Writing, especially for an organization, can be a stressful. But it doesn’t have to be. The key is to understand how writing works in an organizational setting, and to appreciate its potential—and its limitations.
The first and often hardest thing to accept is that writing is not a group process. As the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote, at its heart writing is about an individual sitting in a room by themself. Group work, especially early on, can enrich an organization’s writing and provide a growth opportunity for staff. Working with language collectively can stir conversations and bring people together in a way that few things can. But it’s just one part of a larger process.
Another reality is that in any organization some people are better writers than others. This isn’t a bad thing to accept, and even embrace. My plumber has a good sense of humor and smiles patiently when I explain my theory about what’s really going on with our boiler, but in the end she’s the one that fixes it. Besides, writing, probably more so than plumbing, can be readily learned, and (probably more like plumbing) people get better at it with practice. The same is true for organizations.
From our experience working with NGOs, here are some other things to consider:
- Identify writer(s) early on, deferring as little as possible to hierarchy, and empower them managing the process. At the same time, keep a deep bench of people who can read thoughtfully and critically, with fresh eyes, as the writing takes shape.
- Remember that listening and reflecting are big parts of writing—even the most compressed processes benefit from leaving space for them.
- Be aware of the discrete phases of writing (e.g. generating, drafting, editing, revising, proofing) and always know where you are. (More on this in a future post.)
- Appreciate writing as an iterative process: It can be unpredictable, and needs room to roam. In the language of wildlife ecology, writing’s “home range” is more antelope than snail darter. This also means that writing can generate ideas which while not relevant to the project at hand, are still valuable. So it’s a good idea to keep a folder or bulletin board handy for these. Writing is a task, but it’s also a form of thinking.
- Recognize that it’s easier to respond or work with something once it’s written down. All the more reason not to treat writing—especially early writing—as precious. In her wonderful book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott takes an entire chapter to espouse the virtues of “shitty first drafts.”
- Stay attuned to the difference between editing and worrying—at some point you have decide you’re done. Remember “done” doesn’t mean “perfect.”
- Value concision. One of my biggest concerns is that the nonprofit world is so overloaded with words that they start to lose meaning. Once when I had a job that took me to a lot of conferences, a colleague would regularly finish his remarks with a third or a quarter of his allotted time remaining. It stood out to me for two reasons—first, everybody else was going over (requiring gentle herding by a designated “time keeper”), but second, and more importantly, it was clear to me and most everyone in the room that he’d actually said more in less time.
- Say what you mean, even if it makes you cringe. It’s tempting to use words you’ve heard elsewhere, but it’s worth starting with your own. With clients we’ll often kick off a discussion by putting up a list of their mission along with five of their competitors’—without attribution. Most of the time when we do this, the missions are nearly indistinguishable. Meanwhile, these same clients often struggle to describe what makes them unique. There’s nothing like when an organization finds its authentic voice, and uses it.
How does your organization handle writing projects? What have been your biggest challenges? Do you have any advice for other organizations? Let us know. Email Thomas at tbrendler [at] bernuthconsulting.com or tweet him at @thomasbrendler.