Scott is presenting at Confab Central in Minneapolis, this May.
You’ve got a project, and the project needs words. The web, after all, is mostly words. Not text, necessarily, but words. Hyperlinks are words, or buttons with words on them. Screencasts and commercials and a great deal of video entertainment begin life as scripts made of words. Even listicles are made of words (and also despair).
We get words by writing them. The person who writes them is a writer. If you’re on a content team, your writer might be a subject matter expert, developer, designer, intern, or even an executive. If you’re working with a content team, your writer might be, well, a writer — someone whose day-to-day work is writing.
The thing is, whether it’s your day job or not, writing kind of sucks. It’s laborious. It preys on our insecurities. It can be hard to find time for and hard to stay focused on. The late essayist David Rakoff compared writing to the feeling of pulling teeth — only not from where you’d think. Being a good writer makes for better writing, but it doesn’t make it more fun.
More bad news: bad process and thoughtless leadership can make writing suck even worse. If you want to keep your writers (relatively) happy and make your collaborations more successful, do your best to avoid these Six Ways to Make Someone Hate Writing for You:
I know what it needs to say, I just don’t have time to write it. I also don’t have time to tell you about it. I AM VERY BUSY MAKING DECISIONS PLEASE DO NOT BOTHER ME UNTIL THE WRITING IS DONE.
In business, a writer is a designer who solves communication problems with words. Like any good designer, your writers will want to articulate the problem and its associated design constraints before exploring solutions. The more information you give them, the faster and more rewarding this exploratory process will be.
Writers will have questions that start with familiar words like “who” and “when” and, if they’re brave, “why”. Sometimes these questions feel redundant. You might feel like you’ve already given the writer plenty of information to work with. That’s not your call. When you ask someone to write, you’re also asking them to understand. Being cagey about what you want or need will not aid their understanding.
Set aside time to allow your writers to ask questions about any new assignment. Sharing any preliminary notes about your content need can help a lot, too. Bullet points beat a blank page any day, even if they come festooned with caveats about how “you’re not a writer” and “these are just some ideas”. Your writer will love you for trying, and for giving them something to respond to creatively and base their follow-up questions on.
Your writer may already have some worksheets they like to use to help get answers to their common questions. It doesn’t hurt to ask. If you and your writer are both new to this process, search together for a content planning tool that fits your style and need.
Working visually is another great way to coordinate knowledge between team members, even if the thing you’re trying to describe isn’t visual in nature. (Shameless plug: my friend Michael Metts and I are sharing some of our favorite tools for visualizing content strategy thinking at a Confab Intensive workshop this September.)
This is broken and I don’t know why, but I also somehow know that it’s easy to fix! We already spent a lot of time on it, could you just wordsmith it a little? It shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes.
The way we talk about writing and content reveals a great deal about the value we place on it. One dangerous word that’s crept into many organizational vocabularies is ‘wordsmithing’. Wordsmithing is a euphemistic (and ultimately imaginary) solution to any and all problems with bad content. Too dry? Wordsmith it! Not converting? Wordsmith it! An executive wrote it and it’s awful but you’re afraid to tell them as much? Wordsmith it!
Asking for wordsmithing presupposes that the only thing wrong with the content is superficial — change a few words, tighten a few sentences, and there we have it! It elevates your contribution and diminishes the contribution of the person you’re asking for help. It also leaves the writer boxed in, unable to ask meaningful questions about why the content exists or how it got to be so bland in the first place.
Be careful when talking about time, too. There’s a subtle but important difference between “this page should only take you a few hours” and “other writers have told me that they spent a few hours working on similar pages”. A conversation about what level of quality is possible within a certain timeframe is often more informative than trying to estimate hours. Be straightforward and honest about your concerns and constraints, and treat your writers (yes, even volunteers) like the professionals that they are.
Sorry, we already held our initial discovery interview with the stakeholder, but here are some notes. hands you coffee-stained page with three doodles of Garfield and the words “get people excited about features!”
