Every time I hear that quote, I always think, "well, at least the ideas are put out of their misery because when it comes to writing, committees aren't murderous cul-de-sacs, they're dangerous freeways littered with the hopelessly mangled -- but still living drafts -- of many a once-effective document."
I have yet to discover a way to avoid writing by committee and, believe me, I've tried. To be fair, sometimes a committee can actually improve a document. It rarely happens that way, but there are some things an alert writer can do to -- if not eliminate the torture entirely, at least minimize the pain.
Tip 1: Do your best to limit the size of the review committee.
There is generally an inverse relationship between the size of the committee and the quality of the final document. Big committee = Bland writing. More than 5 people with direct authority for revisions is pretty much a guarantee of serious wear and tear on a writer, not to mention what happens to the final version. If a large group absolutely has to be involved, then it will be very important to establish a clear process for collecting and weighing all the revision suggestions (many of which will be more like demands).
Tip 2: Learn how to defend your copy effectively. (Tip 2a: Defend it)
There is an art to this. As the writer, it's your responsibility to defend the integrity of the document. This is different from protecting your ego by resisting revisions. The bottomline on every change should be whether or not it makes the document better -- more clear, more accurate, more inspiring, more meaningful. One of the best ways to defend your copy effectively is to use a little editorial jujitsu: ask questions. A few of my favorites:
- Why do you what this change? Is something not clear?
- Can we talk this through to make sure I understand your changes and what you're trying to say?
- How is this "inaccurate" or "wrong" or "misleading?"*
*If you work with scientists and other technical types, you may run across this one fairly often -- someone will tell you something is "not accurate." A few years ago, one of the scientists I work with gave me great insight into dealing with this kind of comment. "Not accurate," she said, "doesn't always mean 'not true.' It just means your meaning might not be precise enough for the reviewer. There can be a difference between "inaccurate" and 'wrong.'"
I found that fascinating and tremendously helpful. As a writer, it's your job to speak for the audience -- the level of specificity, precision and detail necessary depends entirely on the needs of your audience. So whether something is "accurate" or not can depend on your audience. They're counting on you to keep it on their level. Don't let them down.
Tip 3: Know who to listen to and who to ignore.
Not all reviewers are created equal. Shocking, I know, but there it is. Know who's who in the zoo because if two reviewers offer competing comment, you're going to have to figure out how to manage that. Ultimately, someone's edits must take precedence. As the writer, it's your job to take all of the comments as a whole and decide which ones benefit the document and which ones don't -- especially with competing commenters, especially with competing commenters who don't like each other.
The more political the review process, the more in control of the copy you need to be.
Tip 4: Know when to fold 'em.
Sometimes the only solution is the graceful retreat. Especially if the people you're dealing with are, well, crazy. It happens. If you've done your best to protect the copy, fought the good fight on behalf of your audience and the powers-that-be are still gleefully ripping everything to sheds, then it's time to go. Oh you'll probably still have to see the document through to the bitter end, but don't waste your energy fighting a lost cause.
This should be a course of absolute last resort. And you're only allowed to exercise it if you have written a thorough critique of your concerns about the direction the comment and revisions are taking, why you advise against them, your suggested revisions to address any problems, and your best advice for going forward to completion. If you've done all that and the review committee still tells you to pack sand, then save your energy for another document and another day. (And make sure they don't put your name anywhere on something you hate.)
I'm collecting writing by committee horror stories....would love to hear from anyone with insight, experiences or additional tips.