Sometimes (maybe often), a big or ambitious writing project can suffer esoteric emergencies.
A writer might experience a crisis of confidence (or might suddenly birth a punitive inner editor). A writer might experience a crisis of interest (an initial effluence dries up). A writer might experience a crisis of life’s mundane (or monumental) messiness.
Broken confidence, eclipsed interest, and interrupted work are annoyingly inevitable. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to ensure a project’s survival (if, by “pretty easy,” we agree to mean “biting a stick and bearing down through streams of sweat and tears”).
But sometimes these crises, when left untreated, threaten survival. For big, ambitious writing projects, there is no inoculation (for either project or writer), but a little preparation and a lot of triage can ameliorate some damage.
Preparation (if you’re like me) means: 1) reading the books on maximizing creative productivity, 2) prioritizing/scheduling your time, and 3) “mastering” the enigma of a balanced life. Also 4) making spreadsheets, to-do lists, and/or bullet journals (that will eventually/inevitably mock you as you miss deadline after [self-imposed] deadline).
Preparation is important, of course, but it’s probably best understood in the service of endurance (not success).
Triage is different, though. Triage helps you identify and treat your project’s emergent issues…and it’s actually more effective when it happens after you realize your project is gasping for life and in need of an SOS.
Triage often involves sending a particularly ill part of your project to a trusted friend—a good thinker with a respected readerly opinion (who will refrain from offering excessive and/or grad-school-style critique)—or to a smart, detached professional.
Who is this trusted confidante? Hard to tell! But merely sending a project out into the world forces it into a new environment where you can better diagnose and treat its problems. In some ways, it almost doesn’t matter if you reach the exactly right person.
Of course, in other ways, the exactly right person is much better than any old person, so take the opportunity to ask for a short evaluation. What works, what doesn’t, and what’s their best advice for treatment? Whether or not the you receive practical help, you’ve at least narrowed down your second-opinion pool.
The bad news is that for most writers, there’s is no cure for a big, ambitious project. It’s more like pyrotherapy: The fever must run its course. Help it along by finding the most effective treatment to minimize your pain and maximize your project’s vitality.
Collaboration Is Not a Four-Letter Word (or, How to Still Like Your Colleagues after the Project, Assuming You Liked Them before the Project)
We frequently work with organizations on collaboratively produced documents, from annual reports to training manuals to white papers and more. Coauthorship for these kinds of projects is inevitable: Large or complicated documents almost always require the expertise and input of people from different organizational vantages.
It makes sense to produce these projects collaboratively, but it's logistically challenging. Like so much in work (and life), careful, advanced planning and open, formalized communication offer the cure to almost any collaboration ailment.
Just think, you could be part of a big team fist-bump like this! (Or not. It's not really our thing either.)
Here are the most important things to consider:
1. Designate a project manager. Maybe you've already got a dedicated project manager—lucky you! If not, consider who's likely to be the de facto project manager, and formalize that role. Contributors will bring different levels of commitment (ahem) to a project, and having one person whose focus is to see it all the way through (and who's charged with the authority to do so) is crucial.
2. Clarify the division of labor. Now that you've got a project manager, make sure other collaborators' tasks are clearly delineated. Organizational structure will determine some, but not all, roles. Other factors to consider include team members' facility with writing and their availability at key points in the project. Crystal clarity regarding project-specific roles makes it easier for colleagues to get on board, and to execute what's expected.
3. Make sure the project goals and timeline are clear from the start. This big-picture plan—the macro-view to complement the micro-view of individual roles—is crucial to ensure that collaborators understand the importance of their (timely) contributions. No one wants to be the wrench in the delicately balanced project machinery on which their colleagues depend. Determine the optimal workflow for your project, and make sure that it's communicated to everyone involved.
4. Make use of technology. Start with your project timeline: there are many tools available to help you create the sort of detailed timeline you need to track tasks, milestones, and project dependencies. And when it comes to creating and polishing content, determine how to best harness your organization's file sharing or collaboration tools—or which to introduce—and get your team on board with using them.
5. Use an editors’ trick of the trade and create a style sheet for all of your collaborators to follow. If your organization already has one, all the better! This upfront time investment will ultimately—and exponentially—simplify the process of collating individually authored sections. Once the your content is complete, consider designating the most experienced writer (who may or may not be the project manager) as the document's ultimate editor—or, better yet, hire an expert who can suss out inconsistencies and correlate usage, house style, organization, and more.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
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.