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Achieving a Common Style in a Group Writing Project

written by: ThomasTrzyna • edited by: Marlene Gundlach • updated: 12/27/2014

What are the essential agreements you must reach with team members if they are collaborating writers of a successful report, proposal, manual, or book? How can you determine that a project is ready for press?

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    Audience, Purpose and Organization

    Achieving a Common Style on a Group Writing Project When writers collaborate on a project, nothing is more essential than reaching agreement on the audience, the purpose, and the basic organization of the project. Often, members of a writing team will begin with quite different ideas of the ultimate audience as well as different ideas about what that audience knows and is capable of understanding. The simplest way to avoid getting draft sections that are written in different styles--with different levels of complexity and technical content--is to spend a meeting discussing the kind of audience the project is designed to reach. Ask your writing team:

    1. What is the audience's level of expertise on the subject?
    2. What level of technical vocabulary is the audience likely to understand?

    Closely related to audience is purpose. Writing project teams often have different ideas of the purpose of a document. This is why you will often find that products come with multiple manuals designed to serve different purposes.

    For instance, a new digital camera may come with a heavily illustrated fold-out sheet that explains basic functions. That's for the purpose of helping an impatient audience to start taking pictures immediately. Next in the box is the longer manual for people who want to play with all the special settings. You can't serve both purposes well in the same document; neither can you serve different audiences at the same time. One of my recent projects could have had at least three different audiences and purposes:

    • It could have been written to statisticians to demonstrate the utility of a particular analytical method;
    • To educational experts to add to a specialized dialogue about educational methods; or
    • To policy makers to help them understand a large public issue and to start framing new policies.

    It was essential for the project team to decide the primary audience and focus because those three different audiences and purposes could not be mixed.

    Finally, it is essential to create a working outline of the product--and then agree when that outline may be up for discussion, if ever. Some of the most challenging moments I have experienced in writing projects have come when someone, usually very late in a project, comes up with a fresh outline and imagines that it will be easy to just cut and paste everything.

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    Work Toward Seamless Collaborative Writing

    Typically, when you are asked to work with a group of writers on a project, you may not have the ability to choose participants based on their writing styles or their ability to achieve a common style. And yet you want your final product to read as if it were seamlessly composed by a single author. At the same time, you don't want to spend valuable time and money having your final editor laboriously change large sections of the document.

    It's your responsibility as the project manager to be aware of your team members' various writing styles. If you think someone has considerable knowledge to contribute but you're uncertain of the person's skill level, take a look at something else he or she has written in the past.

    You will want to assign tasks to your team members so that those who write well and with a fairly similar style can do more of the writing. Others working on the project will be given other tasks, such as research, preparation of outlines, or opportunities to present their contributions orally during meetings.

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    Establish a Head Editor and Project Deadline

    It is best to explain at the beginning of a project that one competent writer will be given authority over the final draft. As stated above, this person will not work to change large sections of the document but will instead strive for consistency of presentation.

    You don't want to make this assignment when you are facing difficulties late in the work, when their are egos on the line. So make that assignment a routine part of the initial organization. Sometimes it is important to add that you will reach a point in the project when there will be no more group editing sessions, no more input from other authors, and no right to review or approve. Without clarity about such deadlines and authority, group projects can continue into debates that sap energy and creativity, and run far past a final project deadline.

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    Exit With Flexibility and Grace

    Just as it is important to assign a final editor, it is important for that editor to treat other people's work gently. There are always dozens of equally good ways to make a point or explain a design or policy. Therefore a good editor knows when to leave text alone and when it is absolutely necessary to intervene and make changes. If you have reached an understanding about audience, purpose, and organization, and if you have chosen your writers with an eye to similarities of style and thinking, then the final edit should not require a lot of work. Besides, heavy editing will often cost more in dollars, time, and egos than it is worth.

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    The Final Document

    If you have done your organizing well, and your group has focused on an audience, purpose and organization, then it is relatively easy to lead a conversation about whether the final draft document meets project goals. Have you aimed the document at the target audience? Is the level of technical content appropriate? Is the language appropriate? Have you achieved your purpose? Are there sufficient road signs in the manuscript to help readers navigate from section to section? If everyone is reasonably satisfied with the answers to those and similar questions, then you have a final document.

    Corral the people on your team who want to keep finalizing things. Every team has procrastinators who are sure that with a little more time, the group will think of something fresh and important. Stop the project when you have reached the agreed-upon deadlines, and point out how a publication will carry maximum impact if it comes out in a timely manner.

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