The Right Way to Write by Committee

Most of my projects involve some form of “writing by committee.” Despite the bad connotation, it doesn’t have to mean writing that takes forever, is watered down, reads poorly, and ultimately doesn’t do the topic justice.

Unless my client is a one-person shop,  I might have two, five, or a dozen people giving up-front input before I write, reviewing drafts, and providing feedback. Even when I work with a client one-on-one, the graphic designer often weighs in on content issues. Having the benefit of multiple perspectives, different areas of expertise, and various levels of subject matter knowledge can lead to a stronger finished product…if you follow a few ground rules.

Every committee needs a Chair — appoint one. Divergent and conflicting opinions and feedback are common when multiple reviewers are involved. To keep the project moving — and keep the peace — one person needs to have final say. That may be the person with the most subject matter knowledge, the most seniority, the most marketing experience, or the most stake in the project.  The important thing is to have someone responsible for making the call (who isn’t afraid to make it).

Set and keep deadlines. More people involved means more opportunity for individual schedules to get in the way of the project schedule. Make it clear that people need to provide their input on time, not only to keep the project moving, but also to avoid having last-minute feedback undo work that’s already been done.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. No, it’s really not all small stuff, but some of it is. Someone doesn’t want to use contractions, another prefers to have this paragraph come before that one, one person out of five doesn’t understand a sentence or like a wording choice. Issues like these are best left to your writer to manage. We’re used to dealing with tone, grammar, style, content structure, and the like, and will be able to make the right call.  If it turns out to be politically necessary to accept certain feedback, just let us know — we’re used to rolling with that reality, too, and can help ensure the need to be PC doesn’t result in bad writing.

Agree to disagree. Writing, like art, is subjective. One person’s Treasure Island is another person’s so-so book about pirates. Someone is probably not going to like some of your choices. That’s fine, as long as the majority of reviewers think the writing is effective and the project is on track. Unless, of course, the unhappy “someone” has the power to pull the plug. In that case…

Head off the eleventh-hour veto. Projects often take on a life of their own. The team gets busy, works hard, and produces a draft, then another, then a “final.” Then it goes to the power-that-be for sign-off. Waiting to get a thumbs-up at this late stage is risky — I’ve seen projects derailed and a lot of effort wasted because someone at the top is surprised by the way something turned out.  Better practice is to avoid a late-stage veto by getting buy-in up front and maybe along the way as well. A quick conversation to discuss an outline, share a first draft, or confirm a change of direction can go a long way to avoiding problems later on. Sure, the boss is busy — that’s why he or she delegates to you — but most bosses I know hate wasted effort (and time and money) more than they hate the occasional “just wanted to check in” interruption.

Keep the momentum going. Getting the words down on paper is a big step, but not the last step. This is where the graphic designer comes in, takes the raw text,  and creates a layout. For those on the team who don’t create marketing materials all the time, this is also where the Word doc finally starts to make sense. Writing and design go hand-in-hand. It’s important to keep your writer involved at this stage — we had a vision for the content structure from the beginning and need to be able to work with the designer to ensure the design supports the information. Whether the full committee stays involved at this stage is your call — designing by committee is as tricky as writing by committee. But surely many of the same ground rules apply — the Chair manages feedback, the designer has final say on design issues, the power-that-be needs to be on board before the design is final.

Celebrate the birth. When you have the finished product in hand (or in PDF, as is often the case these days), acknowledge the committee’s contributions and thank them for their help. It’s a simple way to set a positive tone for the next project — and it’s always the right thing to do. Oh, and one last thing. Before you archive the project folder, jot down any lessons learned — was there a glitch that caused delays, a process that could have gone better, a procedure that worked really well? Set yourself up now for a smoother collaboration next time.


No passion in the world is equal to
the passion to alter someone else’s draft.
~ H. G. Wells


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