Ever wish you could clone yourself at work?
Jonathan Bass was the original content marketing manager at RevenueWell, a Chicago-based software-as-as-service healthcare company. But the company’s rapid growth soon meant that he was overstretched. “It was growing like kudzu,” he jokes.
With so many demands on the content marketing team, the idea of training and managing a junior employee seemed too time-consuming. Instead, the company’s leaders decided to hire another content marketing manager. A partner.
Enter David McCarthy.
Jonathan and David are now the rarest of breeds in the content marketing world: a writing team.
As unconventional as their partnership may be, the two are passionate advocates for collaboration. “I think when you get that healthy creative tension in a room you can create work that people will pay attention to, that breaks the grammar of content in a really good way,” David says.
The pair often split writing duties on a piece, dividing the responsibilities in half — and cutting the writing time in half.
If you’re looking for new ways to collaborate with your team, here are a few tips from Jonathan and David to get you going.
Choose the Right Partner
Trying to find the right writing partner is kind of like trying to find the right spouse — you can pick someone at random, but odds are it’s not going to work out like you want it to. So David and Jonathan have some matchmaking advice. “Find two people with different backgrounds and different experiences,” David says.
It might sound cliche, but David and Jonathan are proof that opposites of a sort do attract. As one of the founding members of the content department, Jonathan had established the workflows and processes, and established the brand's voice, ensuring that something as human-centered as health care sounded conversational. But it was a lot for one person to create and manage, and David has brought organizational skills to the table to ensure the department stays on track. “David’s got a really great organizational mind,” Jonathan says.
Meanwhile, Jonathan has guided David toward a more intuitive style of writing. The two have a good amount of autonomy, and with that comes its own challenges — especially for David, whose previous position required him to get a byzantine series of approvals for every piece. At RevenueWell, he’s learned to trust his intuition about quality content. Now, he says, he feels empowered to “go out and make something useful and engaging.”
Outline, Outline, Outline
Some writers wing it, eschewing outlines for the rush of improvisation. But unless you’re a mind-reader, it’s tough to wing it when you’re only writing one part of a piece.
Since you probably won’t be working with a telepathic partner, you’ll need to embrace the O word. David and Jonathan emphasize that outlines are essential to make sure the work gets done efficiently. “Outlines have really helped us,” David says. “They makes it easier for us to divide and conquer a piece.”
Once the outlining process is complete, it’s time to divide up the writing. Choosing who writes what is actually pretty simple, they say. “It seems like such a cop-out to say it’s organic, but it really is,” Jonathan says. Sometimes they split pieces based on their natural writing strengths, or familiarity with the subject matter. The outline process also makes it easier to step outside of their comfort zone from time to time.
Besides getting the work done faster, outlining has helped the two navigate the organization and coordinate better with other departments. “It makes the process a lot easier. People ask fewer questions,” Jonathan says.
Even though Jonathan and David come from different professional backgrounds, they say that inconsistent voice and tone are rarely an issue. "We both have a malleable voice," says Jonathan. "And a detailed set of voice and style guidelines also help."
Check Your Egos at the Door
A piece isn’t coming together. You shut our laptop in disgust and meet a friend at happy hour, where you immediately start complaining. And then, as you once again consider the idea of law school, your friend asks, “Well, why don’t you just do [insert brilliant idea here]?”
Having a collaborator is just like that — every single day.
A sounding board can give you a high like that happy hour feeling. David says he was drawn to RevenueWell for this very reason. “In a past position I was the only writer, so I didn’t really have someone to kind of work with on an idea,” he says. “You’re constantly doubting yourself.”
Jonathan suggests treating your collaboration like a television writers’ room, where a group brainstorms ideas, sometimes even outlining entire episodes together. “Operate on the premise that there are no bad ideas,” he says. At the core of the writers’ room approach is the concept that wrestling with bad ideas can lead to breakthroughs. You just have to be willing to talk them out. “It may start out as something really really strange, but as you talk through it you kind of get to a more clearly defined piece.”
This kind of group work also has a common roadblock: ego. Both David and Jonathan say the key to the success of their collaboration — or any collaboration — is eliminating ego. Remember that you and your collaborator have a larger goal, Jonathan says. “It’s taking the broad view, understanding what you want to get, and working together to find it.”
“There’s never any judgment,” David says. “It’s a completely constructive, nonjudgmental zone.”
Whether collaboration is right for you or your business is your decision. It will take some work and experimentation to get the process to work. But David and Jonathan swear by the results.
“I think collaboration ultimately leads to better work,” David says. “And it definitely makes me a better writer.”
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