Writing is vital: How we’re making it a team habit

Illustration of a woman typing and a team publishing.

How do you rally a team around writing? That’s the question we asked ourselves. Wildbit has traditionally been more product-focused, and writing happened if someone could work it in. We'd like to improve on that front, and we’ve made some changes that have helped us start down that path.

We're working on writing primarily to help customers get more out of our products, but that’s not the only goal. Nearly as important as helping customers, writing is also a great way to organize and clarify our own thoughts. There’s no better way to learn something than by explaining it to someone else. 

This is all easier said than done, of course. We’re a long ways from a perfect process, but we’re making progress. Now that you know why we’re doing it let’s take a look  at how we’re making it happen.

Share the big picture with the team

When writing or sharing isn’t someone’s primary job, it can feel it interferes with “real” work. So it helps to show the team the bigger picture. Why are we writing? Why does it matter? For us, it’s because the tools we create are only one means of helping people develop software. Giving them guidance on how to get the most out of their tools is another.

By itself, creating products or shipping updates to our products isn’t enough. We need to ensure customers know about updates and understand how they can use those updates. That requires help docs, guides, newsletters, and more, and those don't create themselves. The other half of the big picture is that writing helps us gain a deeper understanding of a topic. It’s one thing to feel like you know something, but it’s another thing to articulate that knowledge for someone else. 

To help paint this bigger picture, we put together a short slide deck that anyone could browse quickly and understand our reasons for writing more:

Increase support for writing

Everyone has their own struggles with writing. Some may not recognize the knowledge they possess. Others may not feel their knowledge is useful to others. Or they may lack confidence in their expertise. Yet others may not feel confident about their writing skills. Team members will invariably need encouragement and support in their own unique ways. 

That support can take many forms. For someone not confident about their writing, knowing someone else will help edit is reassuring. Someone who struggles to come up with ideas may just need a casual conversation about what they're working on to help spark ideas. Often, just knowing the the team is there to help will be enough.

At Wildbit, we've enlisted the help of an illustrator to help with some of the articles. These illustrations really help bring the articles to life, and it adds an element of fun to the process. We’ve also created a set of simple guidelines for tone and voice, spelling and capitalization, and various other standards.  That way, nobody ever has to stress about details. But even the tone and voice document is just a guideline rather than hard rules.

Knowing a whole team is supporting your writing, double-checking your spelling, and gently pushing back to help strengthen your ideas goes a long ways to giving people the confidence to share. Unfortunately, it's just as easy for that process to suffocate someone's contribution.

Provide structure without imposing process

Writing suffers from all the challenges of creative work. Ideas need to be nurtured and occasionally nudged along. There’s a fine line between providing a framework to support progress without stalling under too much process. We're still working to find the right balance.

In my exuberance around writing and sharing at Wildbit, we created a robust process that helped our more complex writing like guides and technical blog posts, but it suffocated the shorter articles and help documents. Team members would often feel like their work didn’t measure up to the process we put in place. Until we all discussed the problem as a team, we struggled. But after the team discussion about how the process should be fluid and that every step wasn’t mandatory, things have begun to improve.

The process can make or break your team’s momentum. It needs to be just firm enough that everyone has faith it will work, but just flexible enough that they don’t feel strangled by deadlines and tasks. With our process, the author can stay as involved as they want through the production process, or they can move onto other tasks knowing that their words will be handled with care.

We maintain an editorial calendar in Trello to help make sure that production moves forward. Our goal is that once someone writes a draft and shares it with the team for feedback, they can trust that others will almost automatically go through and provide feedback, edits, and illustration, as well as handling the production work. All the author has to do is drop their draft into Paper and notify the folks they’d like to review it. The process handles the rest.

A visualization of our process steps.
By helping the team see how the process moves from one step to another in an ideal workflow, everyone gets a better idea of the big picture.

Side note: While we chose to use Trello, Gather Content is another great tool for managing a writing process. We decided to start with Trello to have a little more organic process with less structure until we hit our stride. 

Embrace inspiration

The blank page scares even the most experienced writers. Even when team members want to write, it’s sometimes difficult to know how to get started. For this, we’ve created an idea section of our editorial calendar in Trello. This way, anyone can post an idea, fill in a little information and start a discussion without too much commitment. The low barrier for test driving ideas can help foster discussion, inspire ideas in other team members, and just make it easier to get started.

One of the discoveries we made is that it’s difficult to write on a schedule when writing isn’t your primary task. One of our team members set out to spend a month dedicated to writing blog posts and help articles. In the end, he felt like that didn’t go to well and that a month of writing might have been too idealistic.

As a designer or developer, it’s the work of creating that often inspires topics for writing and discussion. So it’s important to recognize that writing can, and almost has to, dovetail with regular work. It’s also good for team members to write regularly to maintain momentum. Writing and topics require inspiration to a degree, but it’s the perspiration that gets things done. At times, that may mean that when work inspires an idea, it should be ok to take a break and write about that idea.

On a similar note, it’s often helpful to encourage people to get away from their desk to think about their writing. Everybody’s familiar with a great idea coming to them in the shower. Sometimes, you have to take a step back and let your subconscious do some heavy lifting. No one does their best “thinking” when staring at a screen. So make sure people are comfortable stepping away to get some fresh perspective.

Help the team get comfortable with feedback

Writing is difficult for anybody, but for team members that aren’t professional wordsmiths, feedback, no matter how constructive, can be uncomfortable. You might be trying to maintain a certain tone and voice for a blog, or you might be unsure about what types of articles are right for the blog. If a team member writes something, but it turns out not to be a good fit or need a lot of feedback, it can be a delicate process. You want to encourage them, but you also want to help them improve their work.

We’ve made a point to explicitly talk about how editing and feedback isn't about extinguishing their flame but strengthening their articles. At times, it’s difficult, especially if it has taken some time for someone to feel comfortable writing their first article. It can be tempting to be more lenient about editing to keep that team member interested in writing, but that won’t help anyone. If an article needs a significant amount of feedback, reach out and talk to the person. 

Consider production and promotion time

One of the more tedious aspects of publishing is the production process. Converting a document into a blog post, HTML page, PDF, email newsletter or any other medium will take a meaningful amount of time. Illustrating. Editing. Layout. Promotion. These all take time, and if the system gets in the way, publishing won’t happen. Everyone needs to be on board with and understand the complexities of producing great content. 

Then, even once it’s produced, it needs to be promoted. That could be as simple as tweeting about it or letting RSS do its thing. Or you may need to add it to the regular newsletter. If content is published on a blog and no one hears about it, did it really get published? Make sure that there’s time set aside to spread the word via your news channels like Facebook, Twitter, and newsletters.

Be prepared to grow into it

Like any process, no team is going to immediately and flawlessly embrace a new process without help. You can’t just introduce a tool and have everybody automatically understand it. It requires teaching, helping, listening to feedback, and adjusting course. Our process has already evolved and continues to improve as we learn what does and doesn’t work. 

Also, while the process is changing, so to will the team change to embrace or push back on certain pieces of the process. It’s important to listen and pay attention for ways that the process might not be working. While process needs a level of enforcement, it has to be balanced with adaptability, or it won’t stand the test of time. Even the tallest and strongest buildings are designed to flex with the wind.

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