For organizations or departments that don't have a dedicated project manager, it's no small thing to get big comms projects out the door. In our last post, we talked about how not to let the actual writing process gum up the works—namely, by allowing adequate time for writing and editing, and by uncoupling the writing process from the design process.
While that advice may be easy to heed in theory, it can be tricky in practice: Creating large documents involves tracking a lot of moving parts, including points of collaboration and project dependencies that can be challenging to accurately time. That's why creating a detailed, realistic project timeline at the outset of any big writing project is key.
Luckily, there are a lot of tools that can help—many of them free. If you're new to creating project timelines, you can start simple: Microsoft offers a free template for Excel that's incredibly easy to use (if devoid of bells and whistles).
The template allows you to enter dates, tasks or milestones, and people, and to manipulate the visual representation to optimize its readability.
Depending on the project or document management system used by your organization, you may already have tools you can configure to create project timelines. Sharepoint, for instance, offers a customizable project task list; and online tools such as Trello offer options for making more complex Gantt-style project roadmaps.
Whatever route you take, developing a project timeline for big writing projects will make your life easier, and your final product better.
The stakes are usually high for big communications projects such as stakeholder reports, grant applications, websites, and training manuals. These kinds of projects are often closely linked to an organization's core mission, and they require a significant outlay of resources.
In an ideal world, big projects are planned far in advance, with adequate staff time and budget. In the real world, organizations are often faced with making the best of less-than-ideal conditions for getting big communications out the door. The result? Sub-par or error-riddled documents, harried staff, and dubious stakeholders.
Even if you find yourself in those less-than-ideal circumstances (as most of us do, maybe even most of the time), there are still ways to ensure that you end up with the best final product, created in the most efficient, sanity-saving manner possible.
As project managers know, creating a detailed (and realistic) project timeline is key. One of the biggest pitfalls is leaving inadequate time for writing, or trying to integrate the writing and design stages. Too often, we see organizations trying to wrap up projects where significant revision is still taking place.
Case in point: How often have you found yourself editing sections of a report that's already laid out in an InDesign file? While a looming deadline may necessitate that backtracking, it's not only inefficient, but it risks introducing new errors or design requirements if changes to text have to be subsequently inputted into the master document. This can be especially laborious for technical documents with dense text, where precision is paramount.
The upshot? Give your writers adequate time to write, revise, and finalize their work early in the project timeline--before moving into the design and publication phase. The more polished the text at the outset, the more smoothly the final phases of the project will go—and the more likely you'll be to wrap on time and on budget, with your sanity intact and a stellar final product.
In a future post, we'll offer some models for writing project timelines, to demonstrate what this looks like on the ground.
Even though text is everywhere, seeping into every corner of our consciousness and flooding our lives, books (if they're good) still have this magic ability to float above the flotsam in a way that online pubs never can.
That's why we publish books, and that's why we do everything we can to make them great.
But the publishing world has changed so much in the past five (ten [twenty]) years, it’s hard to know how to define exactly what it means when we describe Double Shift Press as a “full-service” press.
What we’re discovering is that full-service accrues a little more complexity—and a little more refinement—with each project.
For some authors, it means we help foster their most persistent, won’t-leave-‘em-alone idea. It means we create a plan, including research, for a book that can really—and really compellingly—share that idea. For others, it means that an author independently follows a plan we set forth, returning the manuscript for copyediting, design, and printing. Or it means that we work the plan while an author accumulates more material through interviews or research.
With some authors, full-service means that we work one-on-one with them to build out each chapter. We provide relevant research or help in guiding or conducting interviews. We participate in writing, organizing, and polishing the manuscript. And we may even help to attract an agent or a traditional publisher.
For still other authors, full-service means something else entirely. Maybe they already have a draft and want to develop a book for a very specific purpose—like launching a speaking series or a workshop course. Maybe they have a thin manuscript and want to integrate a co-author. Maybe they have a disability and can’t get the book in their brain out on the screen. Maybe they already have an edited manuscript and just need design, printing, or distributing services.
We launched Double Shift Press to ensure that authors with incredible ideas are totally supported as they write, design, publish, and distribute books with a bit of magic. Full-service means that we do whatever it takes to float these books above the flotsam.
One of the more amusing (also, damning) cognitive biases described in psychological literature is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Described in Advances in Experimental Psychology under the subtitle, “On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance,” the bias holds that the vast majority of us think we’re better at tasks than we actually are. (Darkly) hilariously, our misplaced confidence makes us blind to discovering the weakness.
