Create and run your writing operation (Part 1)

By Miguel Molina

Last updated: May 18th, 2020

If you’re into learning, you know that there are a plethora of written educational materials out there. You also know that not all content is created equal. Some formats are more effective learning tools than others, and writing quality varies from person to person. It can also take considerable investment and effort to know exactly what to write, and how to write it.

This is the first article in a two-part series where we share some insights on knowing what to write, and how to go about it. Specifically, we’ll present 10 best practices to set up a stellar writing operation tasked with creating high-quality, educational / professional content for any given format - en masse.

Our insights are based on the experiences of Medical Joyworks (MJ), our parent company. MJ’s content creation operation spans 170+ professionals distributed in more than 40 countries. We’re confident that the advice stemming from our work will help you create just about any type of written learning content.

Before we start, here’s a quick summary of our 10 best practices to set up your own writing operation:

  1. Have a guiding purpose.
  2. Write your own content, or at least have your to-be editor in chief do it.
  3. Link your content’s value to a gold standard.
  4. Transform your experiences into a meaningful and manageable process.
  5. Define people’s roles.
  6. Coach your team, and nurture future leaders.
  7. With your team, set key performance metrics.
  8. Use data to manage your process, and optimize everything.
  9. Build tools, automate, and grow.
  10. Every now and then, do it all over again…

OK, we’re ready. Let’s dive into the first five best practices in our list!

1. Have a guiding purpose

When Medical Joyworks’s co-founders set out to create their first product, they began with a clear purpose in mind:

“[We] help medical students and professionals retain vast amounts of complex knowledge more effectively.”

This purpose became the reference point for everything that followed. The co-founders quickly organized themselves to better understand their potential customers’ learning needs. Then, they experimented with multiple learning tools and content formats to determine what worked best, from classic case-studies in PDF to elaborate web-based strategy games. Finally, they recruited the help of clinical specialists who could ensure that the team’s first products delivered exactly what customers needed (and wanted).

Eventually, MJ settled on microlearning: presenting complex subject matter in small, easily digestible pieces, so as to maximize learner engagement. Yet even after 10 years of growth and changes, the team’s objective has remained almost intact. In fact, the company’s mission statement today resembles its original purpose from 2010:

“[We are] a physician-led EdTech company committed to making medical learning more engaging and effective via the use of evidence-based microlearning tools.”

What’s more, even its current product design premises stem from the above-stated mission:

In other words, always know your purpose before building any new writing operation. Use this purpose to guide everything that will come your way later.

But purpose is only the beginning. Any high-quality, educational / professional content operation must be able to produce materials in volume. This leads to our next next best practice.

2. Write your own content, or at least have your to-be editor-in-chief do it

Medical Joyworks got off to a strong start because one of its co-founders is a physician. He had first-hand knowledge of what needed to be written; and with enough practice, he figured out how best to write one short story after another (all this before even thinking of building a writing operation).

The MJ co-founders took it upon themselves to create 15 short stories, three for every core medical specialty: internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery. Naturally, the domain expertise of the co-founders was insufficient, so they secured additional help from experienced specialist physicians to vet their work.

By the end of their 15th short story, the MJ team had a very strong understanding of what needed to be written, with specifics regarding:

Moreover, by writing their own content and later sharing it with prospective customers, the team was able to figure out how much revenue per story they could expect to earn.

So our advice here is straight forward: at the very beginning, write your first sets of content. This is perhaps the best way to prepare for a future filled with process definitions, system improvements and even content format upgrades.

If you lack sufficient domain expertise to craft your first written products and are partnering with someone who’ll take the lead in this capacity, make sure that the person is committed to the endeavor. You’ll need your writing partner to grow into the writing operation’s editor-in-chief at some point (at least until there’s someone else groomed for such an important role).

With a firm grasp of your product’s intricacies and what it takes to make it, you can now focus on the next best practice.

