Writing by Committee

I once proofread a proposal where the word “huge” was spelled throughout as “hugh.” (High marks for consistency, though.) I edited the descriptions of presentations for a major industrial conference where presenters used the same acronym for entirely different meanings over a dozen times. 

When any document is written by committee, it seems that no one is responsible to check that it actually makes sense. Basic facts change from chapter to chapter or page to page, including product and service names. Cross-references go nowhere, as everyone assumes that someone else is providing the cross-referenced content. Some writers believe their readers are knowledgeable and the rest believe their readers need detailed information–which means the actual reader is either lost or bored.

You can avert and fix the problem of writing by committee if you:

  • Create a short style manual for writers to reference. A style manual is a brief description (2 pages maximum) of format, grammar (use of the serial comma, for example), spelling, acronyms, and use of copyrighted or intellectual property.
  • Decide early on about tone and audience. Do you address the audience as “you” or “they”? Is content highly technical or relaxed (think the “for Dummies” series)? Who is your audience: executives, purchasers, installers, users? Don’t switch audiences mid-page or mid-sentence.
  • Limit the number of reviewers. Aim for a maximum of three reviewers; say, customer liaison, technical, and executive.
  • Assign one person to read the entire document. With multiple writers and reviewers, sentences become edited into nonsense, words are dropped, and even firm requests by the customer for specific information are overlooked.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. The smallest change or mistake in even a standard document can turn the rest of the document into scrap paper.

As a professional technical and marketing writer, I’m often called upon to provide a uniform voice and structure for documents that undergo writing by committee. That outside perspective not only ensures that mistakes are caught, it also helps to resolve conflict when writers re-write each other.

If your company, division, or group is used to writing by committee, please contact me.