It’s delightful because it’s true, or it at least has the ring of intuitive truth (to use the friendly hedging words of a former philosophy professor).
Because 75 percent of us cannot avoid the Dunning-Kruger trap (and wouldn’t know it if we could), we must work—and hard—to put in place the external checks that will expose us to our own idiocy. Only in this way can we be tricked into recognizing that no matter how far we’ve come, we probably still have a ways to go.
Enter beta readers.
When we last discussed beta readers, it was in the context of business or nonprofit communications. Beta readers are essential to this work (especially when the work includes telling a story to external audiences or stakeholders).
But beta readers may also be essential for books.
It’s hard to solicit outside opinions when you’ve put in months, or maybe years, on an argument or story that has lived in your mind or heart for so long that it feels indistinguishable from you. The distance to a publisher, even when a publisher means potential rejection, can feel safer to travel.
But your manuscript isn’t you, and appropriately guided beta readers can provide valuable insight into how well a book is explaining its concepts, backing up its argument, reaching its readers, and persuading its audience. This is especially true of nonfiction genres, where reaching and persuading readers is contingent on elements of language and argumentation that can actually be isolated and improved.
Of course, your work is probably excellent. But because you likely wouldn’t recognize if it weren’t, you should save your future book’s reputation (and your own) by recruiting a few beta readers to tell you what’s weak and what needs improvement before sending that work off into the world.
Recently, a first-time author asked us why we can’t also act as agents. After explaining our very different skill set, we realized that he isn’t the first author to express confusion about what agents do and who they do it for.
Agents may bear the mark of mystery, but they’re publishing professionals who are empowered to act on an author’s behalf.
Agents know the publishing industry and know what each publishing house wants to publish. Because an agent only makes money on commission, they take on the books they know they can sell. They have a vested interest in working to secure the highest sell price possible.
This means that an agent will pick up your book and fight for the very best terms for it when they firmly believe they can make a meaningful profit. Of course, with few books selling for big-bucks advances, it also means that securing an agent can be tough.
So, do you need an agent? Like much else in the publishing process, the answer is a resounding “it depends.”
It partly depends on your endgame. Many authors imagine a future-bestseller’s experience: A bidding war between well-known, well-staffed publishers who are committed to letting loose marketing mayhem on their book.
Does this describe your manuscript-shaped dreams? Do you envision doing the work that will vault you to the top of the bestseller lists and on to a media junket? If so, you probably need an agent. You can certainly shop your manuscript to publishing houses without one, but many of the big houses, or the ones that still offer advances (or the big 5), won’t accept un-agented inquiries.
But, real talk: while most of us harbor some version of this dream, it's pretty much completely unrealistic. This is especially true for first-time authors and authors who lack an already-proven platform. The good news is, if you're willing to accept other versions of publishing success, you most certainly do not need an agent.
And if your manuscript is a niche genre that falls outside of commercial fiction, like literary fiction or niche nonfiction, you don’t need and likely won’t want an agent.
Agents aren’t easy to secure, and even if you have the right book, there are lots of reasons you may not want to use one (the minimum 15% commission, for one). But agents are also valuable and skilled contacts in the publishing world: If it’s the right choice for your book, we can help you make it.
Summer reading is the best reading. (Okay, winter reading is pretty cozy, too.) But the beach, the cabin, the heat, or just the season’s surprisingly ceaseless demands want different kinds of books. Maybe something superficial but satisfying, maybe something cold and cutting, maybe just something wacky and weird: I haven’t yet ticked all these boxes , but I’m making my way:
Rabbit Cake (Annie Hartnett) is the (gently) weird one. It's narrated by ten-year-old Elvis Babbitt, who reports on her family’s disjointed progress through grief after her mother Eva’s death. Eva, a notorious sleep-swimmer (!) who died in a drowning accident, was the full-of-posthumous-surprises life force that held her family together. After her death, Elvis watches as her dad wears her mom’s bathrobe and lipstick, and her sister obsessively makes the rabbit-shaped cakes Eva baked for special occasions. Elvis wonders, with preternatural acceptance, how to make sense of her mother's death, jolt her dad out of his stupor, and stop her sister from sleepwalking into madness. Rabbit Cake is farcical, funny, and refreshing: Elvis and her family’s grief seem so particular and strange but are narrated (and ultimately felt) as intuitive and universal.
