This is Part I in a series on creating a culture of writing at your company. To read Part II, click here.
Your company blog is an extension of the company itself; it’s how you talk to the world. When you look at what you’ve published as a collective, does it feel like you’re doing a good job of representing all the hardworking people who keep the ship afloat?
If you’re most companies, the answer is a firm “No.” That’s a shame, but it doesn’t happen on purpose. Because content is a cost-effective acquisition channel that can and should be measured, it usually turns into the marketing team’s pet project instead of a robust company platform. While every project needs an owner, this can cause teams to miss out on publishing high-impact stories from all across the organization.
The reasons to view publishing as a team sport are as compelling as they are numerous, so in the future I’ll dedicate a separate post to cover them all. But even a cursory glance reveals why teams at Basecamp, Airbnb, Slack, Wistia, Shopify, Intercom, HubSpot, Buffer, and Help Scout spend the time, money, and attention it takes to not only do the work but write about it, too.
Most companies do not do a great job of surfacing the under-the-waterline work they’re doing or the talented people doing it. Do that, more.
— Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) November 2, 2016
From recruiting, to brand momentum, to instilling customer confidence, to using what you’ve already built as marketing, publishing as a team creates a magnetic asset: a library of content that attracts the right customers, hires, investors, and attention to your company.
If that alone is enough to marshal the enthusiasm you need, then know this: one of the trickiest aspects will be understanding and alleviating your colleagues’ many reservations. People are wildly complex creatures, but two sentiments we seem to universally struggle with in writing are motivation and anxiety.
The anxious writer seldom writes
Writing is an invitation for the world to look inside your head and comment on what they find. Your colleagues could use a little help getting past this fact. Empathy is a must if you want people to conjure the art and ardor necessary for great prose.
Inertia in writing comes from two distinct places. To overcome it, you need to increase the perceived benefit of contributing (by providing motivation) and decrease the perceived cost (by making it easy). These are the pull and the push, respectively.
What motivates your colleagues to write? It isn’t a spike in pageviews; that’s a metric detached from their reality. They have personal, human reasons to share their thoughts. Start there when creating motivation. And don’t fool yourself: If you don’t afford any incentive and nudge people to contribute, they won’t — they’ve many other demands on their time.
After some conversations with my former colleagues at Help Scout, their motivations to write came into view, and I was better prepared to present the upsides of contributing to the company blog.
1. Write to create leverage for your career
A well-constructed blog post is a career asset for the author, silly as it may seem. When you detail how you think about things, or how you approached a tricky project, you reveal more about yourself than any predictably unblemished resume could ever hope to. Projects and portfolios are cardinal companions to the modern resume.
Per unit time, my blog has probably had a four order of magnitude greater ROI to my career than coding.https://t.co/bipuqiAMNI
— Dan Luu (@danluu) December 6, 2016
But not everyone’s work results in something immediately reference-able. I call this the “Portfolio Problem.” Your colleagues in People Ops/HR, for example, primarily work on internal company projects. There’s often nothing public-facing to point to once the work is done, even though they’ve dedicated just as much effort as anyone.
This is where writing can be your ally. Leah Knobler, People Ops at Help Scout, built a bit of a niche following for herself with posts on everything from planning company retreats to replacing our all-hands meeting with video. And although she authored the pieces, they were a shared win; successful projects from her department were now visible to all.
Highlighting this opportunity to showcase group accomplishments is often key when convincing your colleagues to write. I’ve yet to work with a single contributor who didn’t have reservations about taking too much credit. Team players prefer “what we accomplished” over “what I did.”
2. Write to promote diversity on a company platform
I see this as “capital D” diversity, which means diversity in its many forms: diversity of contributors, diversity of disciplines, and diversity of thought.
If diversity matters to you, your public platform should match your intentions and inner-workings. When the marketing team have the only bylines on the blog you are, by definition, not representing the entirety of your company.
My colleagues deeply cared about us running an inclusive publication; yours likely feel the same way. You can turn this passion into action by pointing out that such a publication is contingent on having a varied group of contributors — you need a variety of people, expertise, and opinions to properly represent the people who work here, and you can’t do it alone.
3. Write to better understand your work
Writing grows the business and the team, but it also grows the individual; you don’t know what you know until you try to write it down. Writing to understand is equally as important as writing to be understood.
Here is where your experience as a writer can energize everyone else. Emphasize that the exercise of writing is just as valuable as the asset of a finished article. Writing extracts ideas from your head, lays them out, pieces them together, and helps you assess where you stand. When writing about one’s work, a prevailing personal motive is to fulfill what George Orwell calls historical impulse.[footnote]Learn more about Orwell’s personal journey as a writer in his long form essay, “Why I Write.”[/footnote]
The desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
For those who like a challenge, you can point out that publishing your thoughts raises the stakes and thus raises your standards; brains forgive fuzzy abstractions, but audiences (and editors) do not.
4. Write to pay it forward
There isn’t a single person working in an internet business that hasn’t benefited from the hard-won experience others freely share in blog posts, forums, and tutorials. We readily take as much information, guidance, and encouragement as we can carry — it feels good to offer up some of our own in return.
When you start publishing as a team, you’re sure to hear, “But everything worth discussing has already been said,” or, “I don’t have any unique opinions to share.” This is how you address these concerns.
