It’s not enough these days to churn out an occasional occasional white paper and smattering of news releases every couple of months. With a need for regular updates, success stories, buying guides, meet-the-team and any number of other pieces of content, marketers are increasingly looking for contributions from employees throughout the company.
That means getting people to write who’d rather have oral surgery. Or dealing with people who see this as their big chance to show off their creative writing skills – pages and pages of them — when what’s needed is a five-paragraph update.
What’s the solution?
A couple of not-so-great options
There are a couple extremes that probably won’t work:
- Hire pros to do it all. As much as those of us who write for a living would love this solution, it’s impractical. Professional writers wouldn’t be able to gather all the information, write it from scratch and get it approved in a timely fashion. Plus the cost of full-time writers on staff or as outside consultants would be too high for many organizations.
- Give everybody a how-to book on writing and watch ‘em go. There are any number of people who’ll tell you that they’ve captured everything you need to know about writing between the pages of a book – the shorter the better. Problem is, writing isn’t something you master in a couple of hours. It takes repeated effort to really get better.
So I decided to poke around to see how various organizations are handling this. In this post, I’ll share what I learned from talking to writing coach Leslie O’Flahavan.
In her first career, Leslie taught high school and college students how to write. She now runs E-WRITE, a Washington, D.C.-based writing training and consulting company that works with corporations, non-profits, and government agencies across the U.S. and abroad.
Tips from a writing coach
With 33 years under her belt explaining the craft of writing to audiences, Leslie is in a good position to summarize what can be taught to adults. She also has some strong insights into the psychology involved in encouraging adults to take on something that isn’t a strength.
She says that there’s often a vicious cycle at organizations in which some employees are strong writers, others are weak writers. The strong writers get submissions that need editing from the weak writers. They provide feedback to the weak writers that only makes them feel defensive.
In the next round of submissions, the weak writers – feeling badly about their writing ability – write even worse. That in turn makes the strong writers feel more disillusioned. The gap between them grows to the point that both sides want to give up.
The key to turning that around, she says, is to build on each writer’s strengths. For example, almost all employees have to write emails as part of their jobs. Maybe a writer has shown an ability to write a strong email subject line. Build on that strength and show them how to write a good headline for a piece used on the company’s website.
The main goals of a writing training program
I asked Leslie what she sees as the main set of skills she hopes to impart after one of her two- or three-day sessions helping an organization’s employees with their writing. Her three objectives:
- Get to the point up front. Don’t force readers to wade through paragraphs to understand what issue you’re addressing.
- Make your writing scannable. Readers want to quickly take in what you have to say so they know how closely they want to dig into it. Use headings, vertical lists, and white space.
- Write concisely. Make sure each element in your piece supports your message.
In the end, the goal is to make sure each writer can convey the needed information. “Not all writing is Writing with a capital W,” she says.
My take on this: Use your strongest writers for material that has the highest visibility and benefit to your organization. Don’t worry about the less-critical pages. It’s okay if they’re not elegantly written, as long as they’re clear.
Making writing an organizational competence
Organizations that value training for their employees are probably most inclined to hire a writing coach to help end the cycle of negativity between the strong and weak writers described above. But once the coach is done, how do you keep improving?
Leslie suggests establishing weekly meetings – no more than 30 minutes in length – to talk about writing. Having a common understanding of what works is important.
Review writing samples to see what the group likes and what it doesn’t. The key: Be sure the writing you’re reviewing wasn’t done by anyone at your organization. That way, there’s no ego involved – just talking about words and understanding how effectively they’re being deployed.
Have an example of how your company has managed to generate a lot of content without a team of professional writers? I’d love to hear about it. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I may share you story here.