The Writing Texan Writes

When Good Content Goes Bad: A Cautionary Tale

Jun 29, 2015 | Cautionary Tales

Business people often seek out someone like me because they’re busy. Writing consumes time and energy they don’t have to spare. So they hire me, set parameters, then say “get to it.” That’s fine. Still, I always urge them to stay aware and involved as I work. Great content comes from clear expectations and ongoing engagement.

Here’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of doing otherwise. J, a software expert, came to me still smarting from an online smackdown he had just received. He had written a post for his blog on the topic of demotivation. He wanted to share his experiences of clients who disengaged or did not communicate their needs clearly (which, as you will soon see, is a bit ironic). He found himself frustrated that substantive portions of code, sometimes hundreds of lines worth, could suddenly become obsolete when a client’s needs or desires changed without warning. It might be inevitable that some code gets cut, he argued, but failing to keep the coder informed could result in hours of wasted effort. A clear and valid point, right?

J wrote a draft, but he wasn’t happy with the quality of the prose so he brought in an outside professional. The guy took a look at his text, said “no problem,” and got straight to work. A new draft arrived in short order and, delighted with the quick turnaround, J posted it immediately to his blog. Within 48 hours he had received multiple comments from his readers, all of them negative, and a couple of them very strongly worded.

What had happened? Why did his readers slap him down, when surely his experiences resonated with theirs? Well, somewhere in the rewriting, the message had changed. The revised version of the essay barely resembled the content of the former draft. The writer had taken an entirely new direction, comparing the act of writing code to the painting of a masterpiece. The narrator of this essay—J himself, as far as the readers knew—lamented his clients’ devaluation of his efforts, their continual desire to delete or rework code as their needs or whim shifted. At one point, the author protests:

Imagine commissioning a painting from Van Gogh. You tell him you want painted a night scene over a little town with stars in the sky. And then when he hands you a masterpiece like “Starry Night” you say something like: “I don’t know Vinny, these stars are just too BIG.  Could you tone it down a bit” No, you wouldn’t, because you have too much respect for the artist and his creation.

Soooo…the beauty and integrity of the code outweighs the specs or wishes of the person footing the bill. Should it be surprising that his readers responded with comments telling J to get over himself, reminding him that his clients paid him to meet their needs and not stroke his ego, and suggesting that his complaints made coders look egotistical and out of touch?

How did J’s original intent get so completely overridden?

And how had that essay ended up on J’s blog, when it was so far afield from his own message? Was it failure to monitor: neglecting to read the content closely before he published it? Or was it failure to engage: a reluctance to go back to the writer and say that the essay had gotten off course? I don’t know. When he came to me to fix the essay, he did not share that information. He was clearly embarrassed and wounded by the feedback, so I didn’t press him to explain.

Failing to monitor and failing to engage may be different categories of mistake, but they reap similar consequences. The price tag of the project increases, and the owner’s reputation suffers. Lost money, lost credibility…not the ROI anyone wants when they invest in code OR content.

The lesson J learned was the very one he had been trying to teach his own audience: when you bring in an outside pro, stay alert and stay involved. Don’t let your communication stop with discovery. No doubt you are very busy running the business that you want the project to support. And there is no shame in wanting to hand things over to a skilled person and let them run with it. It’s what professionals like me love to do.

But monitor the process. Schedule regular 15-minute check in appointments. When you give directions, have your contractor verbally mirror your message in their own words so you can see if they have the right idea. A few days before material is due, mark half an hour on your calendar to study it closely, and keep that appointment. Give honest, politely worded feedback. Good contractors welcome your engagement. As little as we like to be micromanaged, we enjoy being ignored or abandoned even less. Like J, we don’t want to see our best efforts go on the scrap heap; moreover, we don’t want to see our clients lose money or credibility because our ideas were off the mark.

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