"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!
Every meeting has the potential to veer into a tangent, to carry its attendees into a deep forest so far from the original path that it’s nearly impossible to find the route home.
It’s easy to blame this on others – those who arrange the agenda, those whose comments lead us astray. But whether we like it or not, we are all accountable for keeping meetings effective. If you’re in charge, the steps you need to take are more obvious. If you’re not officially in charge, there are still things you can do to keep everyone on track.
But wait, you say. I’m not the meeting leader. What can I do? A lot, it turns out.
It can be uncomfortable to step in and say something. But if you don’t deploy some guerilla tactics, you’re actually rewarding bad meeting behavior. An easy way to bring people back to the meeting at hand is to use the power of curiosity: Ask questions instead of launching accusations.
Here are some specific ways to address some major meeting derailers. Keep these ideas in mind and you will move from a passive observer to problem solver – all while making your meetings better.
Problem: Meeting starts without a purpose.
Solution: When a meeting starts without a purpose, outcomes or products simply ask: “Can you take a second to go over the overall purpose of this meeting and what we need to have when we’re done? That information will help me stay focused.”
Recognize we are all doing our best. Sometimes that best doesn’t come with a clear purpose. The meeting organizer may not know that meetings need purpose. They may not have had an opportunity to learn. Don’t be snarky, rude, or mean – ask the questions honestly and kindly.
Problem: Discussion goes off track.
Solution: This happens often in meetings, right? It usually goes something like this: Todd (and we all know Todd, we may have even been him!) has this great idea for new bedroom footwear, and he must share every single detail now. Great, except the meeting is about brainstorming nightwear for cats.
When Todd goes off on his random tangent, speak up and say: “These are excellent ideas for slippers. I know we need to get back to our main topic, but your ideas may be important for a future meeting. I will write them down for future discussion. Can we get back to discussing number four on the agenda: cat pajamas?”
Or use PAL (purpose, agenda, limit) to remind the group of the meeting’s purpose, the agenda items being addressed, and a time limit for discussion.
Problem: One person dominates discussion.
Solution: This situation can get sticky. If the person dominating the conversation is the official meeting leader, you might not be able to use the following technique. But if it’s a peer, chime in with a suggestion. Say something like: “This is an important point. Todd has shared his views, and it would be great to hear from everyone else. Can we go around the room?”
Problem: Decisions and actions not documented
Solution: It’s important to have somebody jotting down decisions and action points throughout the meeting. Even if these notes don’t turn into formal meeting minutes, they keep a group from spinning and having the same discussion every single time they meet.
If the meeting leader isn’t capturing decisions, suggest that somebody serve as a Monkey Minder who takes notes. But if it’s too late for that, ask a question: “There have been decisions made here. Can we make sure someone is capturing those?” Or, step in and assign yourself the role: “There have been decisions made here. Is anyone officially writing these down? If not, I’d be willing to share my notes with the group.”
Consider your tone and remember that we don’t share the same brain, urgencies, or priorities. The rambler, the dominator, and the wayward meeting leader are often doing what’s easy or natural. Take personal responsibility for your attention and actions in a meeting.
Problem: Not paying attention in the meeting.
Solution: Check in with yourself. Are you carrying emotions from another conversation or are you worried about something you’re missing? Are you present and taking responsibility for listening and contributing? Are you engaged, asking questions, and taking your own notes?
Sadly, 98% of us can’t actually multitask. (Take this fun test to see how you do.) So if you’re texting, reading an article, or browsing the Internet during a meeting, you are not paying attention. Take a deep breath, put down your phone/laptop/tablet, grab a pen and take your own notes. The act of writing will help you pay attention to the meeting at hand.
Keeping meetings on track isn’t easy, but it’s something anybody and everybody can help to do. Keep these guerilla tactics in mind during your next gathering, and you’ll have some control over keeping things efficient and on point.