"Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” – Gene Fowler
Okay, the quotation above contains a bit of hyperbole, but let’s face it: writing can be harder than you expect. Whether you’re drafting a document or creating content for your website, finding the right words and tone can cause the even the bravest to break into a sweat.
And then, we complicate things by bringing in the team.
Collaborative writing is an ever-increasing reality in our businesses and organizations. We gather a group in a meeting or pass a document back-and-forth, asking colleagues for feedback and input. After all, the more brains, the better the writing, right?
Like most creative endeavors, writing isn’t a natural team sport. Multiple writers can be frustrating and counter-effective and, in the worst-case scenarios, completely cause communication to derail. If you’ve ever spent an hour debating the merits of using “farm” or “hobby farm” to describe a rural venture, you know what we mean.
That said, collaboration can lead to good written work if you follow some ground rules.
First of all, identify a lead writer and someone to guide the process. This last role may be a project manager or the lead writer, but be clear on who it is. (Shout-out to Erin Hemme Froslie at Whistle Editorial who works with us on our writing woes!)
Now, embrace some of these guidelines to help the process go more smoothly:
1. Clarify what you need to accomplish.
It’s easy to spend time and energy on words and phrases that don’t matter. Make sure everybody around the table understands the big picture – your ultimate goal and the audience you are trying to reach. Are you trying to articulate your event’s mission or update an employee policy manual? Are you trying to attract new customers with clever marketing copy or thanking donors for their generosity? Clarifying your goals keeps everyone focused on the task at hand and, hopefully, keeps them from getting too deep in the weeds.
2. Establish an outline.
If you’re going to collaborate on a writing project, this step is critical. This is where everyone has a chance to contribute without actually writing. An outline captures the team’s ideas and key phrases, but keeps the group from getting bogged down in the technical aspects of writing. Focus on the “what you want to say,” not the “how you say it” part of communication. Before everyone walks away, get buy-in on the final outline. This should alleviate any attempts to completely rewrite later in the process.
3.Create a standard guide.
Ideally, your company or organization has a style guide for writing. This document helps to establish voice and tone and even word choices, so that all written material sounds like it’s coming from the same source even if there are different authors. If you don’t have a formal style guide, you can get your team to agree to a core set of writing values. Are you direct or more poetic? Do you back up statements with evidence or present information in a more creative way? Do you use the more informal “we/you” or do you present everything from a third-person point of view? Are you more serious or playful? If everyone agrees from the onset, you (hopefully!) won’t have someone wordsmithing the life out of your brilliant copy later on.
4. Communicate where you are in the writing or editing process.
At some point, drafts should be shared with the entire team. Be clear on what kind of feedback the lead writer wants or needs. Ask yourself: is this iteration meant to clean up issues like style or for bigger things like structure and flow? Ask your colleagues specific questions to provide crystal clarity on the revision’s purpose: Are our key terms defined on first reference? Does it take too long to get to the main point? Are the words spelled correctly? Do you notice any grammatical mistakes? It’s frustrating for everyone if the lead writer is expecting substantive edits and everyone comes back with nit-picky tweaks.
5. Designate a final editor (and approver).
Be clear about who pulls together the final copy and who gives it the final stamp of approval. Let’s face it, differences of opinion are going to pop up. That’s okay. Explore those differences, but don’t try to make everyone happy. You won’t succeed. To make progress, designate one person as the final authority on what is written. Take into consideration everyone else’s perspective, but don’t let petty arguments over a word choice hold up the project.
Writing may not be a team sport, but these tips may make the process more collaborative. Happy writing!
Your partners in leadership.