Writing by committee when you don’t have a choice
A few years ago, the Harvard Business Review asked readers for a solution to the inevitable “death by a thousand cuts” scenario that plagues almost every writing by committee situation.
Here’s what we tell our clients:
When everyone on a team or in a department has a chance to weigh in on a piece, ideas get watered down, flipped around and nitpicked beyond the point of recognition; and the original purpose of the piece gets lost in the minutia of personal preference and corporate hierarchy. It happens all the time, in almost every organization and in just about every medium, but it’s most common in these five kinds of projects:
Once legal strips away everything that could be perceived as possibly actionable, finance questions the economic impact of everything, and founders bicker over the perfect way to articulate the value prop, the pitch goes from an exciting investment opportunity to an excruciating bore.
These generally suffer from the Curse of SME (subject matter expert), when someone long on knowledge but short on brevity replaces the punch with layers of jargon. And if you try to push back, they’ll say you don’t have the same material background they do (which is true), so you have no choice but to acquiesce.
Here, the culprit is most likely the flat layer of VPs, all of whom need to make their teams’ contributions stand out just a little more than everyone else’s. This starts the endless cycle of revisions where the piece keeps coming back to the original writer with more and more additions, flags and re-phrases.
Timing’s an issue with social media, but that never matters to the people who can always find a reason to “rethink” something from an optics perspective. Of course, these inquiries open up cans of worms that turn into full-fledged tangential debates. The original writer is cc’d on all of it and is forced to follow and patiently wait for a decision that won’t come until the night before publishing deadline.
It’s easy to fall in love with a bad idea, and easier to keep it alive with the internal clout to do so. During a naming and tagline exercise, this leads to writers going down fruitless tangents or (worse) eliminating good ideas to make room for less-good ones.
So if you have to write by committee, what’s the best way to get it done well?
How do you make sure the end reader gets something worth reading? How do you protect the key messages and keep them from being dumbed down or obfuscated? And how do you avoid the inter-team squabbles that seem to end after the piece is published but leave unfixable scars?
Step 1 — Write a simple brief
Cover the basic goals of the piece and get it out to everybody who’ll be contributing. Write it in simple, unambiguous language so everyone gets it. And keep it short. Here’s a sample:
Marketing managers for brands and account people at agencies.
Not enough brand managers and account people feel comfortable in creative brainstorms. The result is a lack of representation from the brand side, which too often leads to off-brand work.
Help marketing managers and account people take a more active role in the creative process and even give them the confidence to toss in a few ideas of their own.
A series of 10 white papers that break down the creative writing process for “non-creative people.” Pieces will range from how to generate ideas, how to play with language to write more compelling copy, how to critically evaluate a tagline, etc. It should include relevant research, examples to demonstrate points and perspectives from other creative writing professionals like lyricists and movie/TV script writers.
Re:word is the best at what they do, in part because they’re students of the craft.
Tell us about your next brainstorm. We’ll do a 30-minute pre-brainstorm with you to get your juices flowing.
Respect your reader — it’s about them, not us.
Be compelling — make me want to keep reading.
Tell the truth — it’s always more interesting than spin.
Teach me something — think of it as a reward for my time.
Make me laugh — not the whole way through, but a single smile goes a long way.
Write — don’t waste your energy making it look good; designers will do that.
Step 2 — Assign specific roles as opposed to specific sections
A common mistake many writing committees make is to assign task to title over task to talent. It takes team members out of their element, which of course leads to an inferior end result.
In any writing by committee situation, you’ll have people with extra proficiency in one aspect of the creative process. Writing’s one, but so is researching, conducting interviews, editing and managing the writing process.
Before you start, find out what people on your committee like to do. Then keep them in the lane where they’ll add the most value to the overall piece, get the most value from the experience and be of most value to the committee. If, for example, someone on the committee is a subject matter expert who excels at project management but has trouble articulating their thoughts, the natural interviewer on the committee will get the information out of them.
Step 3 — Have the writers on the committee agree to a style
The best way to do this is to have all the writers write the opening paragraph how they’d want to do it, and share it with the other writers. Together, they can mix and match from the versions to put together a convention.
Then they should articulate the convention and a rationale for it, and send it out to the rest of the committee. This will help guide creative feedback by providing a tonal bullseye.
Step 4 —Have an outside set of eyes take a look
Three simple reasons for this:
Writing by committee will get messy. The rounds of edits, contradicting comments and way too many un-tracked insertions lead to a boo-boo or two that always get missed. These damage the credibility of the final piece.
Writing-by-committee will get emotional. As we said above (and can’t stress enough), it’s way too easy to fall in love with your own idea, regardless of its quality. Hurt feelings can and often do make their way into a writing by committee piece, either overtly or in a more subtextual way. Regardless it damages the flow of the piece.
Writing-by-committee will destroy objectivity. We’re big fans of the axiom “It’s impossible to evaluate a box when you’re in it.” A writing by committee situation puts a bunch of people in the box, sets them at odds with one another and asks them to be objective. It’s not going to happen, and it will damage the quality of the final piece.
Have a writing by committee situation coming up?
Get moving quickly and confidently with a tight brief. We can help you craft one that everyone on your writing committee can buy into and follow.