Writing for a committee can be a nightmare if you’re not careful in how you set up your agreement with the client.
The problems of writing for a committee
If you’ve never had to write for a committee, count your blessings. Why? Because everyone on the committee wants to ‘improve’ your writing. Each one somehow feels if they don’t give input they’re not doing their job.
The bigger the committee the more problems and delays are apt to occur. At least a couple of the committee members will miss their deadlines. One of them is likely to say, ‘oh whatever you decide is okay with me,’ then hang the whole project up at the end because they suddenly discover they don’t like something that was written and approved weeks before.
Does this mean you shouldn’t take a gig requiring committee approval?
It’s tempting to tell you to avoid any client or opportunity that means you’ll have to write for a committee, but that isn’t true. The trick to successful writing for a committee is to eliminate some of the problems before you accept the gig.
Help the client get clear about why they want committee approval
Often the client or your point of contact thinks they are getting buy-in from their people by creating a committee. Start the conversation by asking the client what they hope the committee approach will achieve. You may find you’re able to point out some of the likely problems and help them re-think their reasons.
Sometimes you’ll discover that the material is technical and needs to be vetted by a scientist, doctor, tech specialist or other expert. Even if you’re a true expert in the field, having that vetting will work in your favor.
The smaller the committee the better
You may be able to help the client reduce the number of people on the approval committee. The fewer the better from your point of view. It’s much easier to please two or three than seven or eight.
You might point out that doing the kind of editing and vetting the employer has in mind for the committee members takes time away from their normal responsibilities. If you can quote a reasonable guess – like two or three hours for every chapter, or an hour per section, the client may make the number the committee smaller.
If you’re smart, you’ll also build in time to discuss the changes each committee member wants. Your job is to speak for the reader; you’ll need to ask why some changes were made and argue for clarity.
The deadline discussion is different when you are writing for a committee
In most writing jobs you’ll have a single deadline to meet. When you are writing for a committee, each member of that committee also needs deadlines for each chapter, section, etc. they will send to you with their revisions. Your contract needs to spell out who will manage those deadlines and what will happen when a committee member doesn’t meet them.
No matter what the contract says you’ll get at least a little bit involved in managing the committee – checking with them, reminding them, acknowledging when they send stuff and reporting when they don’t.
Since it’s almost a given that at least one committee member will miss at least one deadline, you and your client need to think through what the procedure will be. It might be you simply emailing the delinquent member and ccing the client. Think about deadlines being missed repeatedly – how does that get handled?
Who has the final say?
Your contract also needs to spell out clearly who has the final say about anything and everything. If the writing is ever to get done and you’re to get paid, someone has to be able to settle disputes and missed deadlines with real authority. That’s probably your client, your point of contact. Get it in writing so both of you know what to expect when a dispute comes up.
What about your fee?
You may have noticed that all these items take time – more time than if you’re just reporting to one person who can make decisions.
This is exactly why I always ask clients if they will be the only one approving the writing before I quote an exact fee. If you’re working hourly, this isn’t quite as important, but consider it when you’re making an estimate. On the other hand, if you’re going to write for a committee for a flat fee, I suggest you up what you charge by 5-25 percent, depending largely on the size of the committee. Thinking an extra five or to percent for each committee member is not a bad approach.
What’s been your experience writing for a committee?
Write well and often,