Writing projects often blow out – overdue, over budget, over-and-out. Here's how the process from inspiration to publication should go down.
Step 1 – Work out what you need to write
We're all used to commencing a writing project under the assumption that the job at hand is a necessary one. "We need a report on XYZ" or "Small businesses need to know how to become an employer of choice". Often, though, these assumptions are false. Do we really need a report? Where did we get the idea that someone needs a guide on preventing bullying in the workplace? Agreed, if you have something to say that you think is valuable then there's every reason to write about it, but often we're guilty of telling people what we know, not what they need to know. What's the point of spending six months writing a beautiful guide on climate change mitigation strategy if no-one's going to read it?
Of course, many comms outputs are a necessary part of doing business. Thou shalt produce an annual report and four newsletters each and every year. So be it. But before we commit a budget to a project we should weigh up its value.
Even if you're working alone on the project it's essential that you get some input before you get to work. With your line managers and anyone else who's likely to want a say in the output, hold a round-table discussion that covers the scope of the project, what resources you'll need, budget and time frames. Ask of the team, what is this project for? What do we hope to achieve? What are the key messages? What do we want the reader to know or do when they read this? And will they really mind if it isn't full of photos of the workforce and expensive diagrams?
Take good notes. This way, if there's any hint of scope creep or mind-changing later on you can refer back to the first meeting and say, "Hang on a minute, we all agreed that ..."
Step 2 – Get the team together
There will be you, some people whose job is to supply content or feedback (they usually work with you), and most likely some external suppliers like a graphic designer, a copyeditor/proofreader and a printer.
Let your internal helpers know what they're in for. Explain what you'll be needing from them and when, and invite them to send you any worthwhile information early on that might prevent you from reinventing the wheel.
Now is the time to engage your graphic designer, editor and printer, if you need them. The latter two suppliers aren't terribly difficult to manage. To give you a quote, an editor will want to know how many words there will be (and some other easy stuff) and later on they'll want to see a small sample of your draft to make sure it isn't in a foreign language. A printer is even easier. Graphic designers, however, need careful wrangling. It will be far cheaper for you if it goes like this.
Step 3 – Write a high-level outline
Even War and Peace can be summarised on one page. For your own project, write a one-pager that describes:
Step 4 – Write
Many years of writing and editing have led me to believe that there are only two questions you need to ask yourself before you begin writing: what's your point, and who cares? Let's move on. You can learn more about our own approach to writing on our Wordsmithery page.
When you've finished your draft you can send it to your graphic designer for mock-up, and to your editor so he or she can firm-up their estimate of how long the document will take to edit.
Step 5 – Seek feedback
You've finished your first draft and it's beautiful. You release it into the ether with a note to say "please have a look and send me your feedback". Mick from Engineering replies "it's all fine". Sarah from HR sends a thirteen-page extract from her workplace safety manual with a note to say there is important stuff in here. And Robyn from procurement moves all your commas and helpfully adds Capital Letters To All The Headings.
There's an art to asking for feedback; you need to be extremely clear about what you want because most people's default approach is to go into teacher mode and copyedit, which doesn't help at all at this stage.
You also now have the problem that each version you receive back is conflicting, and sorting it out is a nightmare. These days version control is becoming easier, thankfully, owing to the increasing prevalence of live collaboration tools like Google Drive and SharePoint, but if you're stuck with hand-balling Word documents around by email consider tackling each of your feedbackers sequentially.
Be specific when you ask for feedback. Try something like this.
"Please take a look at my first draft of the report. In particular I’d like you to consider whether the key messages are correct and that they cover what the audience needs to know. Remember, this is for our board and industry partners so the interpretation of the figures is really important. If something trips you up, please try to provide a solution or alternative rather than simply pose a question – the development phase is now over.* Finally, please don’t worry too much about correcting typos as the document will be professionally edited. I'll need your feedback by lunchtime on Friday.”
* "Should we add something about the new coffee machine here?" isn't terribly helpful.
Step 6 – Finalise the content
Now everyone has had their say it's time to get final sign-off. The person responsible, remember, has already had the chance to direct the scope and content through your initial round-table meeting and looking at your high-level outline. God forbid this would ever happen, but if your boss now comes to you with "I think we need to rethink this ..." then you have every right to poke her in the eye with a pencil.
Ahem. Anyway, let's assume that with a few minor tactful tweaks the document is ready for launch.
Step 7 – Copyediting
If someone tells you that you should be able to proofread your own work, tell em they're dreaming. The editor you engaged earlier on will welcome your document with open arms, pick up lots of errors that you haven't noticed, and using their years of experience will no doubt improve the document's readability – much better and much faster than anyone in your office could possibly do it.
Step 8 – Graphic design
All the content review and revision work so far has happened in MS Word, or whatever is your word-processor of choice, which is as it should be. Only now that the content has been edited and signed-off should the designer be allowed to touch it again. Fling the draft their way and patiently await the return of your beautiful laid-out masterpiece.
Step 9 – Proofreading and printing
Not even copyeditors are perfect. There will be a typo, or something missing, or a link that doesn't work, that has become obvious only once the copy appears in its final format. A final proofread is an essential part of the process before the document is published. Don't leave out the proofreading stage as a glaring error in your shiny new report is the first thing people will pick up on, which kind of detracts from all the effort you've made.
If you're a professional project manager and you're reading this you're now likely to go, "Aha! He hasn't mentioned measuring success or post-project evaluation!" We get that. It can be quite difficult to measure the success of a writing project but that doesn't mean we can't try. Establishing whether or not the whole exercise gave good value for effort might be possible, for example through interviewing your clients and stakeholders, or sending out a survey, or counting the number of hits on a web page. The important thing is that the message hits its mark; what that looks like must be part of your original project plan. If it doesn't have the effect you're after then next time you should try something different.
Serious stories about communication
told in a silly voice.
I dig a little deeper than most comms folk. From science at university, to a cold-and-wet career as a commercial diver, to working underground, and for the past 17 years as a communicator-at-large, I've had my fair share of weird experiences in all sorts of situations. It's given me a fair-to-middling grounding in all things explanatory.