Copy by committee – is there any place for teamwork in writing?
You can tell when something’s been written by committee because it feels like being in a room with lots of people talking at once. There’s plenty of noise, but it’s often hard to understand what anyone’s actually saying.
Kasper de Graaf
If you can write great lyrics together, and some can, then teamworking has a place. Good old subbing is another way in which multiple cooks contribute to the ultimate broth – not always producing a superior read if Giles Coren is to be believed (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jul/23/mediamonkey). Commissioned copywriting often involves external input ranging from raw data to moving commas; the former essential, the latter a bore. My role as a copywriter generally amounts to taking drafts from colleagues, then writing the piece as they wish they could have written it in the first place. Does this amount to writing by committee?
If your writing is about stretching the mind for a great idea, there is certainly a place for teamwork. For it to work though, people need to have a feel for getting the best out of one another. If your writing is poetry, it’s probably better to compose alone. Ted Hughes didn’t share his pens, did he?
There’s definitely a place for teamwork in writing – just think of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews (Father Ted). But while teamwork is perfect for comedy writing, I’m not sure it works for copywriting. Although I love coming up with ideas as a team, I always prefer to write on my own.
Only if I’m chief commissar of the copy committee, and everyone agrees with me. Otherwise, I’ll leave it to you all to sort out.
I always work by committee because I’m a terrible procrastinator and a lazy proofreader. And I think another writer can usually improve a piece of writing – spotting mistakes and opportunities that you don’t. Apart from all, it’s more fun.
Copy by committee? Emphatically no – search all the parks in all the cities, you’ll find no statues to committees.
Writing really can be a team sport. At The Writer we have a ‘second pair of eyes’ rule (recently nicked by the Financial Times), so nothing goes out the door without at least two writers working on it. It’s more fun, and it stops people getting stale/complacent/wordblind/client-blind/precious. It means we only hire writers who can play nicely with other writers. (My colleague Joe has just read this. He added in this sentence.)
The secret to great creative work is to collaborate with good people. But you can’t really do that by committee. A committee works its way through an agenda. Real creative collaboration allows silences, pauses for thought, diversions off track. It’s often the diversions that take you to the right place.
Writing for business is writing for consensus. It’s all about teamwork but that doesn’t have to mean lowest common denominator, or horribly homogenised texts. The writer’s job is to question where client and designer are coming from and focus on the reader. A lot of my input is thinking creatively about writing more effectively; taking the texts to places designer and client never imagined they could go. / The information that washes around organisations tends to be exhausted because it has been cloned or neutered by layers of management. Many CEOs have one eye on their next position, and Boards are often self-propelling institutions. Companies fail because they lose touch with their audiences. So go to source whenever you can and listen to people at the coalface, because they actually produce the things or services the company sells and deal with customers’ concerns. / Workshops are brilliant for building and targeting communications and establishing tone of voice. Try to get a genuine cross-section of people involved – from the people with the vision to the people who have to implement it. Sessions like these break the patterns of communication, and I have facilitated many events where colleagues who work together on a daily basis talked to each other about the really important stuff for the first time. / The editing process is – by definition – teamwork, but be aware of the motives behind decisions client-side people are making. Many pander to an imagined a phantom consumer or stakeholder onto whom they project their insecurities, and this produces language that speaks to no one. The tendency is to err on the conservative, and some clients who have hired me to transform their tone of voice revert to default because they are so scared of what other people might think. / We are hired to help the audience understand the client’s offer. The best clients I have worked with had the courage to think braver and years down the line the words still buzz with excitement, and some have gone on to shape the whole future of the company.
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