Improving the Group Writing Process: Better Idea Generation

Corporate writing projects often go through an arduous and convoluted processes. Typically, Communications Managers can only bear witness to the time-wasting because they lack the power to change the workflow.

If you’re fed up with your team’s writing process or if you’re getting ready to embark on a new corporate writing project (like a quarterly letter, annual report, or proposal), let me know what challenges you are facing or parts of the process you are dreading. Let’s develop a tailored solution, drawn from experience, that will work for your team.

This blog post is the first in a series that gives tips on how to improve each stage of the corporate writing process, from idea generation to final proofreading. Today, I will review Step One: Idea Generation.

Start by working together

Teams of writers need to collaborate before they draft. It makes sure everyone is in overall agreement. Deciding on what topics to focus on can also help less confident writers generate material, and it can save time since no one will draft content that is out of alignment with the rest of the group.

Think of your corporate writing project like a presentation. Just like you go into a corporate presentation knowing what you want to say, you need to go into your writing project knowing what you want to say.

Your goal in Step One is to end up with a bullet point list of the three to five ideas you want your corporate writing project to explore. (Questions that can help generate this list: “What are three things that happened in the market during the past quarter that we must discuss?” “What are the three most important competitive advantages of our product?” “What are the four ways we want to explain our underperformance for the year?”)

Finally, this step is crucial if you are the one managing the process, like the Communications Manager. You probably should not decide the topics of the writing project. You are not seen as the “content expert,” so let those who deem themselves content experts decide. Make sure that the most senior executive in the organization involved in the project decides the content. This will help create buy-in at the end of the project.

Use the “Cloud” for Writers who Hold Similar Rank

Dynamic, real-time collaboration tools, like Google Docs, can help your team sketch out possible ideas. This tool works best for teams of mostly the same rank. They’ll be relatively comfortable brainstorming together.

Create the collaborative document, and list the idea-generating question at the top (e.g., “What are our three trends we want to highlight from the past year?”) When you share the document via e-mail, ask your team to generate as many ideas as possible, and set the ground rules that nothing will be eliminated. (After all, your goal is to generate content, not discourage it.)

Tip: instead of asking your team just to generate topics, ask them to generate section headings or headlines. Topics are abstract; headlines are “real writing.” This way they will already be thinking within the parameters of your end project, and headlines help people draft more quickly and concretely.

Finally, give them a deadline, ideally within about a week. If you give a team too long, people will put it off or endlessly tweak.

Use a Quick, In-Person Meeting if Your Team of Writers Has Different Ranks

If the people generating the content are not all at the same level, gather those with the highest rank for a 30-minute meeting. Make the agenda and outcome very clear–e.g., “We are going to hold a brief meeting to discuss the three major themes of our annual report.”

Before the meeting, generate a list of possible content items for the group to consider. Think of themes that have emerged in recent staff meetings. Even better, look back to previous communications pieces. It can help people see—in brief form—what they’ve written about before. Keep the list short in number and concise. Concise overviews often help people generate ideas better than re-reading all of an old piece.

Culling the List of Possible Topics Quickly

If you’re in a consensus-based organization, schedule a meeting with the entire team to discuss all of the ideas and choose the ones you’re going to pursue. Aim to select the main writing ideas within the first ten minutes of the meeting. Be quick about it. This is where people can deliberate for too long without adding much value. Instead, move the team toward brainstorming together what they may say about a particular content idea.

If you’re in a more top-down company, have a key decision-maker decide. This is the most efficient and quickest way to decide on a strategy. Just make sure that this person is going to be involved in the approval process for the project. Getting their approval from the beginning means that you can more easily enforce the agreed upon topics with your writing team, and it also gives you back up at the end of the project if someone suddenly decides your team should have written about a different topic. (You can pull out this agreed-upon document and say, “That’s a great idea for the next annual report or for a special update on our web site. But this is what Bob said he thought we should write about.”) This tactic isn’t fool-proof, but it provides the best insurance that you can ever get in something like this.

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