Thought leadership motivates your readers to see you as an expert. It can even give you monopoly power in your area of expertise.
But building that leadership through great copy requires a process; a good one at that. Finding good writers is hard enough, but a process filled with shortcuts can burn out the best ones.
So how do you build a process with clear expectations and timelines that reliably produces good work?
Process Determines Quality
Interesting, useful articles require depth, specific knowledge, and good writing.
This creates a dilemma when your writer can’t be in every meeting. Say you’re writing a case study, or a blog: how familiar is your writer with your brand and what you do?
If it’s on you to tell them everything they need to say, then you might as well write it for them. And of course, you’re way too busy for that.
So how do you build a process with those constraints in mind? One that offers a reasonable timeline and expectations of quality and accuracy?
If you can answer this question—and put it into action—you’ll get better work, and you’ll do way more of it.
The Writing Process
It goes something like this:
- Brief: what are we writing, who’s it for, and why do they care what we have to say?
- An outline, showing the high-level organization of the article.
- A rough draft, which the writer doesn’t share.
- A final draft, which the writer sends to the editor.
- The edit, which removes typos and checks for grammar, usage, style, and clarity.
- The polished deliverable that goes out for approval.
So what’s wrong with skipping a step?
More than you think.
How Does Skipping a Step Cost You?
If you skip key components, you might think you’re working faster, but what you’re asking for is a mix of the following:
- Inconsistent quality. The success is more arbitrary and left up to the writer. Does he or she know about the topic? Will they look at it correctly? Will they approach it in an organized way?
- Inconsistent timelines. It’s very possible that your first draft gets delivered on time, but is so far off-base that the writing has to start from scratch.
- Inflated costs. If quality or timeline is affected negatively, so will costs. Often, we break the process in order to save money. But a broken process creates all kinds of extra communication, which takes time and man-hours. And if you don’t handle the communication, the team gets confused.
- Frustrated team members. If you need more meetings, and everyone can make them, great. But if they can’t, the confusion builds when your client throws you a curveball.
- Diminished quality. It might seem doable to cover the gaps by working harder yourself, but over time, this isn’t sustainable for everyone…and it ends up costing you time, expense, or even quality for your client.
So how do you fix it? You do the whole process.
If you think you’ve got it great; but just like a teacher setting up their classroom for day one, a lot of the process follows from how you approach the brief and the outline with your writer.
While they’re not the whole package, the brief, he outline, and the kickoff process are easily the most frequently neglected steps.
Here’s some thoughts on how doing them write will kick off a successful writing process.
In advertising, you have a position called “strategist” or “account planner.” This person’s job is to clearly communicate to the writer:
- What are we selling?
- Who’s it for?
- Why does it matter?
But even more than knowing strategy cold, a good strategist knows all the ins and outs.
Delegate to the writers.
Every leader in a company has to do this. But how do you know that your writers understood you? And how do you avoid falling for the classic error: assuming they can read your mind?
Writers are professional thinkers.
But remember, you can’t just throw it over the fence. You want them to do the work, but you have the information and the direction, not them. Writers have a big job. They have to sound smart and sophisticated. Trust me, you want that. I’ve fired writers with large monthly retainers who were writing empty fluff for client blogs. Not cool.
Unless you want stupid writing, help them understand…on their terms.
They may not be executives with all of the ability to speak like a politician, but they’re probably at least as good at thinking as you are, since their entire job is to process info.
To do this, writers need to understand and bring a point of view to the topic. This means they have to understand it in their own way.
So when they ask a question, you have to patiently answer it. If you get frustrated, they’ll stop asking, and you’ll have stupid, fluffy, vacant writing.
And if you don’t know, admit it… that’s much better than getting called out, or having an unpleasant conversation down the line.
Pro Tip: Make them write it up and email it to you.
Unless they have questions, don’t make them wait for your approval.
Remember, you’re paying them to think, so ask them to guess a little. Don’t let them give you a blank stare. Ask for what they think the answer is before dictating everything.
If they can’t think, find someone else.
This is a small step, and it’s fast. Probably about 30 minutes if they’re clear on the brief. But it’s often missed. And when it’s missed, it costs you speed (since this is the fastest way to get clarity).
In this step, the writer thinks non-linearly but maps it linearly. It gives them a chance to think about the whole problem and then, as they think of things, add it to a hierarchical mind map. For more on that, check out this guide.
Ask them to do this, and ask to see their work. If there’s a problem with the article or outline, you can use the process to diagnose and make them better writers. And you may find that the problem is in the brainstorm.
Once they’ve done the brainstorming, it’s time to fill in an outline. This probably means they have some questions and assumptions of their own; if you’re a smart project manager, part of their assigned process is listing these questions and assumptions out.
Now it’s time to verify. Here’s the order of operation for them.
A few things the writer can do before they need to talk to anyone.
- Is the info available online or on the client’s website?
- Is there a style guide we should be using to write the article (AP?)
- Is there a brand guide we need to follow?
Once these areas are exhausted, they can move on to talking with internal people who might know more about the project or can fill in some info.
Whatever questions are left should be answered internally by the account manager, strategist, project manager or someone else who’s been in the conversations. And what can’t be answered internally needs to be categorized:
- Is this important enough to ask the client before we deliver the draft?
- If not, let’s just write it up without talking to the client and let them give us feedback.
If we need to talk with the client, call them up ASAP. Otherwise, write the draft either without the info or with an educated guess.
If you move to the draft before you have all of the questions answered, the draft will be a mess, full of weasel words and empty modifiers, and lacking the specificity you need to make an article interesting.
Make a Repeatable Process
You can’t shortcut the process and expect reliable results. But if you understand the steps you need to take and why they’re important, you’re that much closer to a process that can save you time and money.
More importantly, a clear process with the brief and the outline set you up for thoughtful, thought-leading content that’s worth reading.
Note: these are just 3 steps pulled from our process here at Resound. If you want the whole thing, I suppose if you email me with shining compliments about my article, I might be able to send you the whole process. Seriously, I’d love to hear from you.