Who is Rich? (Matthew Klam) is messy and manic. And it makes a surprisingly good foil for Conversations with Friends (described in the last books post). Whereas the latter explores the restraints and release of sexual, sensual, or just potential intimacies, the former narrator obsessively—and hilariously—mulls over the extravagant fantasies (on which he sometimes acts) generated by the confines of his marriage, children, and job. The book makes marriage and parenthood a Sartrean prison of love and hate that no one can or really deserves to escape. It’s so funny, but its sharply desperate edge makes it cut way too close to the bone.
One of Us Is Lying (Karen McManus) is for the beach! It’s a YA, epistolary-style narrative in which four high-schoolers (who are a bit more multidimensional than their stereotypes suggest), must rigorously defend themselves after their classmate dies in detention. The book is often compared to The Breakfast Club, but it’s a little closer to American Vandal: It’s an episodic, winking whodunit set in the gossipy milieu of high-school self-seriousness. It’s a bit silly, but it’s also a lot of fun.
The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach) was recommended by best friend of MWS, Katie Levin. Set at a small midwestern college, it connects a handful of key characters through the school’s once struggling but now stellar baseball team. The character-driven book (check out those names!) offers a John Irving-inspired take on multivariant masculinity, represented by Moby-Dick on the one hand, and “The Art of Fielding,” a fictional bible of baseball held dear by one of the book’s nominal protagonists, on the other. It’s a bit diffuse and meandering, but in that sense it capably recreates Ishmael’s narrative (and possibly baseball’s enactment of the futility of strategy in the face of chance).
Okay, that's a bit of a stretch, but, hey, it’s summer! What are you reading?
This is the fourth part in a series about communications plans, which are crucial tools for nonprofits and businesses. Check out part I, part II, and part III for more!
A communications plan lays out a comprehensive picture of an organization's communications goals and offers executable steps for how to achieve them. It can be created or updated annually to align with the fiscal year, or it can be developed as a companion to a 1-, 3- or even 5-year strategic plan.
In earlier posts, we offered an overview of communications plans, along with information about two crucial components of well-designed plans: clearly articulated communications objectives, and a comprehensive map of communications channels.
In this post, we're covering another important piece of a communications plan: a detailed breakdown of messaging strategy.
There are many ways to conceive of messaging strategy, but we think of it as a way to generate and manage subject matter for routine—but discrete—communications, such as blog posts, newsletters, and social media posts.
Often, these kinds of high-frequency communications are executed without a big-picture strategy in mind. That equates to a lost opportunity in reinforcing organizational vision—and it also puts the writer in the position of having to routinely scramble to source new content.
As comms managers know, that scramble can feel relentless ("What to tweet about this morning? This afternoon? Next week?" "Who's got something I can include in the newsletter this month?"). It's also super inefficient, in terms of brain space and organizational workflow. Plus, it can lead to unwanted repetition and inconsistency.
A lot of these issues can be solved with a messaging strategy. When a messaging strategy is developed as part of a communications plan, you ensure that these routine communications on-brand and aligned with important events and campaigns.
When thinking about messaging, develop general categories that can be mined for content: fundraisers, outreach, personal and organizational profiles, relevant current events or research, calls to action, quotes, thought pieces, etc. In developing those topics, think about your communications objectives: What will resonate with your target audiences? Garner stakeholder engagement? Strengthen your SEO?
As the above screen shot of the messaging section of a communications plan shows, you can then break each topic down further into subtopics that line up with what's going on in the organization.
From there, topics can be broken down even more granularly, to be scheduled on an editorial calendar*: A future event may be an occasion for multiple communications—an invitation and reminder, a thought piece from the ED exploring how the event reflects the organization's mission, an after-the-fact report of the event's success and thank you to everyone involved, links to press coverage, etc. Similarly, a volunteer recruiting push could lead to an ongoing series of new volunteer profiles and an end-of-year report celebrating volunteer-related outcomes.
Creating a messaging strategy takes a bit of up-front work. But it's ultimately an enormous time-saver that leads to more consistent, more meaningful, and more effective communications.
*If you haven't yet heard the gospel of editorial calendars—another critical tool that a communications plan sets out—now's the time to be saved!
As we discussed in a recent post, before applying for a grant, you need to apply to apply for a grant.
But then. Then! After you’ve written the Letter of Intent and received an invitation and RFP to apply, it’s time to actually write the grant.
Surprisingly, the grant writing at this stage is easier and more straightforward (though because it’s longer and more detailed it’s also more work): Not only have you received instructions in the form of the RFP, but you’ve already written your template in the form of the LOI.
