. I was running many, many hours behind.
The manuscript eventually did get in on time and, by the grace of all that is holy, it was not rejected. Although that 48-hour period after I submitted the manuscript was probably the most nervous I've ever been.
#3: It's Really Easy to Forget How to Write Like Yourself When You Learn How to Sound Like Someone Else
So, here's something funny. And I don't know how I didn't see it coming, but... well, I just didn't.
I spent about a month becoming an extended Marcus mouthpiece. And flipping that switch off so I could, once again, have thoughts and express them as Liz Murphy was a lot harder than I expected.
I remember the first article I wrote after I submitted the manuscript was excruciating.
Everything felt wrong.
I couldn't stop using "specifically" like confetti all over my writing.
I felt like I had a little benign, Marcus-shaped tumor in my brain overriding all of my usual instincts as a writer.
In short, I lost my own voice. And getting it back was not easy.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, I'm going to be honest and say the path you take back toward your own voice will be unique and your own. But I can share a few of the things that helped me.
First, I started up my 750words.com practice again. Meaning every morning for three weeks, I would force myself to write 750 words about anything -- stream of consciousness -- in under 25 minutes.
I wouldn't allow myself to stop for typos or for restructuring. I would just sit down at the keyboard and go.
I know that sounds like a big commitment, but it's a lot easier than you think. And, quite honestly, this practice has previously helped me become a better, more efficient and instinctual writer. So, I highly recommend it.
Second, I volunteered myself to write as much as possible. This quarter alone, I've produced more than 12 articles outside of my podcast, when our internal contribution standard is one (maybe two) per month. It was a lot of work, but each time I sat down at the keyboard, it got easier.
Finally, I spent a lot of time studying comedy to level-up my own writing game. You know how some comedians can slip into dramatic roles in a way that almost seems effortless? (Steve Carrell and Jim Carrey are great examples of this.) But dramatic actors often struggle to do comedy?
That's because true comedic talents possess an uncanny understanding of timing, emotion, and how to own the energy of an audience, where they are in control of how you feel and exactly when.
I think we, as content creators, should strive to be able to do the same thing. Which is why I spend a lot of time watching stand-up, reading satire, and studying humor articles and essays. When done right, they can be masterclasses in storytelling and narrative structure.
(The New Yorker humor section is a particular favorite of mine. And while Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking is one of my all-time favorite books, I have never laughed harder than I did reading his follow-up, The White House Mess.)
The reason I chose to do this following the They Ask, You Answer project is I realized I was never going to be able to go back and be the writer and storyteller I once was. So, instead, I used it as an opportunity to learn to be a different and better writer than before.
#4: Finally, the Sleepless Nights & Insane Deadlines Were 100% Worth It
While most of the predictions I made about how the process would go at the start of this adventure turned out to be laughably off-base, there was one thing I was absolutely spot-on about.
After I got off that fateful February call with Marcus, I stared at my keyboard and thought:
"This is probably going to be one of the most challenging projects I've ever been a part of, and I'm going to deal with insane amounts of stress. And I'll probably feel more proud of this than anything I've done thus far in my career."
I was right.
Were there times I sat with my head in my hands at my desk at 3 a.m., wondering how the heck I was going to get anything done? Repeatedly.
Were there moments where I questioned my abilities and felt like a fraud? On an almost hourly basis -- and thank goodness Marcus and Bob still haven't found me out!
Did Starbucks baristas see me more than my own friends and family over that 30-day period? Mhm. To the point where I didn't even have to order. I would just drag my weary, athleisurewear-clad body through the door, and they would start making my venti pour-over blonde roast.
Did my desk at one point look like the aftermath of an explosion, complete with a mystery bottle of creamy balsamic salad dressing sitting next to my Google Home display that I did not remember bringing into my office?
Welcome to the Thunderdome.
Oh, you betcha.
In fact, the number of Trader Joe's seltzer bottles and premade salads I plowed through over those few weeks is downright disturbing.
But it was so worth it.
The timeline was aggressive and insane, and I was working on a book that, just a few short years earlier, had fundamentally changed my view of what I do for my career. How crazy is that? So, even in those moments when I felt the most pressure, I still felt an underlying sense of exhilaration and... well, pride.
We were going to pull off the impossible, and I was going to be a part of it.
Then, about a day or so before the manuscript was due, Marcus sent over the acknowledgments for the book:
I don't want to spoil the other acknowledgments, so I've blocked them out.
Maybe it was because I was sleep deprived, but as Zach Basner once joked with me, "Hey, who's cutting onions around here?"
My mission has always been to give others a voice and empower them to tell their own stories. As a result, the moments in my career that give me the most pride are those when someone else is getting the recognition they deserve for being thought-provoking and ridiculously smart.
So, to receive that sentiment from Marcus, a person for whom I hold so much admiration, meant the world to me.
Don't Forget the New Edition of They Ask, You Answer Lands This August
For those of you who are attending IMPACT Live later this summer, I hope you're as excited about getting your own copy of the second edition of They Ask, You Answer as I am.
Not just because it was a labor of love, but also because Marcus really did go out of his way to revise and expand his book, which has already revolutionized how thousands of companies around the world approach their digital sales and marketing.
(I learned a ton just by virtue of editing this book. And if you ever need someone who can recite the book from memory -- perhaps as an avant garde performance art piece -- I'm your gal.)
If for some reason, however, you're not able to join us in Hartford in August for IMPACT Live, pre-order your copy today. Trust me when I say you won't just want to read it; you'll want to devour it.
Wondering where to begin?