Are you struggling with managing multiple contributing authors for your next writing project? You’re not alone. Bringing together multiple perspectives can create an exceptional piece of work, but it can also lead to a document that feels disjointed, repetitive, and disorganized. In this article, we’ll explore the challenges of managing multiple contributing authors and offer two practical solutions: conducting interviews and utilizing comprehensive copyediting. We’ll also share how we did this for the Unite Nation’s SDG reports, which are now published on UN Knowledge Bank!
In 30 Seconds:
- Multiple contributors to a report is a great way to capture vast knowledge in a single document.
- Multiple writers make for choppy, repetitive, long, disorganized documents.
- Interviewing contributors instead of asking them to write is easier for them and produces a superior report more quickly and inexpensively.
- If it’s too late to interview, a comprehensive copyeditor can get your draft into shape.
In 10 minutes:
Many voices, many words
World-class work is the culmination of many voices. And many voices make for…well, many words.
Your team has a report to write, so you divide the sections up by area of expertise, bug everyone to submit their piece, and then paste it all together. Sound familiar?
This is a solid approach for bringing great minds together. It also results in a document that comes across to the reader as choppy, repetitive, somewhat disorganized, and a little too long. Why is that?
Just as with oral language, everyone has a different tone and style to their writing. Whether it is warm, serious, upbeat, somber, instructional, friendly, informal, or straight-laced, we each have a unique personality on the page. When multiple authors’ work is strung together, the reader is taken by surprise by these abrupt shifts in personality — almost as if they were speaking to someone who suddenly began shape-shifting in the middle of the conversation.
Each author has their own section, but the larger topic remains the same. That means that many of the sections will share similar background information, and the sections probably even overlap somewhat. With each writer drafting a section as if it were a standalone piece, they are probably including information that others are also including in their sections.
In addition to repetitiveness, authors working in isolation breeds disorganization. Without knowing what others will be saying in their sections, the authors can’t make clear references to other sections that would help the reader piece things together. An author of a later section may explain something that would have helped the reader understand a previous section; this leaves the reader frustrated. The authors may even use different terms or explanations for the same concept according to their specialization, leaving the reader feeling like the document contradicts itself.
Repetition alone adds unnecessary length to a document. In addition, it is often extraordinarily challenging for a very knowledgeable person to judge what portions of their knowledge the reader needs to know to understand the point of the document, and what nice-to-know extras could be omitted to improve concision. When everyone starts writing everything they know about a topic they love, the file quickly becomes one of those intimidating behemoths that no one may ever read.
So what’s the solution to creating an outstanding document that captures everyone’s knowledge AND is intriguing for the reader?
Plan A: Interviews
At Written Progress our favorite approach by far is interviewing contributors instead of assigning them sections to write. There’s several advantages to this approach:
- No one has to write. Let’s face it, none of the authors are excited about this task. They’d much rather talk about their favorite topic for an hour than write about it.
- External perspective. Your reader is external to your team. So who better to write for them than a person external to your team? An external writer who takes the time to learn your team’s shared knowledge — keeping the goal of the document top of mind — is perfectly poised to explain it clearly to someone else.
- Clarity. Humans have the curse of knowledge. It’s *really hard* to imagine not knowing something we already know. That means most of us aren’t skilled in explaining things we know really well. Interviews allow us to ask questions until we get really clear on what the author knows and how that relates to the topic at hand.
- Efficiency. It is much faster to draft a clear, organized, concise document than to give a long, choppy, disorganized file a makeover. This saves our clients both time and money.
- Flow. Best of all, a document written by a single person who has interviewed ALL of the contributors and carefully woven their messages together is in the flow. It has a unified voice. It says everything only once. It’s logically organized. And it’s brief. No more choppiness, repetition, disorganization, or eye-glazing length. Win!
Plan B: Comprehensive Copyedit
If it’s too late to interview, don’t despair. The next best solution is a comprehensive copyeditor. I don’t mean a human spellcheck. I mean someone who will read every single word of your file, and if they don’t understand something, they’ll work on it until it’s clear. (I just posted a great example of what a great copyeditor can do for you last week — check it out on our LinkedIn feed). A great copyeditor will unify the authors’ voices, reorganize to perfect the flow, remove repetition, and take a hard look at any non-essential information that may be making the document too long.
Case in point: the 2023 SDG Policy Briefs
Every year the United Nations selects a few of the SDGs to focus on through a report. They have some brilliant minds contributing to each report, and even the UN isn’t immune to the challenges of multiple contributors.
This is the second year running that we’ve conducted comprehensive copyediting and design of the UN SDG reports, and we already can’t wait for next year. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is for a group of professional communicators to help some of the world’s greatest minds on some of the world’s most wicked problems get their messages out into the world with clarity, concision, and confidence.
Four of the five SDG reports for 2023 are already live. Check them out on our website or the UN Knowledge Bank!