Remind people that a beginner is born every minute, and every idea can be seen from multiple perspectives. It often takes hearing something a certain way for it to finally click. Your unique vantage point could be that moment for someone else.[footnote]If you’d like to read more about this topic, I recommend “Do I Repeat Myself?” by John Barth.[/footnote]
Writers love the mystique of, “How do they do it?” Truth be told, nonfiction involves less rain-dancing and sacrificial black magic than writers would have you believe (for fiction, all bets are off).
And if you want people to contribute, you need to fully expose how editing and publishing actually work. You can start with the following steps.
1. Set clear, achievable standards
To successfully introduce colleagues into the mix you must set reasonable expectations while holding firm to your editorial standards. You can’t let a bad piece slip by just because “they worked really hard on it.” But you also need to be careful of imposing unrealistic or confusing requirements; publishing needs to feel possible.
Here’s where documenting your editorial strategy pays for itself ten times over. Unless you plan on forcing contributors to live in a land of abstraction, where “quality” is defined by how you were feeling that day, you need to write down what the company publication is about, how you prefer to communicate, and what a valuable post for readers generally looks like.
2. Outline the publishing process
When I first kicked off team writing, I asked around about what would be helpful to cover in a few docs. Multiple people wanted to know how submitting to the blog actually worked. Whoops. For the longest time I was the only writer; I hadn’t considered the benefits of mapping out the nitty-gritty process.
Don’t make the same mistake. Step-by-step instructions make contributing more approachable. You can use the Five W’s to get the gears turning and build a starter list of questions your colleagues might ask you. After you get feedback and surface points of confusion, you can add to your list.
is the person I should chat with when I have an idea?
will edit my first draft?
from my department should read/approve the post?
has final say on what gets published?
makes for a really good article?
steps do I need to own during this process?
do I need to include in my initial pitch?
should I have a first draft done after my pitch is approved?
should I review the first round of edits?
can I expect my post to be published?
do we catalog our article ideas?
does my first draft live once it’s done?
should I put article assets (images, etc.) for my post?
[these questions are often specific to the individual]
3. Explain the purpose of editing
Handing over a fragile first draft and getting back deletions and critique in return can take the wind out of your sails. Editing becomes less distressing when everyone knows what it’s for and how it works.
At Help Scout, we used the Venn diagram above to capture what editing meant to us. “Good” writing is fiercely subjective and painfully inscrutable, so a single graphic can’t cover it all. It can, however, plainly set the bar.
Concentrated. Explain big ideas in a small space with no words wasted. We constantly looked for sections, paragraphs, and sentences that could be distilled or removed entirely.
Vivid. The art of being unquestionably clear and memorably imaginative. Finding common ground between author and reader, such as explaining an advanced concept with a familiar analogy or metaphor, is the best way to quickly establish a connection and share ideas with a wider audience.
Incisive. Good writing is a campaign against cliche. When you’ve lots of experience in a discipline, ideas trotted out ad nauseam become obvious and boring. Avoid those — don’t patronize readers, leave out everything that can be inferred, and push the conversation in a productive direction.[footnote]First line is borrowed from my favorite passage by Martin Amis.[/footnote]
When discussing editing, emphasize the role of substantive editing versus how line and copy edits work; while the latter are vital for publishing polished material, your colleagues shouldn’t stress themselves over adverbs and passive voice. You and your editor will help with that so they can focus on the ideas.
To this end, beware of editing articles in a way that causes the author to feel like a “special guest” instead of the star. Great editors are like great mentors; they don’t control your story, they help you realize it. Have the courage to challenge and shoot down sloppy thinking, but don’t let a rigid grasp squeeze out the personality from other people’s prose.
Editors create fine stories by typing on a keyboard composed of human beings. Knowing which key to hit when and how hard to press it is both art and craft.
— David Carr, The New York Times
4. Provide guidance with writing prompts
For a plan to go the distance, working on it has to become habit. Relying solely on outside influence, like the marketing team pestering people to write, can etch out short-term wins but is ultimately an exercise in futility. Anything that feels like a homework assignment is done begrudgingly, if at all.
The fix is to use writing prompts. Prompts work because they’re a set of guidelines that also act as internal cues to identify when you’ve come across a potentially good story. Because writing prompts are questions raised around the work you’re already doing, they’ve a number of inherent advantages.
- Prompts are mostly evergreen. You can update your list of prompts when you find other meaningful examples, but effort spent on your initial list pays dividends for quite a while — carefully considered reasons to write have a long shelf-life.
- Prompts make writing approachable. A blank canvas imposes the burden of infinite scope. People crave direction as much as they crave inspiration. Good writing prompts focus on common patterns people can notice and connect to so they have an accessible place to begin.
- Prompts are a catalyst to write. Prompts incite action because they’re natural reminders to write as a response to observations and experiences. Once you’ve encountered a prompt, you’ll see it in your day-to-day, and viewing the world with this writer’s lens can shift how you react. “Searching for an answer but not finding a good one” can go from mildly frustrating moment to potential article idea.
Prompts get people to think critically about the by-product of their work. All of our work creates by-products in the form of questions asked, lessons learned, and challenges overcome. Harvesting this outgrowth puts contributors in a position to share ideas and stories they’re most intimately familiar with.
Diana Smith, Director of Product Marketing at Segment, created a starter list of prompts in a presentation she gave to her team on how to write for the company blog. They’re good examples to model when you begin creating your own prompts.
Publishing is a team sport
When you relegate “content” to a single bullet point in the marketing departments AORs, you speak volumes about how you value communication. Your customers and the brand you’ve worked so hard to build deserve better than that.
Although writing is a deeply personal and often emotional act, publishing is a team sport.
Illustration by Karen Kurycki.