The 5 writers you don’t ever want on your thought leadership team

Aug 8, 2017

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: writers aren’t all manufactured on the same assembly line.

There’s an ocean of difference between a writer who can dash off a quick LinkedIn blurb excerpted from an existing paper and one who can successfully collaborate with a team of time-scarce, big-brained authors to help them shape their ideas into a well argued, richly detailed paper that has real impact in the market.

I don’t doubt which kind of writer is most valuable to most marketers most of the time. But I do worry that marketers continue to make hasty decisions about writing resources, based on quick referrals or a quest for a bargain. So let me share my watch-outs for the kinds of writers you never want to have on your team:

Joe Journalist. Formerly with the New York Times – wow! On staff at the Wall Street Journal – brilliant! Brilliant, that is, until the ex-journalist starts taking over your company’s story and turning it into their If that’s the case, you’ll know it soon after you sit in on their first interview with your subject-matter experts; the big-league writer will be treating them like sources for his article, not like owners of their viewpoint.

Remember, these writers have been gods on their newspaper beats; they have people coming to them, and they’re used to calling the shots on story angles and seeing their bylines up in lights. So when they’re on your assignments, they might not be wholly comfortable in “ghost-writing” mode – and the customer service ethic may be missing. I’m not saying “never use an ex-journalist.” I’m saying you must have explicit conversations with them at the outset – before they take your authors’ time – so they’re clear about what they’re tasked with doing. If they don’t get it after one or two projects, drop them.

Nancy Novelist. This type of writer may be closer to Barbara Kingsolver than is good for your needs. You don’t need your white paper to read like a combination of prose and poetry. Yes, of course, you want good storytelling, clear sentence construction, and effective word choices, but most everything else is for recreational reading.

I’m not saying the writing should be stripped of color, but it must prioritize clarity and ease of access over creativity and experimentation. Again, there has to be an early conversation about writing styles and differences between business writing and creative writing.

Nate the Note-Taker. This feller may please many of the bigger egos among your authors because he’s busily accepting as gospel everything that they say. But that’s not serving your firm’s needs best. You need the best expression of your firm’s insights and ideas, and in my experience, that happens best when ideas are forged in the fires of constructive debate and discussion. Yes, one would hope the authors have debated and discussed already, and arrived at a cast-iron consensus. But that’s often not the case.

So your writer is not doing his job if he never challenges the main argument that your authors are presenting. He must pressure-test, probe, and ask the same questions in different ways. He has to be a skeptical collaborator in the development of the paper – without being critical or condescending in any way. (See “Joe Journalist” above.)

Sophie Soloist. This writer may not be guilty of the sins alluded to above, but she comes with her own baggage: poor collaboration. On the introductory call and on the kick-off call with your authors, she seems smart and engaged and experienced. But then you don’t hear from her for weeks.

She never pops up with questions about this or that aspect of the content. She doesn’t communicate the status of the draft you hope is in process. She doesn’t respond when you send supporting material. Her mantra seems to be “See you at the finish line.” But she won’t get there because you’re the ones who say where that line is. The best strategic content is a true symphonic collaboration between marketers, authors, and writers – not a virtuoso solo by anyone.

Low-Price Linda and One-Buck Chuck. You see the e-mails all the time: “Quality articles for $1” Seriously? Would you buy that? It’s my belief that these “people” are actually little content farms hiring inexperienced non-specialists whose first language is not English, but who can string basic sentences together. Higher up the vendor ladder, there’s no shortage of agencies offering more sophisticated versions of the same.

As with so much else in this life, though, you get what you pay for. If you’re happy with filler content written overseas for a few cents a word, then go for it. But if your business development strategy is at all dependent on powerful thought leadership, then delete those offers right away.

So what kind of writer should you work with? Find yourself a Thought Leadership Theo – a writer who can wrangle your authors and their ideas, write complex stuff in a compelling way, do everything on time and to budget, and keep your marketing team in the loop every step of the way.

If you want thought leadership content that makes an impact on your audience, the choice is clear.