How to care for your writer

Pyramid with caffeines, nicotines, alcohols and pizza

Writers are a sub-species of geek. It’s a little-known fact, but the two tribes have a lot in common:

  • Their work is a mixture of knowledge, creativity, skills and drudgery.
  • To achieve results, both geeks and writers need to concentrate.
  • They both have an amazing appetite for information and powerful relevance filters (see The Nerd Handbook for more on this).
  • You need to manage them well (see How NOT to lead geeks).

So, here are a few thoughts about how to care for your writer so that they can do their best work and stay happy. (This advice applies to personal as well as business relationships!)

Take care of basic needs

Listen! Writers need tea, silence, good keyboards, comfortable chairs, big desks and private offices with doors that shut (see Peopleware for more on this).

Sometimes, they need to wander around muttering to themselves, long baths, late nights, notebooks for sudden inspiration etc.

If their concentration wanders when you talk to them, it’s not that you’re boring (although you probably are) it’s just that they’ve thought of a good opening sentence for their next piece. Forgive their eccentricities.

Create a great writing environment

Writers often like to work from home.  This is because it lets them concentrate. However, in the six years since I wrote that article, VOIP, IM, intranets, Twitter etc. have brought the office into the home in a new way, so we need to find new ways to concentrate and switch off distractions.

Managers can help by respecting boundaries and leaving writers alone when they’re working. Seriously, there’s no need to call or email four times a day to ask how it’s going. It’s done when it’s done.

It’s all about the word count (until it’s not)

The word count is how writers figure out how long something will take. It’s how we allocate effort between projects. But behind the word count there is also a desire to do good work. Excellent writers care about quality and they want to deliver copy that makes a difference to you and your customers. For example, I love hearing that our work has helped our clients sell more stuff. Give a good writer important work and watch them light up.

Use deadlines wisely

Writer’s have a love-hate relationship with deadlines. They motivate us and help us set priorities, but they also rule us. We live with an infinite series of homework crises.

So never give a writer an open-ended deadline. That tells them ‘this project isn’t important to me.’

Equally avoid false deadlines. If you do it enough, they’ll see through the pattern and be late anyway. Better to be honest about your real deadline. If a writer consistently and egregiously misses deadlines, they’re just a broken person. Find a different writer.

As I said in How to work with writers, like anyone in business, writers will try to schedule their work. Last minute requests and short deadlines are okay (sometimes), but you are more likely to get a good job if you give them a reasonable deadline.

Ego shouldn’t get in the way

Writers, like actors, deal with feedback every day. It’s part of the job. At Articulate, we embrace it – every writer is also an editor and every piece is peer-reviewed. So if you give feedback, you shouldn’t get an emotional response. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have emotions. Treat writers with the same respect as other professionals.

Give good feedback

Understand what they need. Learn to give good feedback. In particular: be specific, listen to their feedback on your feedback and avoid group-editing. Understand why good writers occasionally produce bad copy: including bad briefing, editing by committee and death by redlining.

Don’t leave it to the last minute. I have had a client who regularly gave feedback late on a Friday afternoon and asked for revised versions on the following Monday morning. After a few lost weekends, I stopped working with them.

Explain the context. If you want a change, tell the writer why you want it. This gives them the information to make the change now and to write better for you in the future.

It’s not ‘wordsmithing’

When someone asks me to ‘just wordsmith this document’, alarm bells ring. It’s a mistake to think that all writers do is polish up existing copy, as if a bit of editing can turn a badly-researched, unstructured, illogical, tedious document into a client-winning gem.

Writing – in the sense of actually putting words on the page – is only a fraction of what we do. We also research, prioritise, analyse, structure, edit and proofread. Just as architects do more than draw pretty pictures of buildings, writers do more than ‘wordsmithing’.

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