Remember that famous Sidney Harris cartoon with the two mathematicians standing in front of a blackboard, working on a complex equation that features as a crucial step the words, “and then a miracle happens?” That’s often how managers view what writers do. Too often, the second-to-last step in the document development process reads, “and then the writer wordsmiths it.”
But that’s not when you want the writer to start getting involved. A successful collaboratively-written product — a user manual, a proposal, a textbook, an online help file, an annual report — needs to have the writer involved from the beginning, as an integral part of the team.
When the writer is forgotten until the very end of the project, it’s usually because the team doesn’t understand the writer’s function. After all, everybody else on the team writes too. E-mails, reports, their part of the collaborative product . . . what’s so special about writing? “The Writer” is just the last guy to work on the product. Right?
Wrong on two counts. First of all, this view confuses writing with editing. Editing — the process of revising a written product to ensure that it has a consistent voice and tone, is free of grammatical and typographical errors, is factually accurate, and has a logical structure — is also an essential part of the process of creating a professional written product. However, editing is done after the writing, when the text has been settled on, and before it goes to the designer. Editing requires a completely different set of skills — and, ideally, a different set of eyes — than is required to create the content in the first place.
Second, the writer does much more than simply write. Instead, what the writer really brings to the team is the ability to “keep his or her eyes on the prize.” The writer’s job is to have the goal — the end product — always in mind, and to be able to see how the current iteration does and does not achieve the objective, at every step along the way. From the beginning, the writer is asking:
- What is the purpose of this product? Are we adhering to it?
- Who’s going to use this product, how are they going to use it, and when and how often are they going to use it? Will this product meet their needs?
- Can this great idea be written in a way that people will immediately grasp, integrate, and apply simply by reading it?
- Are complex terms and concepts being presented clearly, concisely, and accurately?
- Does the rationale for including X accord with the overall purpose of the product? If not, can X be rewritten to make a better fit?
- What’s missing from what we have, and how can we get it?
- Does this product reflect our organization’s professionalism?
The writer’s job throughout the process is to ask those questions — hard, probing, provocative questions — for the purpose of getting the best possible results. And in turn, the writer has to be able to answer questions raised by the rest of the team. A good writer can communicate a vision of what the final product will look, sound, and feel like, so that the team can see the goal too, and work toward it together.
Good writing doesn’t take a miracle, but a well-written professional product can work miracles.