By Sarah Mitchell published May 9, 2012

Managing Large Teams of Writers Under Short Deadlines

(Or Lessons from My Big Fat Content Marketing Project)

Last year I led a content marketing project involving more than 700 pieces of original content developed by 15 writers across three continents in 60 days — a careers and industry guide for the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) online jobs board. In two short months, I learned the do-it-or-die essentials for a large-scale content marketing kick-off.

Writer guidelines are essential

Well-written writer guidelines keep a diverse group of writers moving in the same direction and should be tackled first.

Distributed workforces rock

We used writers in several time zones, an unplanned but happy accident. With 15 writers spanning 15 time zones, someone was always working on the project, day and night. Importantly, I was able to write copy briefs and edit submissions while most of the team was in bed, avoiding the normal editing bottleneck that occurs with a large team of writers.

“Horses for courses” applies to writers

We used a majority of freelance writers, a couple students, and one full-time employee to develop the content. It became apparent very quickly different writers had different strengths — and most of my assumptions about individual writers were wrong. Head off surprises by giving a mini assignment before full-blown production begins.

Money can’t buy you love

I learned quickly hourly rates do not equate to talent. The most expensive writer on the team was my biggest headache and required the costliest rewrites. Conversely, a couple of young turks turned out to be lifesavers. One even became my “fix-it” writer for the team when I needed rewrites.

Rush jobs cost

Most good content producers — writers and designers — are booked six to eight weeks in advance. While I had some of my best people on standby, they still expected top money to drop everything and work on our project, along with a 50 percent deposit before starting. If you want things done well and done quickly, expect to pay a premium to your service providers.

No one does it like you would

With 15 writers developing copy and a couple designers working alongside, I had no choice but to relinquish my inner control freak. Not a single one of the 700 articles was the way I would have written it. But you know what? So many of them are better. The ones that weren’t could be brought up to speed. It’s entirely liberating to let your team do it their way.

Workforce composition

Getting the right mix of skills and talent on your team is integral to success. I never want to do another project without these skills on my team: 

  • Web journalist – You can’t beat a journalist when it comes to telling a story and working to a deadline. They can crank out quality copy like no one else.
  • Researcher – We didn’t hire any researchers, but we did have a couple writers who love the research end of writing. They were assigned articles requiring a lot of in-depth industry information.
  • SEO copywriter – If you’re developing online content, having as least one heavy-duty SEO writer on your team is a big help. Get them to do the keyword research for the whole project.
  • Generalist – If you’re up against a hard deadline, you need as many writers as possible who willingly write to spec on any topic.
  • Editor – Even if your writers are providing professional editing as part of the service they provide, you still need an overall editor, if only to ensure consistency and adherence to guidelines.

Nothing is ever done

I had visions of a big launch followed by a good break to catch up on sleep. That never happened. No matter how clear your vision, a large piece of content like the Careers and Industry Guide needs constant attention. Our audience is driving a lot of the change but we also see things we want to do differently every day. We’re also seeing early indicators that the investment AMMA made in content marketing is paying off. That’s one thing that hasn’t surprised me.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free print subscription

Deadline image from Bigstock

Author: Sarah Mitchell

Sarah Mitchell is Director of Content Strategy at Lush Digital Media, co-host of the Brand Newsroom podcast and founder of Global Copywriting. She develops content marketing and community engagement strategies for clients in a variety of industries. Sarah works in Perth, Western Australia and frequently speaks on topics related to Content Marketing and Social Media. She's also the Australian editor for Chief Content Officer magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahMitchellOz.

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  • Kevin

    Nice post, Sarah. Did you work just with in-house writers or did you leverage freelancers as well? In my experience, freelancers can be a really cost-effective way of increasing a team’s ability to take on more and different kinds of work. I’ve gone into more detail on working with freelancers here.

    http://blog.openviewpartners.com/it-takes-an-army-building-a-stable-of-freelance-writers-to-meet-your-content-marketing-goals/

    http://blog.openviewpartners.com/deploying-the-troops-5-tips-for-using-freelancers-effectively-in-content-marketing/

  • http://www.writespark.com Janice King

    Your point about bringing in multiple types of writers is good and one that many marketing managers overlook. Given your subject matter, I can see how using generalist writers was a good choice for your project. But some content projects (e.g., for technology companies) will definitely need specialty writers. Guidelines for identifying the kind of writer you need are in my blog post: http://writinghightech.typepad.com/writespark/2012/04/do-you-need-a-specialty-copywriter.html

  • http://www.sixdegreescontent.com/ Courtney Ramirez

    Congrats on finishing a major project! The writer guidelines are such an important first step. Now that you’ve finished the project and had to do a variety of edits, do you think there are changes you’d make to the writer guidelines to reduce edits in the future? Or is ongoing editing just the nature of the beast when it comes to managing large groups of writers?

  • M. Sharon Baker

    Sarah,

    Love the whole list, and that you lead off with Writer Guidelines are Essential.

     As a freelance writer, I find guidelines most helpful in getting to know the background and goals of the project, information that helps me complete it faster and on point in the first draft. Guildelines also are a good way to get a group working towards the common goal.

    Thanks for pointing out that rush jobs cost, and that most writers are working out 6 to 8 weeks, and require an upfront deposit to get started. Some marketing managers do not understand they need to book priority time on a writer’s calendar.

    I’d love to hear more about why “most of (your) assumptions about individual writers were wrong.” Did you have some preconcieved notions about different kinds or typoes of writers or have a standard that they failed to live up to?

  • http://twitter.com/krissyb Krissy Bradfield

    As one of the lucky writers that worked with you on this project, it worked because of your clear guidelines and expectations. Nothing helps like knowing exactly what you need to write about. Half of the battle was won before a word was written. 

  • Marni Pilgrim

    Brilliant article Sarah. I particularly loved the Workforce Composition section. Did you hire specific people for each of those roles or did some of those specialisations emerge naturally (outside the researchers which you mentioned)? So often we expect our web writers to be jacks-of-all trades but seeing you tease out these skills as belonging to separate roles is refreshing.

  • Lola Howle

    I would be interested to know what you included in your Writer’s Guidelines, what format are the guidelines presented in, and how long did it take you to create the guidelines? (for example, how specific did you have to get and still cover 700 pieces of content?)
    Did the writers input content directly into a CMS or did they provide content that an editor or developer had to upload, format and link for them? Did the 60-day timeframe include that as well? Thanks for your article. Plenty of food for thought!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mamta.balani Mamta Balani

    Hi, Sir I have a team of expert writers who can write on all niches. Technical, SEO, health, gaming etc. Just need one chance for it. Want to be part of your team. Hope to get positive response.