Team writing not working? Part 1

Rachael Dullahide Writing process

You probably work as part of a team on many writing projects. Working together, multiple writers bring all the ingredients for a successful writing project—subject expertise, writing skills, ideas and perspectives, and labour.

But team writing has its challenges—conflicts over ownership of sections and chapters, noncompliance with deadlines (especially when there’s conflict over ownership), and problems with document continuity and consistency. The result can be an unhappy team of writers and a poor quality output.

So, what’s the recipe for successful team writing? How do you avoid having many cooks spoil the broth?

Over the next couple of posts, we share our tips on promoting a healthy team writing environment. This week, we offer useful hints on getting your team in order before drafting starts:

First, think very carefully about document structure at the start, so you can minimise the material that you have to reallocate across writers. You’ll still have some content movement, but you want to keep it to a minimum. If you’re updating a regular report, the final structure for the previous report may be a good place to start, but ask how is it appropriate (or not) this time.

If you’re starting from scratch, don’t skimp on planning. Know your audience. Know your main points and their right order (from most important to least important). Then, establish a report structure that provides the information logically and addresses your reader’s ‘need to know’.

The upshot: as far as possible, don’t start writing until you nail the structure.

Second, allocate writers depending on both their subject expertise and their writing ability. Sometimes, the latter is more important than the former. If you have a complicated technical section, you may be better off allocating a good writer to that section, rather than the person with the best subject knowledge.

A good writer will get the information they need from an SME, and write it accurately with input from the SME. But a weak writer will find it difficult to present the information well, even if they understand the subject better. Remember, the ultimate goal is a readable document that informs and/or persuades your reader. The report won’t do that if it is difficult to read.

The upshot: allocate the more complex material to your best writers, working alongside the SMEs. Better writers produce more logical, more readable material, and they do it faster.

Third, develop a style guide before you start to write. Make one team member responsible for developing and updating the guide. Include the style guide as an agenda item at each team meeting, and ask each team member to add terms/words/phrases/acronyms etc. These consistency matters are much easier to control when style decisions are made at the start and when ‘style’ is kept front of mind during the project.

The upshot: don’t let people be lazy or forgetful about style consistency. Treat it as a priority, right from the start.

Next week, we’ll talk about how you can manage the drafting process.