The Challenges of Writing for a Committee

February 2022
Share this article

Most freelance writing assignments, I’ve found, involve producing a bunch of copy for one individual, company or organization. You have only one person to please, one person to impress, and one person who will made edits to your copy that you will find completely unacceptable, even when they are right.

But there’s a lot of work out there writing for groups or committees — collectives of like-minded companies or not-for-profits that need good writing that codifies their messages into a cohesive whole. Writing for a committee is some of the toughest work you will do as a freelancer. 

Last summer, a public affairs firm engaged me to produce copy for a coalition of plaintiffs in a high-profile lawsuit. While I was dealing directly with five people at the firm, the work I was producing was being scoured, reviewed, edited, and occasionally appreciated, by representatives of 15 members of the coalition. 

While your approach to this work will be mostly the same as it would be working directly for one firm or person, there are some things you will need to adjust in order to successfully negotiate this work.

1. Put your ego in deep storage; don’t just leave it at the door. 

Writing for a group of 5-50 means there are 5-50 people who will be judging your work. Out of any group that size, someone is not going to like what you wrote. Also, in any group setting there will be someone (or many someones) who will make comments or edits just to prove to everyone that they’re reading the material and have valuable input. 

So, your work will look less like “your work” than in any other setting. Accept it, deal with it, move on. Keep your pristine original copy for writing samples, grit your teeth, and enjoy the fee you’re collecting.

2. Go for prose, not poetry. 

Just as there is no artist everyone loves, there is also no universally beloved poet. However, almost everyone in a business, public advocacy, not-for-profit, or other situation likes good, clear, concise writing. The simpler you keep the writing, the less likely the group will hack it to pieces. 

In my work last summer, the web content and op-eds I wrote were routinely challenged and reworked — yet my social media posts went out (almost) exactly as I wrote them. 

As with all writing, you should get right to the point and get the key messages to the audience directly. Leave most of the analogies, the quotes by Rilke, and the purple prose for your next high-level speechwriting gig. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner.

3. Understand as much of the dynamics as you can. 

In any group, there will always be people who take more of a leadership position, even if everyone is equal “on paper.” You’ll probably be able to figure out who it is pretty quickly. But what you won’t be able to know right away is how the other members of the group feel about that person, or their organization. 

Here’s where you need to do some research. I was lucky – the firm that hired me gave me a good orientation to their client and their inner workings. You might not be so lucky. Try to find someone who knows the players who can tell you what might be happening behind the scenes. Then, adjust your writing accordingly.

4. Look out for competing agendas.

 There is almost no way on earth you could know about this when you walk into the job. But, disputes among members of your client group can derail a lot of your work. 

Your best bet is to ask the person to whom you’ll be sending your material to if there’s “anything about the group I should know? Any conflicts or areas that can be problematic?” Most likely they’ll say “no,” unless there is something big you will need to confront and conquer during the course of your assignment. 

As with any aspect of an assignment, once you know where the potholes are, you can work to avoid them.

5. Learn from your edits. 

This is another on the “you should always do this” list, but when you’re writing for a group it is paramount that you determine what works and doesn’t work for them. No doubt, there will be times your direct contact loves what you’ve written, but it doesn’t survive the first round of edits. 

See if you can find a pattern. Maybe the group doesn’t want to be as aggressive as you were in your op-eds; conversely, they might be “amping up” your tweets. After a few rounds you should be able to find the right tone, language, and energy they want.

6. Keep track of what the group is doing. 

Again, I was fortunate —  my client kept me up-to-date on what was going on in their client’s lawsuit and the industry as a whole. But, I also did my own research. I was able to find statements from coalition members to use in a variety of materials, and alerted my client to situations they were not aware of. 

However, don’t be a pest – don’t constantly hammer your client with “did you see this?!?”

7. Unless directly given permission, do not send materials to the committee directly. 

While this may help you with this one assignment, it will most likely injure, if not kill, your relationship with your client. This means you will never get to work with your client again, with this committee or any of their future clients. Don’t lose years of potential work because you want a faster sign-off on an Instagram post.

With all these challenges, there are two big potential wins for someone who can pull this off. First, if you survive this, you will get a reputation as someone who can handle the toughest assignments. Second, your genius will be seen by a number of potential clients. Both can lead to further, perhaps less difficult, work. 

It may not be easy, but working for a number of bosses can be lucrative and rewarding. 

Return to Current Issue The Annual Writing Issue | February 2022
Share this article
[dina belenko photography]

Subscribe to Strategies & Tactics


*Strategies & Tactics is included with a PRSA membership