Many organizations have hired a content manager or director, or chief storyteller, or chief content officer. But how can content leaders champion a more content-oriented company culture so that everybody on their team writes?
I got this question recently. Let me paraphrase what that question-asker was really asking: How can you get busy coworkers (or lazy slackers—ha!) to write for the company blog?
But I think the question could be broader than that—or should be. Because creating a culture of writing doesn’t mean simply producing more blog fodder. It also means creating a culture of more efficient and effective communication. And, ultimately, a writing culture develops more leaders.
“Business leadership is a lot about communications. People really stand out if they are articulate, if they can actually write sentences and get them presented properly,” says Paul Danos, Dean of the Tuck School of Business.
Becoming a better writer means becoming a better thinker.
As I talk about in Everybody Writes, writing with a narrative structure pushes you to think through problems and develop your ideas.
“Good writing…is a matter of developing the skills of intuitive psychology that are so important in every other aspect of social life: getting inside the heads of other people so that you can respect their needs and their wants,” says psychologist Steven Pinker.
In other words, it’s the key to a customer-centric, intuitive, empathic point of view. Which, by the way, is what the best marketers need to have, too.
Why should you care? What’s that means for you? Two things:
1. Everyone is a writer. Good writing isn’t merely any-old tool. It’s a power tool we should be able to wield expertly, just as every respectable building contractor can use the Skilsaw he keeps in his truck.
2. If you want to be a so-called thought leader in your industry, you need to write. Said another way:
You can’t be a thought leader if you aren’t also a writer.
Writing might feel hard. But it’s not really. The thinking part is what’s hard (What do you want to say? How can you say it effectively?); the writing becomes simply a matter of recording your ideas.
“When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking,” says Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Such clarity also helps you evolve your own thinking, because you are essentially forcing your brain to come up with new takes and new insights—and then articulate to others why your ideas matter. (Richard Branson and Warren Buffett also apparently subscribe to versions of this kind of thinking.)
Similarly, I like the way Gregory Ciotti says writing closes out your “mental browser tabs.”
“Writing allows abstract information to cross over into the tangible world. It frees up mental bandwidth, and will stop your Google Chrome brain from crashing due to tab overload,” he explains.
So back to the original question: How do you create a writing culture in your own organization?
1. Reframe who’s a “writer.”
First of all, let’s reframe this business about writing. Let’s dispel the notion that some of us are writers and some of us are not.
We write emails. We post social updates. We create content on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or Facebook. We write landing pages or blog posts or homepage content or product descriptions or memos to our teams.
It’s time to recognize all of that posting for what it is: writing. So why not reframe it as a legit aspect of your daily workout—in the same way always taking the stairs becomes, over time, part of a fitness regimen?
2. Set aside time each day to write.
Writing isn’t a gift bestowed on a chosen few—it’s a muscle we are all capable of developing. And like an actual muscle, the more you work it, the faster, more efficient, and more buff it becomes.
3. Ban self-slander.
Understand that there is no one way to write. You might consider yourself a bad writer because you think there is just one way to do it… and you do it another way, which is therefore wrong.
Here’s a useful approach to avoid that sort of thinking: Just barf up what you want to say, and then reshape it into something that benefits your reader. (See the next point.)
4. Write badly. Then, fix it.
Few of us are great writers on the first draft, but good writers tend to be excellent editors of their own work. I call this process embracing The Ugly First Draft.
I live by this Stephen King quote, and maybe you will, too: “Write with the door closed, edit with the door open.”
In other words, write your ideas down without too much thought about the reader; then edit with the reader foremost in mind.
4. Don’t sweat the grammar.
Well, don’t sweat it too much.
That’s not because grammar or usage aren’t important. They are. But most people think that writing is grammar, whereas good writing is more about thinking, rewriting, and keeping your focus relentlessly on the reader than it is about knowing your affect from your elbow (and your effect, too).
5. Roll your own style guide.
Start internally crowdsourcing tips and guidelines that together will begin to reflect your company culture and voice. Things like…
- Use you instead of the customer and we instead of the organization.
- Keep paragraphs shorter than four sentences.
- Put the most important words and thoughts at the beginning of a sentence.
- Write as if you are talking to a colleague over coffee.
(Or you might just start with how some words should be spelled and what words to avoid—e.g., use “email,” not “e-mail”; avoid “leverage” as a verb.)
Those are just sample guidelines, of course; your own list might vary according to your own company culture. Keep the guide somewhere accessible—in a shared Dropbox, Google Doc, or even online for everyone to see (like Buzzfeed’s, The Economist’s, the British government‘s, or MailChimp’s.)
Crowdsourcing an internal style guide is a way to give your organization a shared voice and perspective.
7. Hire a dedicated editor.
Many companies hire writers or content creators; fewer hire editors.