3. Link your content’s value to a gold standard

Until the mid 20th century, most countries had their paper money’s value directly linked to a fixed amount of gold. We recommend that you directly link your content’s value to your own gold standard - a single piece of content that defines the very best writing you can deliver.

Providing your team with an example of what’s required is much more effective than detailing your requirements with excessive descriptions. It helps reduce miscommunications and misinterpretations that divert people’s time and effort from the real work at hand.

Writers at Medical Joyworks always receive a sample of written product, a gold standard, before they commence any new paid work. The gold standard is a real product with a successful track record in the market. It’s picked out by the editorial team, and made available to writers in their MJ Welcome Kits. The MJ Welcome Kits also includes detailed instructions on how to write the content format they’re focusing on, by the way.

An extract of an MJ Gold Standard for its adventure scenario format (Clinical Sense).

Occasionally, MJ’s team product reviews also use the gold standard as a reference. Writers, editors, and the development team sit together and compare multiple content pieces against each other, the corresponding customer feedback, and the gold standard itself. The ensuing debate helps them challenge existing assumptions regarding the product, and determine new improvements in gameplay experience, technological delivery, learning objectives, and text narration.

As your products evolve, be prepared to change your gold standard at any time. Establish procedures that easily enable frequent updates and version control. Plus, have a simple protocol to quickly distribute the gold standard to everyone who may need it.

Having your gold standard is a crucial step. Once that’s done, move on to the next best practice in our list.

4. Transform your experiences into a meaningful and manageable process

After MJ’s co-founders wrote the first 15 stories, they took it upon themselves to draft an outline detailing every assumption and step in their newly defined creative process.

Specifically, the team produced clear explanations covering how to:

This brain dump by MJ’s co-founders served to institutionalize their story writing know-how into a set of processes that others could easily follow later. It also allowed the company to grow quicker, scaling the writing operation more easily.

But nothing at Medical Joyworks is set in stone. Throughout the company’s existence, much of the original knowledge has become obsolete while its processes have changed. In fact, MJ as a whole now operates under a systems architecture comprised of guiding, core and enabling processes and subprocesses all carefully interwoven.

Some of MJ's current processes related to the writing operation

The above is just to illustrate the extent of MJ’s development over time. What truly matters is recognizing that the company’s sophistication today is possible thanks to the meticulously diligent braindump of countless team members, going way back to the very beginning.

More importantly, with your know-how properly institutionalized, expanding the operation to include other people in multiple roles becomes a lot simpler. This is the topic of our next two best practices.

5. Define people’s roles

Any writing operation tasked with creating high-quality, educational / professional content for will have one or more individuals playing crucial roles in it. We mentioned earlier that MJ’s writing operation includes more than 170 professionals distributed worldwide. The team includes story writers, editors, peer-reviewers, graphic artists, medical product representatives (medical reps), and project managers.

To quickly review these roles, we’ve split the MJ team into two groups: text creation and finalization.

Text creation (story writers and editors)

Every MJ story begins with a writer and an editor working closely together. Writers provide the content, while editors ensure its desired focus and tone.

Writers must be practicing physicians who can create engaging stories that deliver valuable knowledge. But finding great practicing physicians with equally great writing skills is difficult.

To address this, MJ established a “content funnel”, where writers develop their story writing skills over time. New writers first learn to craft the simplest content format before moving onto the more elaborate types. Only after they achieve specific goals in a given time period can they be invited to advance onto the next stage in the MJ content funnel.

MJ’s content funnel, from the simplest to most complex content formats. An Explain Medicine reference article will take about 4.5 hours for an experienced writer to produce. A Prognosis: Your Diagnosis article will take about 15 hrs for an experienced writer to produce.

To join the content funnel, interested physicians must prove to MJ that they have:

Most MJ writers are current users of MJ’s learning apps; highly motivated professionals, with a healthy awareness of the brand and its several formats. Occasionally, someone with limited knowledge of the company’s products will submit a CV. Regardless, any potential story writer must submit a spotless CV and a letter of interest demonstrating their obsessive attention to every written detail.

