How to Have Difficult Conversations with Volunteer Writers

By Kim Howard, CAE

I have spent the majority of my association publishing career working with volunteer writers from all walks of professional life: business owners, restoration professionals, credit managers, property management professionals, and lawyers. They all had two things in common: (1) They all volunteered and wrote for the various magazines that I have worked for over the years, and (2) they were all passionate about their line of work and the association to which they belonged. However, their writing skills varied.

Here are four things I have learned about working with volunteer writers.

1. Education doesn’t matter. Just because your member base is educated, it does not mean that your volunteer writers will be stellar. It does mean that some of them will likely think they do not need much editing. You will have to handle some of them carefully. You are not there to change their voice or opinion on the piece; you are there to make them look good.

Tip: Remind them of this at the beginning of the process so that you can set expectations and put them at ease.

2. Passion and expertise matter. Historically, I get the best articles from members who are passionate about or proficient in their area of expertise. Don’t ask the CEO to write about processes. He or she should be writing about strategy, managing the board, or working with the C-suite team. The COO is the best one to write about the process because this is his or her area of expertise.

Tip: Make sure that you understand what this volunteer does in their day job before you assign an article or accept a pitched idea.

3. Set expectations, but be empathetic. Back in 2011, we had an extremely high-maintenance author who was writing about what employers can do for transgender employees and their co-workers when this person is in transition. Why was she so concerned? Aside from the fact that she was a lawyer who wanted to get the legal information correct, she was the transgender employee.

It’s not easy to open up about many work-related subjects, much less one that may impact the author directly. So, yes, you or someone on your staff may have to hold some hands, spend a lot of time on the phone, or slog through yet another version of the draft. But, all of this effort will be worth it. Not only was she extremely pleased with the final article (including the design/artwork), this article became a go-to source for in-house legal departments. And, it won an editorial publishing award.

Tip: Make it clear to your volunteer writer what your role is during the process — to make them look good and to deliver beneficial content to the readers — but be prepared to hold their hand through the process, especially if they are personally vested in the content.

4. Put on your big boy pants, too. If you have current authors who are not good enough, let them know. They likely already see it in the copyediting you have to do, and they don’t want to look foolish publicly either. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s part of your job.

I once had to tell the CLO of a publicly traded company that we were no longer going to run his column. When he approached me in 2006, his column idea was novel in the legal profession. But he was an awful writer, and my staff always had to edit his work heavily. Fast-forward four years later: We decided to kill the column during a redesign. His topic was now mainstream, and it was a good segue to letting him go. It was not an easy message to send, but he told me that it was the nicest kiss-off note that he had ever received. This was quite a compliment considering that he was well into his 60s, and I am known for being forthright.

Tip: Your members are big boys and girls, despite the fact that they often need the kid-glove approach. They understand that you have a business to run and that strategic direction changes. They also understand that their role may change and that your decision is not personal.

Working with volunteer writers is not easy, but it can be rewarding for both parties. There is nothing more fulfilling than telling a volunteer writer that he or she won an editorial publishing award for their efforts. In our industry, it means something to us. But, for many of our volunteers, it means something even more.

Kim Howard, CAE is an award-winning association publisher and writer and head of consulting firm Write Communications, LLC. She is also a past president of the AM&P board of directors.

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