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I started my career in content at an executive recruiting firm, where I wrote and edited 200 bios for the associates (we weren’t allowed to call them recruiters). I only had to have that person — the one I had written the bio about — approve what I had written. And it was about them! I remember it being a tedious mess of word documents, spreadsheets and promises signed in blood.

As I continued creating content for a government agency and then healthcare organizations, like hospitals, the stakeholders I interviewed were the subject matter experts. But they didn’t always agree with each other. So when I gave them content to edit, they sometimes would argue with each other in the comments. And they all had to have final say in what we published, or we could be held liable.

My favorite part of the editing process? When I had to reconcile four versions of content. Even though I had given explicit directions for one stakeholder to edit and then pass to the next stakeholder and so on.

Solving the Content Editing Crisis

Getting content approved is painful. Especially difficult is content that needs to support regulated or complex industries, where putting out the wrong information leaves you open for liability. Most of this content is created by writers and editors, but must be edited and approved by stakeholders, who grasp all the subtleties and nuance. So you have to include them in the content approval process. But how do you make it less painful?

Here’s are five tips that work at my company when writing complex content for healthcare and other industries:

1. Set expectations at the beginning

Before we interview subject matter experts, we send them a FAQ sheet describing the interview and editing process. Then before our writers conduct interviews, they walk subject matter experts (SMEs) through what to expect when they receive a document to edit. When they receive the document, there are careful instructions on the cover sheet that tell them “STOP BEFORE READING.” We also make it clear that they are editing for factual accuracy ONLY, and that voice and tone and other content strategy considerations have already been taken into account by marketing. It absolutely works to have this many check-ins during the process. By the time the stakeholders receive the content, they understand their role. And if something goes wrong, it probably means something went awry in the process.

2. Appoint one person to be the final reviewer 

This is challenging, when you have many SMEs commenting on the same content. We really try to follow the rule that if we interview more than three people, only one person can review it. That’s a difficult rule and we get a lot of pushback on it from clients. But when we explain why, often our clients agree. Because when you need to get four different busy SMEs to weigh in on content you are talking about a bottleneck worse than the George Washington Bridge at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday. But, sometimes you have no choice — everyone has to review. So we’ve found that this next step is very effective …

3. Put a time limit on it

This is a very effective way to capture any SME’s attention — tell them that if they don’t respond within a week or two weeks, you will publish the content without their approval. Most SMEs will respond saying that they need more time, or that they will get back to you within the time frame you’ve allotted. Now they are setting your expectations — but that’s a good thing. At least you know they are paying attention.

4. Use software and versioning that works

There are a lot of great editorial programs out there that can help simplify the content creation process. Explaining versioning to SMEs is also important — ask them to put their initials on the document after the version. That way you’ll be able to keep the copy if you need it for later.

5. Appoint a project manager to keep track of approvals

Once we reach a certain threshold for pages we are approving, we bring in a separate project manager to keep track of approvals. She has no emotional hold on the content, as she didn’t write it, so she can emotionlessly pass the content back and forth between the writer and the SME. It makes a huge difference on large projects and helps us keep track much more easily.

Any one of these tips can help you simplify the content approval and editing process. The most important thing is to apply consistency to your playbook so that you check your own systems.

What do you do to simplify your content creation process?

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  TheCreativePenn