5 Reasons Writing by Committee is a Terrible Practice

How many people does it take to write a grant proposal?

It sounds like the start of a corny joke. Sadly, I used to be a part of such a nightmare scenario, and it's an experience I'm in no rush to repeat. My proposals would first be reviewed by a peer, then an immediate supervisor, occasionally the director of another department, finally the CEO, and while one would think the process would stop there, the product would sometimes stumble back a couple steps before retracing and eventually spitting out to whomever the item was intended. It's a wonder any real work ever got accomplished!

You know what's crazier? Writing by committee happens even more often than you would think.

Here are five reasons why you need to knock it off:

1. Professional Growth

You hired the person to do a specific job. If their efforts are watered down by a committee, they will never learn to do it the way you want. A person learns through practice, even through failure. You’ll never know if your money is being invested well if you always get in their way.

2. Competing Views

If I asked you to imagine a red and white checkered table with a green apple at its center, bathed in light streaming from a nearby window, your picture would be different from mine. Our perception of the shade of the red, white and green would differ. I could be seeing a round table to your square, and while you might be envisioning the soothing warmth of early morning sunshine, I could be thinking of the cold milk of moonlight. No one communicates the same set of facts in the exact same way.

3. Inefficiency

The amount of energy used to create one product is holding you back from creating two or three. Since we're discussing this topic in the context of grant proposals, time is literally money, money you could be passing by because your team is still arguing over the right spot for that wayward sentence. And the hell of it is that our readers will slide right past that debatable sentence without giving it a second thought.

4. Familiarity

Who has the most knowledge of the writing instructions, by which I mean the grant application? It's more than likely your writer, and if you have a sneaky suspicion you know more about the application than your writer, you need to fire the writer. In most cases, however, the writer is doing what they can to address all the funding priorities. You may have the 20,000-foot view, but your writer has the best knowledge of the minor details that will make the difference between a good proposal and a great one.

5. Ill Feelings

Someone's ego in your illustrious committee will inevitably take a bruising. Maybe this victim’s great idea will be dropped from the final draft. In the future they may not be as forthcoming about offering up another great idea, assuming they want to be a part of your writing project at all. They might even become less effective as an employee because they may not feel their ideas are valued. Was I guilty of these bouts of over-sensitivity? I'm too stubborn to stay down for long, but then again, guess who's no longer working for that organization?

Here's how to avoid writing by committee:

  • Gather the disagreeable parties for a brainstorming session.
  • Reach a consensus on the one to three message points the product should convey.
  • List one, no more than two, people who will review the product before publication.
  • Stick to these people in the review process.
  • Present your draft to the reviewers along with a copy of the agreed upon objectives for their consideration.

Will these tips completely eradicate writing by committee? In time, yes, but it's going to take time to readjust people's way of approaching the workflow. The key is shaking out all the back and forth at the start of the writing process so that by the end the writer can execute exactly what the group requested in as hassle-free a method as possible.

Occasionally writing by committee is a necessary evil. Rest assured writing grant proposals is most definitely not one of those occasions.

Do you have your own horror stories of writing by committee? Can you think of examples when such a strategy can be useful--even successful?

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