Tips for working with content expert writers

Comms professionals often depend on content experts to write about technical or complex topics for general audience newsletters, websites or social posts. But when content experts write about topics they know best, the document they produce might include industry lingo, technical language or assumptions about what a reader already knows.

This is where the editor comes in to be the connect point between the writer’s intention and the reader’s experience.

Avoiding disconnects between the context expert writer and editor

Consider this. An investment company has a nationally recognized tax attorney on staff. But she may not be accustomed to breaking down a new tax law for senior citizen investors. Or maybe an acclaimed scientist works for a non-profit. Although he is well-versed about the challenges of ecological decline in wetlands, he may not have experience connecting the issue to donors who read a newsletter article.

Unfortunately, enlisting content experts to write for a general audience newsletter or website can sometimes lead to a disconnect – leaving the content expert feeling the comms team is questioning his expertise or undermining his value. At the same time, this disconnect can put the comms team in the position of being disparaged by the expert as the organization’s “word nerd grammar police” who dumb down or oversimplify the writing.

Comms professionals who write as part of their job learn to focus on the reader and to separate themselves personally from their writing. They don’t take editing personally and embrace it as part of a process. People who don’t frequently write for a general audience, however, can sometimes see edits as an insult. They may get offended if the document comes back looking like a middle school English paper that the teacher has bled on with red ink.

It’s all about the reader

As Stephen Covey wrote, the solution lies with “begin with the end in mind.” And here, the end is the reader – not the writer or the editor. By agreeing up front to what the reader needs, the writer and the editor start from a place of mutual understanding working toward the same goal of engaging the reader.

When recruiting content experts to write for a more general audience, specific guidance from the comms team can support a writer’s success, make editing easier, and (most importantly) ensure readers easily understand the message that’s being conveyed.

Five tips for success with content expert writers

1 – Be clear that writing and editing are about focusing on the reader, not the writer or the editor. Editing is not an attempt to judge the writer’s expertise. Rather, editing is a collaborative process to ensure the writing meets its goals to inform the reader. By positioning writing with a focus on the reader/audience rather than on the writing process, content experts will feel they are part of the team.

2 – Set up content expert writers for success by giving clear instructions. A checklist that includes information about the audience, the goal of the content and specifics about what is to be communicated can be helpful. Give a quick summary of the tone and voice, word count, and use of bullets or lists, graphics or charts. Download a template of instructions here.

3 – Give content expert writers a very short style guide to encourage a confidence level with the organization’s rules for grammar and punctuation. This could include some of the most common errors the comms team sees or grammar rules, such as the Oxford comma or sentence spacing, that vary among style guides. Also helpful are pointers about sentence structure and length (vary them) and use of active versus passive voice (active is typically more powerful).

4 – Eliminate the “middle school English teacher” syndrome by ensuring the edit process feels collaborative rather than punitive. Trade in a red editing pen for a purple one for hard copy editing. Writers often say this is a kinder, gentler approach than the dreaded red pen. Or use comment bubbles to explain the “why” behind edits when editing a digital copy. This can be particularly helpful for a content expert who will be writing frequently for a more general audience.

5 – Enlist support of the organization’s leadership to reinforce the importance and value of expert voices in written content. When the organization’s leaders stress the value of the content expert’s role in communicating a message to readers in a way they will understand, everyone wins.

Reba Hull Campbell has wanted to be a writer ever since winning the VFW writing contest in the fourth grade. She delights in the editing process and encourages others to see it as a puzzle to be solved not a chore to be endured.

Image by alliesinteractive on Freepik

Published by Reba Campbell

Reba Hull Campbell established the Medway Group in 2020, bringing more than 35 years of professional success in politics, government relations, organizational leadership, fundraising and communications to her clients and her teaching.

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