And by “editor” I’m not talking about a copyeditor—one who is charged with checking facts and wields a push broom to sweep away minor grammar errors or misspellings and typos.
Instead, I’m talking about a more substantive editor—someone who can give a piece of writing a higher-level read to help improve, expand, condense, or rewrite. The best writers always have a great editor who’s like a great coach or trainer working behind the scenes to bring out the best in an athlete.
8. Create a collaborative writing environment.
Some teams edit and give feedback on each other’s work in a kind of buddy system. My friend Matthew Stibbe talks about the buddy system at his company, which assigns two writers on every project in a process he terms “pair writing.” It’s a little like having two pilots in a cockpit, he writes:
“They do research interviews together, then one writes and the other edits, flipping back and forth until the copy is just so.”
Buddying writers up has other benefits, too, including training and development (“pairing a new writer with an experienced one is good mentoring,” Matthew says) and it’s flat-out more fun (“Writing can be a lonely business. Sharing the work means you have shared experience of it.”)
9. Shed the idea that companies always have to buy content expertise.
Outside expertise can augment what’s being done in-house. But fostering strong writers internally improves all your content in the way a great conductor improves an orchestra.
10. Invest in training.
Most marketers haven’t taken a writing class since college or (sometimes) high school. Actually, let me restate: Invest in training that’s not boring. (MarketingProfs offers such training online and in-person. Email me for details on that.)
The key is to seek training that takes a giant and potentially boring topic—writing (and, “worse,” business and marketing writing!)—and makes it feel accessible and fun and exciting… rather than plodding, pedantic, and preachy.
Training shouldn’t feel like a slog—and neither, of course, should writing.
Nick Staib says
I’m a friend of Matthew’s and enjoyed reading this article. The link between thought leadership, and for that matter clarity of thought, with strong writing skills is so very true, but often overlooked…
I also smiled when I read your words, “Writing might feel hard. But not really it.” Witty 😉
Ann Handley says
I totally meant to do that. Which is why I fixed it. 🙂
See also: #4 and #7!
Krithika Rangarajan says
I love how you reframe the ‘idea’ of writing to encompass social media updates, emails and memos. Too often, writing seems intimidating because it brings to mind hallowed essayists and novelists who have honed the art of penning 2000+ articles with ease!
But writing – like you mention – FEELS hard, at least for me, because my mind is still cluttered. And as we write, we are cleaning that internal closet to make way for richer, more beautiful ideas….
So, yes, everyone is a writer. OWN this <3
Thanks a lot
Ann Handley says
Kitto: Thank you for your comment. This is exactly why I wrote Everybody Writes — because while I recognize that writing takes effort, I think it’s immeasurably easier when we are aware of some basic ground rules and have a few guideposts along the way.
Thanks for your comment!
Art Snow says
Thanks so much for this Ann ! My co workers (and especially boss) see me
as “the writer guy” and they are sellin’ themselves short. I find that some
clients want to play with words and others, not so much. It’s okay either
way; I find it makes for a better day to lighten up language-wise on the emails.
If I send an actual letter to a client they can hardly believe it.
have an excellent Friday
Ann Handley says
Thanks, Art. I’d say that there are some people who are more gifted with words than others… but at the same time, everyone is capable of quality writing. Whether we consider ourselves “writers” or not!
Also: If companies value their words more, it only makes them respect people like you a whole lot more!
Thanks for the comment.
Ted Karczewski says
Great post, Ann!
I just posted this piece to Skyword’s Yammer account. I run into this problem a lot–people are very insecure about their writing, and it’s a matter of making them feel comfortable to be in an open, creative environment. I developed my own process here that’s worked so far…have turned 20 “non-writers” into monthly columnists! Would love your feedback: http://www.convinceandconvert.com/content-marketing/how-content-platforms-inspire-internal-stakeholders-to-blog-more-often/
Ann Handley says
That’s fantastic, Ted!! I need to talk to you more about that.
Lori Boyce says
Great post, Ann. Your thoughts on the true role/function of an effective editor are so true. It separates the “wordsmith” from the strategic content editor. A good editor will help writers feel good about improving their writing skills and empowered to share what they know. That makes them want to contribute more!
I always enjoy what you write.
These are really great!
In the last week Ive started writing everyday. My writing muscles are pretty week, but not or long!
I want to be an author when I grow up. I love to write. I am wondering if you have any advice for me.
Küssen, Umarmen, Streicheln und (Sie ahnen es) Sex in der Öffentlichkeit gehen hier laut Gesetz unter keinen Umständen.
Vera Wei says
Thank you for providing such wonderful insight!
I caught a small typo while reading this descriptor of good writing: “The key to a customer-centric, intuitive, empathic point of view.”
Out of curiosity, did you intend to write “empathetic” or “emphatic”? Both seem to fit in this context 🙂