Managing 60 + Volunteer Writers

Managing 60+ VolunteersAbout four months ago, I posted a call for volunteer writers who might be interested in helping out with the LDSTech blog. Since that time, about 60 volunteers have joined the project. Some are more enthusiastic than others, and some have more writing talent than others. It’s not easy to determine talent and motivation based on signups alone. Some jump in eagerly right from the beginning; others lurk for weeks. Regardless of the variety of motivation, skills, and available time, one theme is constant: an overwhelming number of people are enthusiastic about volunteering.

The challenge, I’ve found, is figuring out how to harness this volunteer energy. I have about 90 topics to write about (which I list in the JIRA project for this work), but project management involves more than just assigning a topic to a volunteer. Many times the topics require some research and investigation. I may have a particular angle I want to take with the topic, one that’s only fleshed out in my mind.

The topic may require me to find out who the subject matter expert is (in a large organization, this is no easy feat). It may require me to contact product owners to ask permission to write about the topic, as well as to gauge timing of the article’s publication. I may need to interview people to get more information before even identifying the topic. There’s also an element of follow-through. You have to set deadlines for drafts, or else the drafts are likely to linger for weeks without being finished.

Getting volunteers to write is only the first step. Another challenge is what to do with a draft that needs a lot of work. If the writing doesn’t have enough information, or if it’s clear that the writer is having trouble structuring the information or articulating concepts, fixing the draft can require a lot of work. Laying it to waste demotivates volunteer efforts, while fixing it can leave me working on the weekends.

There’s also a need to give feedback to volunteer writers — being tactful if the feedback is constructive, or mentoring if the volunteer is looking to learn from the opportunity.

I don’t do a good job at all managing this project, since I am only engaging the most active volunteers at the moment. I guess I’m realizing just how much bandwidth it takes to manage remote volunteer writers.

Despite all of these challenges, it’s invigorating to be in such a position. I’ve always been an individual contributor rather than a manager. Now I’m not only managing, but managing 60+ writers. The list of volunteers only grows larger each day. My project is actually small in comparison. Other community projects have 130+ volunteers, with multiple project managers.

Despite the challenges, I find the interaction somewhat invigorating and fun. It’s new territory to be moving through. One day, I’ll figure out the magic elixir of successful community project management. It may take years before that happens, since there’s so much to learn. But one of these days, I will have 20+ engaged volunteers writing new articles every day. How will I keep up? I’ll have to designate more project managers, and more editors. I suppose it all scales … somehow.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Neal

    How timely! I’m the sole tech writer at my company, and I’ve been building a new doc website for the past few months. A month before I planned to launch the site, I was told to incorporate a project to have SMEs across the company write “how do I?” topics. I’m working through the same concerns, while, as you are, realizing how interesting this can be. I’ve delegated six reviewers, but because they aren’t tech writers or editors I need to help them learn how to review. I’m still trying to figure out how to structure this new information, and then how to keep the momentum going.

    • Tom Johnson

      Whether the writers are internal or external, it can be tough to get a working system in place. I think with help authoring, establishing some templates with examples is key. Deadlines are also important. You might want to put the content through a workflow that has various stages, including a subject matter expert review, a style review, and perhaps others.

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  • Jonathan

    I know what you mean. At The Flaneur we have several volunteer writers and it does become hard to sort out the workflow between writing and editing. Some work needs a brief review, some needs much more – which makes it hard to allocate work to editors. Fun though, isn’t it?!