Why Writing by Committee Is Hard and How to Make it Easier

We usually work with one or two experts to develop a business article, which makes it easy to stay focused on a single overarching message, even when the topic is complex. But sometimes we work with as many as eight contributors. Then the process feels more like working with a committee, and staying focused becomes more difficult. Several issues can arise.

First, when everyone in a group wants to include their favorite ideas, it’s challenging to maintain a single point of view and voice, which is crucial for hooking readers. Even if their ideas don’t conflict, the contributors try to cover too much in one piece, making it a mishmash of ideas and perspectives, diluting its impact, and reducing its effectiveness.

Second, debates over points of view and word choice can bog down the writing process. When group members have differing opinions about what a piece should say, it can go through multiple drafts without making much progress. When that happens, it’s not unheard of for us to get to version 40 before the piece goes to production with material that’s been added and removed multiple times.

Finally, with a larger team, there’s a higher chance of the development process being disrupted by someone who takes it upon themselves to rewrite a section that has already been edited, invite someone else to contribute late in the game, or reverse finished editing, making grammatical or structural errors.

So, what’s a content developer to do? Here are some things we have found can help:

  1. Lay out the process for the authors before you start. We begin our engagements with clients by detailing how we approach article development. We explain that we like to start with an outline of the main idea and supporting evidence, at which point we want everyone to chime in with feedback until everyone is happy with the overall argument and structure. Only then do we write the draft, at which time they can make minor corrections, but not major ones. Once they sign off on the draft, we copy-edit the article to produce the finished piece. In cases where the authors have already produced a draft, we typically start with top editing—suggesting structural and content changes and pointing out errors in logic and assertions that need footnoting or other backup—before line and copy editing.
  2. Explain the process on a video conference. If possible, we prefer to walk clients through our approach on a call because when we describe it in an email, it’s too easy for authors to say “okay” without really understanding what we expect them to do (and not do) at each step of the process. During a meeting, they can ask questions, and we can emphasize their role in the most misunderstood stages, such as our preference that they make significant changes during the outline stage rather than after we’ve gone to draft. We also find it effective to include someone with authority on the call, such as a senior publishing or marketing person who’s familiar with the process and can support us in explaining it.
  3. Communicate your credentials. During the initial stages, we try to convey that we are seasoned editors well-schooled in what makes an article compelling to a business audience and the prevailing style guide. That way, the author team understands that while they are the experts on the topic, we are the experts on content development.
  4. Be clear about what the team should do with a draft every time you send it to them for review. Once an article has been drafted, we typically send it back to the experts for a last review. However, when sending it, we make it clear that we only want them to check it for accuracy and completeness. That way, they will be less likely to line-edit parts of the article we’ve already polished and perfected.
  5. Explain the benefits of sticking with the process. At times it’s been helpful to explain to clients how it will be quicker, cheaper, and produce a better outcome if everyone sticks to the process and plays their respective roles. We’ve developed our content development process through years of trial and error, and people are generally more receptive to doing things differently if we can articulate the benefits in ways they understand.
  6. Have a deadline for publishing. Nothing focuses a team like an end date. And that deadline must be real, like an upcoming conference for which the authors need to publish a report. Otherwise, the iteration can continue indefinitely.

By following these tips, you can increase the likelihood of keeping a group project on track. However, here’s the bad news: Even if you do all these things, they may not work. At least not right away. Many professional service firms have an ethos that values repeated iterations on an oscillating path to perfection. Authors often don’t realize this is cumbersome with running text, but it can be impossible to prevent.

Other firms value what they view as completeness—if they say one thing about deploying AI, they have to include another 20, which can make pieces overly long and bury the point of view. And some experts have their own ideas about how the process should work and are reluctant to relinquish control. They often come around, but only once they are comfortable that your control and concern are as strict and real as theirs. In those cases, it’s about proving yourself – and your process – over time.

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