A friendly mechanic might listen politely while you imitate the funny sound your car is making, but they’re still going to want to hear it for themselves. Writers are no different. A writer’s notes are different than a project manager’s notes. They’re listening for different things. Hearing discussion in real-time, by people with firsthand experience, gives your writer’s brain a chance to play with the ideas in a fundamentally different way than second-hand information can provide.
News organizations have learned that better, more visceral storytelling is possible by embedding reporters directly into the situations they are reporting on. You can do this, too. Work with your writers to find opportunities to involve them in the project in smart ways. They probably won’t want to sit in on every conference call and status update, but inviting them to things like user research, kickoff meetings, and design critiques can increase their understanding of the project and its nuances in an efficient way.
Don’t you worry about [blank], let me worry about [blank].
Collaborating on web or marketing content might be a totally novel experience for your writer, particularly if you’re working with a subject matter expert. Even Einstein had to learn how to tie his shoes. Give writers an overview of your process at the very beginning. This will help them understand everything expected of them, and whether they’re really up for the task.
A few basics they’ll likely want to know:
Even if all the details aren’t relevant, being open about your content process helps put nagging concerns to rest in your writer’s mind, leaving them better able to focus on the task they’ve been given.
This doesn’t pop. It needs to pop, you know? Like, BAM. But in a subtle way.
No matter how thick your writer may profess their skin to be, it’s always worth being thoughtful with your feedback. Writing is thinking + typing. All writing reflects, on some level, the inner life of the person who produced it. It is necessarily personal, even if the subject is of little or no personal interest to your writer.
Clearly communicate your review and editing process to your writers. In particular, consider any part of the process that will put their writing — and by extension their ideas and reputation — up for review, revision, comment, or critique from teams or people other than yourself. It’s a hell of a gut-punch feeling to get second-hand feedback on writing from people you didn’t even know were looking at your work. Make every effort to allow writers the chance to participate in reviews and receive direct feedback on their contributions.
Good critique isn’t easy, so sometimes we try to avoid it entirely. This is also bad. When you change or throw out what someone has written without explaining why, you have robbed two people of a chance to learn. Your writer will not be able to learn more about your needs and preferences, and you will not have a chance to learn what the writer’s original intent was with whatever you’ve changed. Every workflow is different, and you may find yourself with entirely reasonable reasons to edit first and ask questions later. Don’t neglect the follow-up, or you run the risk of demoralizing the person who contributed that original draft.
Now that the draft is approved, we just need to get about 20 hours of CMS training under your belt and then you’ll be on your way to done with this assignment! Thanks again for volunteering.
Going from a finished draft to a finished writing assignment can involve a great deal of stuff that most people don’t think of as writing — adding styling and formatting, inserting links and tracking codes, appropriate tagging and categorization, image descriptions, proofreading, localization, SEO tweaks, updating content inventories and sitemaps, and so on.
People hate doing that kind of stuff unless they’re content strategists, and we’re weird and don’t count. If it’s possible to design your process so that the finishing work is discrete from the writing and editing work, you’ll be free to work with your writers in whichever way is most comfortable for them. Don’t pass by great voices in your organization because you or your team is too proud to work with Word documents.
There’s often pressure during big redesigns or product launches to do whatever it takes to GET THAT CONTENT. Remember that every interaction you have with a writer is a chance to gain an ally for your project. Whether you’re leading content strategy or just helping gather content together for an initiative you’re assigned to, having a reputation as someone easy that’s easy to work with on content projects will have lasting benefits. Avoiding the mistakes in this guide will help you build that reputation, and make your own work more enjoyable to boot. Good luck!
Scott is presenting at Confab Central in Minneapolis, this May.
Scott Kubie is a Senior Content Strategist at Brain Traffic. He moved to Minneapolis and joined the Brain Traffic team after a decade of work in Des Moines, Iowa, focused on the intersection of art, design, and technology. Scott has worked previously as an digital strategist focused on early-stage startups, and was the first UX content strategist at Wolfram, makers of Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha. He has spoken and led workshops at many great web events since 2012 including Confab, the Information Architecture Summit, The Web Conference at Penn State, the University of Illinois Web Conference, MinneWebCon, and Midwest UX. He’d love to meet your pug and will have a sparkling water please, thank you.
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