As for the editors, they’re in-house story writers who’ve mastered the content funnel. This translates into a treasure trove of writing experience spanning all formats, with significant learning from prior editors (a chain of knowledge going back to MJ’s very first writer, its co-founder and current editor in chief).

Finalization (peer-reviewers, graphic artists, medical reps, and project managers)

Peer-reviewers are neutral, 3rd party domain experts with significant experience in their fields. They provide highly structured feedback on the accuracy and relevance of the content being created, but they don’t write or edit it.

For MJ, peer-reviewers (the "International Medical Board") are volunteers keen on sharing their knowledge with others. Most have first-hand experience with the company’s learning apps, having used them at some point in their careers. Therefore, it’s usually the case that aspiring peer-reviewers will contact MJ offering their help. Rarely will the team actively search for peer-reviewers, but only when there’s a need to quickly fill knowledge gaps within a particular topic.

Graphic artists come into play once a story’s text has been completed, peer-reviewed and approved. They’re responsible for any accompanying visuals that will enhance the text, making the content easier for readers to understand.

With the help of the graphic artists, MJ defines a unique visual style for each format for the entire team to follow. Graphic artists must also understand the written materials well enough to relate to them as a reader. Depending on the size of your writing operation, you may want to have a mix of freelance and in-house graphic artists.

MJ’s medical reps and project managers can be discussed together. The company likes to keep both roles entirely in-house since they both help steer the writing operation.

Medical reps process valuable customer data that is combined with other automated data streams to deliver an in-depth understanding of app users’ experiences. Reps interact with readers, perform desk research, and address important clinical inquiries. They also help the text creation staff improve existing formats, from fixing problems within a story to suggesting how to evolve the product lineup over time.

A standard Issue Report (IR) by one of MJ’s Medical Reps. IRs are only generated by a rep once she carries out all research needed to correct the identified issue.

The project managers at MJ work closely with everyone else in the writing operations, ensuring that:

From experience, you don’t need every project manager to be a Six Sigma Black Belt, have a PMI certification, an ISO Lead Auditor course, or some other management credential.

Instead, your ideal setup can work well when a highly trained senior professional is leading a team with limited production management experience. What the leader will have to do is ensure that everyone develops a canny understanding of systems thinking and a real grasp for working with data. Also, surround yourself with people always open to rethinking assumptions and challenging established ways.

Hiring for in-house talent

Freelancers have a limited impact on your writing operation’s setup and overall team culture. In-house talent is another story. Therefore, Medical Joyworks treats all in-house hiring actions the same, whether for writing operations roles or for other vacancies.

Below are some hiring tips from MJ follows that may work for you.

Consider people who:

Then, take decisive action:

Finally, learn the art of saying “no”. You’ll need it to decline 99% of the applicants you review. It’s not that they’ll all have the wrong profiles. It’s just that you can only accept what works to perfection for your specific need.

By this point, you may be wondering when is it best to hire internal or external. If you have this problem, that’s a good thing! It show’s you’re on the right path: growing your business. We won’t delve into this topic here. The U.S. Society of Human Resources Management has a helpful article on the topic that is worth a read.

We mentioned earlier that setting up a content operation without personally having some domain expertise is a big gamble. We don’t recommend it. Things go a lot smoother when you understand what people need to do and you can help them achieve it.

But finding the right talent is only one part of the story. You also want to groom them into their roles as best as possible.

Wrap up

Creating a writing operation takes time and effort. It also helps to have a clear writing goal in mind, first-hand experience writing your content, and a process with gold standard accompanied by a good team.

In part two of this series we will go over the last five best practices to set up your own writing operation. Specifically:

  1. Coach your team, and nurture future leaders
  2. With your team, set key performance metrics
  3. Use data to manage your process, and optimize everything
  4. Build tools, automate, and grow
  5. Every now and then, do it all over again…

Until then, give these ideas some thought. Maybe even try out one or two as well…

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