Writing by committee sucks.
You know the pain. Over days or weeks, contributors cobble together a draft, then pass revisions around by email. One sorry soul amasses and interprets feedback, negotiating edits to please reviewers whose ideas are at odds. Ultimately, someone “wins,” and others swallow their opinions to keep the peace and get the freaking message out the door. Bruised by compromise and frustrated by wasted time, the team delivers a lackluster communication.
Collaborative writing doesn’t have to be this way.
With confident leadership, a strong grasp on the audience and the objective for the communication, and honest participation from everyone, you can get great writing from a committee. And those involved can actually find the process smooth, rewarding, effective, and—yeah, I’ll say it—fun.
Work your message in a writers’ room.
Writers’ rooms are common practice in fields like comedy, television, and advertising. A handful of creative people gather to brainstorm. They pitch and share and develop ideas. They plan story lines, invent characters, and debate plot twists.
The same approach can help you create business messages. Gather a team. If you’re all in one place, great. If not, use technology to meet virtually. Just be sure to meet in real time, for a set amount of time, with full focus on a specific message for a specific audience.
Imagine the breakthroughs a roomful of thinkers could generate by pooling their wisdom to:
- Create or revise a pitch.
- Describe a new service or product or policy.
- Ask leaders or donors for something more or something different.
- Explain legal or technical information in terms new employees can understand.
- Map out the next 12 months of blog posts or content marketing topics.
Seriously. When wouldn’t you enter the writers’ room? It’s a great place to go to get your head around an idea and your arms around an audience.
Multiple minds shape meaningful messages.
Who belongs in your writers’ room? Reserve at least one seat for a subject matter expert. Hold one more for a professional communicator—someone who knows how to craft and deliver a message to your target audience. Fill the rest of the room with people who will bring valuable voices to the conversation: a defender of the audience, a bringer of outside perspective, a humorist, a visualizer, a cutter of crap.
In short, recruit diversity. You want people from different work levels, different areas of expertise, different demographics, different cultures, different points of view.
The benefit of many voices is why comedy writer Carol Leifer prefers writers’ rooms over solo projects. In a 2014 Nerdist podcast she said, “Larry Sanders was my first writers’ room, and it’s the way I like to work now. With the synergy of a million comedic voices in one room … it makes any comedy that much better.”
Set the table with expectations.
To kick off your writers’ room session, tell everyone what you’re after. Your opening remarks might go something like this:
“Welcome to the writer’s room. We’re here to get all the ideas on the table, so we can get the best ideas on the page. It’s not a competition, where you lobby for your idea to make the cut. It’s a collaboration, where we listen and share and build ideas together. Everyone shares the work, and everyone shares the credit. Our sole objective is to craft a message that speaks clearly to our target audience.”
Though everyone in the writers’ room has an equal voice, you do need a facilitator—someone who manages the process, watches the clock, and has the good sense to call a new play, call for time-out, or call it quits. Who’s best suited for this role? It could be you, a colleague, or someone from outside your organization.
But make it clear that the facilitator is not there to police contributions. In the writers’ room, each person is accountable for stepping forward with what he or she has to offer. Put it this way:
“If you have a killer idea—or even a seemingly small observation—and you don’t express it, you lose your moment of brilliance, and we all lose the benefit of your brainpower. Don’t let that happen. If you have the slightest notion that you could be adding more to the conversation, bring it!”
The writers’ room is exhausting, but exhilarating.
Ask everyone to bring their full focus to the writers’ room. Lure them with snacks. Tell them you need every ounce of energy they can muster for the duration of the session—and be reasonable about how long you can hold them captive. For sessions longer than an hour or two, build in breaks. You’ll need them.
After a productive session, at least one person can be tasked with putting the final touches on the work. If he or she is empowered to speak (or write) for the group, your collaboration is done. But if you need another round of consensus, circulate the draft and convene the writers’ room once again. In one efficient session, you can collect and agree on revisions.
In the past few months, I have entered the writers’ room to draft several video scripts, describe a series of technology products, alert customers of an upcoming change, revise a data policy, and create a grammar class. These sessions lasted from one hour to one day. Every time, I left physically tired (creative collaboration is hard work) but mentally jazzed. I was inspired by my fellow contributors, proud to have great words on the page, and motivated to support the messages we created.