Building strong document teams

The best business writing draws from a collective intelligence. It brings together the insights and proven practices of a whole organization and sometimes an industry as well.

As a business writer, your job involves more than finding the right words. You need to find the right people and help them work together effectively.  This is true whether you’re writing a report, a manual, or a training program. Over the years, I’ve seen what can go wrong when this vital part of writing is not finessed.

Although the method of collaborating depends on the culture of the organization, these four key principles apply pretty much everywhere:

1. The collective intelligence is not found in a single individual
Decades ago when I was completing the second writing project of my career, I was assigned a subject matter expert full-time. Not knowing any better, I was thrilled. I had a dedicated expert with thirty years of experience to help me write the Safety Program for the large transportation organization that had hired me. Everyone believed he could give me all the information I could possibly need for a first draft. They were wrong. When the first draft we’d worked so hard to create was brought before the review committee, a different perspective came forward and the document had to be rewritten. It was a long document and a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

The collective intelligence does not reside in any one individual no matter how much experience that person may have. A diverse team of people always yields better results. Be sure to represent all of the interest groups involved. You need people with deep subject matter expertise, but you also need people who represent the audience and key stakeholders. If there is known controversy, don’t shy away from including people from both sides of the issue. Business writing is more than capturing information. It’s an opportunity to encourage important discussions and to clarify issues.

2. Involve the team from the beginning 
If you wait until a draft has been written before involving the team, you will miss out on one of the most important things a document team can contribute. Their expertise can help you focus on what matters the most. They can also help you understand the different groups of people who will be using the document.

The planning stage is an opportunity for considering the big picture. The best time to resolve matters of purpose and scope is when you’re developing a document plan. Once a full draft has been written, everyone will be consumed with the details. Errors in scope or purpose may not be noticed until after the document has been released. If that happens, there’s a good chance there will be rewrites. All of this can be avoided by having the team involved from the beginning.

3. Be clear about roles. 
During the planning stage, talk about roles. Be clear about who needs to be involved with each piece of content and what they will be expected to do. This is also the best time to decide collectively how you will handle areas of disagreement. Will you go with the majority vote? Should the decision rest with management? Or, is it essential for the team to keep working together until an acceptable compromise can be reached?

4. Welcome a healthy exchange of ideas, but build consensus. 
If you bring together intelligent people with clear opinions, sooner or later there will be areas of disagreement. In some organizations, these difficult choices are pushed aside either by delaying publication, or by pushing the document through to publication without resolution. Both of these responses are harmful to the organization.

A good business writer is a master negotiator, able to encourage the honest exchange of ideas and able to help passionate people collaborate well. Of all the skills a writer needs, this may be the most challenging and it requires flexibility.

Here are a few things that can help:

  • Focus on areas of agreement first.
  • Clearly state areas of controversy.
  • Try to get people to agree on actions for resolving the controversy before they leave the meeting.

The greatest challenge in business writing is often finding a way to tap into the wealth of experience and ideas within an organization. It is worth every bit of effort. After all, sharing that wealth is why documents are written.

© Debbie Bateman 2018. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

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