Writing With Experts

“Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”

-William Zinsser, On Writing Well

I manage MailChimp’s blog, but I personally write as few posts as possible. It’s not because I’m lazy; it’s because I’m not usually the expert in any given situation.

Many writers, editors, and editorial directors work with people we affectionately call “subject-matter experts.” They’re the ones who didn’t major in English or journalism and don’t know an em dash from a hyphen, but they’re total champs at their jobs. In tech, they’re the designers, the data scientists, the engineers. They may not be professional writers, but they’re the exact right people to share their work.

With our help, our beloved experts can become confident and capable writers. We just have to commit to the process and give them the tools they need.

We also have to let go a little. I used to be afraid that if I gave other people too much control of the words, if I admitted that writing isn’t always that hard, then my job would become obsolete. It’s an understandable fear that came from a real place, but if my job ever becomes obsolete, it’s not going to be because my coworkers started blogging.

Of course there are certain types of communication best left to people who identify as writers, and of course knowing your ABCs does not make you a good writer. But when it comes to business communication—blogging, in particular—I think most people can learn to write clearly. Professional writers and editors can facilitate that. 

Empower them

The first step is acknowledging that you’re probably not the best writer for every job. If you ask me, a blog post analyzing patterns in data is more meaningful coming from a data scientist with an intimate knowledge of the process. A post about an app is more interesting coming from the person who made it. That’s why we invite all MailChimp employees to contribute to our blog.

Find the people who have more insight than you do, and give them space to communicate their own ideas. You could sit down and ask them a bunch of questions and turn that into an article, but you might not even know all the right questions to ask. Separate the subject matter from the writing, and let them tell you what’s important. Brainstorm with them, talk about angles, and help them figure out how to translate their ideas to the page.

Make them feel comfortable

Many of the people we work with aren’t trained writers. They've never been paid to write anything. They might be intimidated by the mere thought of writing. It’s a lot of pressure! Part of our job is to make them feel comfortable doing it.

Give them the tools they need in order to go forth and write, but don’t load them down with more information than they need. Plopping a big, fat style guide on a coworker’s desk and saying “memorize this and then write me something” is only going to scare them off. Instead, make style guides available for reference only, and focus on teaching new writers what they really need to know. At MailChimp, our voice and tone guide is required reading, but our traditional style guide (we use the Yahoo! style guide) is not.

Another way to make them feel comfortable is to meet them where they are. If you force new writers to adopt your systems and processes before they even put pen to paper, they might stop while they’re ahead. If someone wants to sit down and bounce a few ideas off you, sit down with them. If someone wants to send you a draft of their first post in the body of an email, let ‘em. Once they get settled, you can introduce them to the official publishing process.

Give them credit

Give your blog contributors a byline whenever possible. I think it’s rude to interview an expert, ask them for notes, translate their thoughts to the page, have them look over the article when it’s finished, and then put your name on it. It happens all the time though. That kind of process is bad for morale, and it doesn’t make people feel inclined to pitch in again.

When you’re working with people in other fields, consider how much they care about their work. They have reputations too. They want to impress the boss just as much as you do. So give them a platform to share their knowledge. It’s fun for them, and it’s obviously good for your company.

When someone writes a great post for your blog, tell them what you like about it! Share it with their team. Blogging might be just another part of your day, but for new writers, it's an exciting accomplishment.

Teach them

I’m learning to be a teaching editor. The small changes I've made have improved MailChimp's content and better prepared our writers for the future. Here’s how my editing process used to look: I assign something, you write it, I edit it, and you don’t see it again until it's published. In those days, I could get a blog post edited and ready to publish in a few minutes. It made my life easier in the short term, but it didn’t make anyone’s writing better over time.

Now I practice collaborative editing, inviting writers to participate in the process whenever I can. When someone sends me a draft, I read through it at least once before making notes. If it’s in good shape and just needs some editing, I jump right in. If it needs major changes, or if I think we should scrap it and go another route, then I stop by the writer’s desk or ask them to stop by mine. We talk through the problems and come up with a solution together. Sometimes that means rearranging the structure, and sometimes it means stopping where we are and brainstorming ideas for new directions.

When I have a draft ready for editing, I work in Google Docs or Editorially (though if it’s a blog post that’s in good shape, I put it right into WordPress Admin). I leave comments where it makes sense, instead of making changes in the doc. I don’t add a comment for every typo or rewording—if it’s just a matter of preference, a small tweak, or a mistake that probably won’t come up again, then I simply make the edit and move on. But if it’s a structural fix, a habit I've noticed from the writer, or an otherwise teachable moment, then I make a quick note about what needs to change and why.

Writers get a little better every time when they have to understand any significant edits and improve their own drafts. And the writers who get excited about the editing process rarely make the same mistake twice.