In some ways, the grant proposal is the LOI, but more. Whereas the LOI is about 2 pages, the grant proposal is more like 8 to 12 pages. Whereas the LOI provides a snapshot of your organization and its program objectives, the proposal spells out in more (and repetitive) detail your organization’s background, needs, program model, goals and objectives, methods, evaluation and tracking, timeline and work to date, and organizational information.
To write the right proposal:
Proposals can be onerous and overwhelming. Many organizations want to break the project down, assigning various elements to various staff members. Resist this urge! Instead, assign the proposal to your organization’s strongest writer (who, ideally, practices extreme attention to detail), and provide that writer with vigorous support.
And if this is your organization's first effort, consider spending the money on training your writer in grant writing or on hiring a grant writer. The outlay might hurt your organization’s wallet in the short-term, but the final proposal will pay long-term dividends (even if it doesn't win the grant) because it will be the basis for future—winning!—proposals.
Let's take a quick mental tally: In the past month, have you received a tone-deaf email from a colleague and were left to ponder what he actually meant? A memo so full of jargon that it required two or three reads to decipher? A set of instructions poorly written enough to require its own manual? A rally-the-team note from a manager or the c-suite that fell completely flat because of insipid or vague writing?
If you answered yes to any (or maybe all) of those questions, you're not alone.
It's not breaking news that Americans spend a lot of time communicating at work. But unfortunately, a lot of that time is wasted.
To be more precise, as Josh Bernoff reported in the Harvard Business Review, 81% of businesspeople say that poor writing wastes a lot of their time. All those vague emails, poorly organized presentations, and jargon-laden reports add up—and take a major blow to an organization's productivity.
Of course, it's not just the internal workings of an organization that suffer under a culture of bad writing. Bad writing filters out to customers, clients, partners, and stakeholders, too. It signals a lack of professionalism, lack of organizational self-awareness and integrity, and lack of respect for your audience. We can probably all agree that those are un-good signals to send.
So what's an organization to do?
Small steps can make a difference, if you're willing to commit time (and possibly money) to improving your organization's writing.
1. Make sure you've got polished templates and models for anything your employees routinely produce, such as project reports, slide decks, or blog posts. Templates not only save time, but they ensure that materials are consistent—and consistently well written.
2. Model good writing from the top. Management sets the tone and the standard for team members to rise (or fall) to. Even casual emails from a team lead or a department head (not to mention the ED or CEO) should be thoughtfully and properly crafted.
3. Design your organization's workflow with the writing process in mind. Make sure that all public-facing communications are adequately reviewed and vetted—for example, by building in a beta release for larger projects. And if your staffing allows it, consider providing dedicated in-house writing support for those who routinely create communications.
4. Provide training for employees, whether new hires or veterans. Everyone brings different levels of comfort and experience to writing, so it's crucial to periodically create the opportunity to ensure that everyone is aware of organizational standards and able to use best practices.
5. Bring in external support when needed. Sometimes an outside perspective helps, both to identify problems, and to conduct the necessary training to get staff up to speed. Experienced consultants can bring fresh ideas to new communications projects or old communications inefficiencies.
Now, go forth and write (better)!
In our last post about getting the grant, we discussed developing a solid grant-finding strategy. While finding a grant is easy, finding the right grant—the grant that you can win for your nonprofit—is hard(er). Today, we’ll discuss next steps, including best practices for writing the Letter of Inquiry.
Once you’ve identified the right grant, you may want to establish contact with the grantmaking group. Many grantmakers (though not all—be sure to read that RFP!) tacitly assume applicants will reach out. So send an email or make a phone call to gauge their interest in your organization and its work. The effort ensures that both you and the grantmaker views the a grant as a good fit. It also helps open the door to a relationship: As most nonprofits already know, relationships are key to sustainability.
If you’ve established contact and learned more about your target grant, you will also learn about their preferred entry document. Often, this is a two-page Letter of Inquiry. The LOI provides an excellent warmup for writing the grant. It asks you to show off your organization and to succinctly articulate grant-relevant goals. The LOI may feel like a chore (and it is), but by enabling grantmakers to efficiently make a first cut, the letter helps save you from writing a grant you are not positioned to win.
If the grantmaking group offers an LOI template, use it. But if not, create your own LOI according to the following specifications, aiming for two pages in length.
Now, as novice grant writers (also all writers) quickly learn, you need to start earlier, do more research, and write more drafts than you think you do. In the next post, we'll turn to the writing process itself.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, and mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, and mom to three troublemakers.