We often receive requests to turn around a piece in a few hours, or a day. The requesters wring on our heartstrings, trying to convince us of how simple the task it – it’s just a social media post, it’s just a profile, it’s just one webpage.
As a young professional in the field, I would believe these expectations, and think to myself, that they were right, it shouldn’t actually take more than an hour to write a social media post, or a short emailer. Thankfully, for other young professionals out there, I have 15 years of experience and data now. Don’t fall for the ‘just’. Instead, educate stakeholders on the process of your craft.
Many times, customers or internal stakeholders assume that writing is easy, but there is a process, and it cannot be rushed past a certain point, if quality is expected.
Take the case of internal mailers – I often thought these could be turned around pretty quickly, because, how long could 300 words take to write? I learned the hard way, that while the writing did in fact take only about an hour, I also had to factor in the process behind it, and account for that in setting timelines. 15 years later I tell people – it will take a week. Usually, it starts out when a stakeholder says, we need this mailer and it has to go out today. Then, the calm and collected writer says, “Sure, what do you want to say?” That’s the first time they start to think about it. After they come back with the main points, the calm and collected writer looks at it from the point of view of the reader, and says, “Yes, but. What about this?” Then they go back and clarify, many times having not thought about that valid question even in their own program. And so it takes three to five days for a simple, 300-word mailer.
Or take the case of word count, when it comes to writing articles or blogs. As a content firm, word count is the industry-recognised metric of our trade, which is intrinsically flawed. As Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” We often tell our customers that they should pay us more for writing less, because it is a more intense process, distilling the messages, making sure that everything that needs to be said is included, and in a simple and impactful way. It’s easy to ramble – just look at this blog.
There is a process, and if customers and stakeholders understood and respected this, they would get great quality content, every time.
- Align on the brief – We often hear about ‘getting the brief right’, and we put a lot of the onus on the firm to ‘get it’. The briefing discussion is equally important for everyone in terms of alignment so that they can travel together on the creative journey. This discussion sets the guardrails for the way forward, which could otherwise spiral. Creativity is unlimited, and both the writer and the stakeholder need the same frame within which to harness their ideas. The guardrails to agree on are the brand and its position and key messages, the audience, how they consume content, the intent of your message (to inform, persuade, or lead to an action) and the unique limitations of your channels, any specific guidance on style or tone etc.
- Allow time for research – After this is a spell of research, whether through talking to experts, or online. This phase informs the writer about what is already out there – current trends, points of view, studies and data. This is the shortest point in my blog today, but takes the longest time and leads to original thought.
- Sync up on an outline or a skeleton draft – A wireframe is well accepted in the world of web design, because it’s now understood that once the designer and developer start on the UX, it’s pretty tough to change the navigation. We’ve often found that putting in place a ‘flow’ of messages, with bullets on what each paragraph will cover is a critical checkpoint. It is easier for stakeholders to see the shape that the article will likely result in, and if the direction is completely different, course correction can take place without wasted hours and aspersions about the writer’s competence.
- Be kind to a writer’s first draft – Now don’t be surprised if you receive a first draft from a writer, and it’s nothing like you imagined. Be kind. Before the first draft reached you, the writer had three others – the first one was potter’s clay, a rough shape. The second draft was solid lines and form, making sure the messages were in there. The writer’s third draft was editing for grammar, active or passive voice, first, second or third person consistency, and other elements of grammar.
- Give structured, actionable feedback – In a creative process, the first draft is a productive point for discussion and feedback. Often we get feedback such as “It’s not engaging enough”, which may be that the stakeholder wasn’t impressed, but was she or he the intended audience? When providing feedback, reviewers must go back to the guardrails established earlier – Is this piece covering the main messages we want to communicate? Is it speaking to the concerns of our target audience? Is it communicating the intent? Is in the author’s tone of voice, or a suitable tone of voice for the audience? Feedback must be structured, not generic or subjective.
- Lock it in – If you aligned on the brief, and connected at least once with the main points to be covered, it’s unlikely that the draft will go into too many rounds of feedback and iteration. In general, if there are more than three rounds of feedback, it could mean that the brief was not aligned between stakeholders and the writer. Too many reviewers who were not included in the brief can also complicate the process, because they may start their thinking process from scratch, and are not aligned on the creative journey. Rather than too many iterations, a re-start could be more productive for all.
Now parts of this process are more or less intense important with various formats, but in general all the steps are covered each time. I haven’t added in here any timelines for these stages of writing, but you can imagine that they cannot be covered in an hour, or a day, no matter how many ‘justs’ make their way into request.
I’ve often found that once customers and stakeholders are included in this creative process, and respect it, they also become invested in it, and the ideas and discussions that flow contribute to the end result – content that is effective, compelling, and original.
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