On May 10, 2023, the Plain Language community of practice huddled around the concept of
content costs. The conversation touched on:
- Project management,
- The difference between cost and value, and
- The impact we can have as writers and editors on our organizations and the public good.
We identified four steps that plain language writers and editors can take to demonstrate the value they bring to projects and how to maximize that value.
Step 1. Calculate costs
As plain language editors, when are you looped into a project?
Many editors are brought in at the end and, likely, not part of the planning. Editing is often seen as something that can be done at the very end, but this approach can undermine project goals.
One way to help managers appreciate what we do is to translate our time and talent into costs. In all projects, there are three salient factors: time, quality, and cost. If you need something faster or of higher quality, costs will rise. If you have limited resources (money or staff time), then you may need to adjust other factors.
So how can we help estimate the cost of our work? The basic equation is:
But you do more than just write or revise the target document. You are also using your time and energy on other, hidden tasks to complete the work. For example, you spend time:
- Responding to emails,
- Talking with the project team,
- Reviewing websites for context, and
- Referring to different style guides.
And all of this can begin long before you get a draft of the document.
Step 2. Consider the hidden costs factors
Although you may be able to estimate how much time you’re spending on your work, you are not the only factor in determining costs. A few hidden cost factors include the following:
The approval process
When considering an editing or writing task, you need to know what the approval process requires. That includes how many people are on the approval chain, what their level of review will be, how long it will take for them to review, etc.
The longer or more complex the chain and the less clarity about roles or accountability for timeliness, the more costly the approval process is.
Technological hurdles and complications
Every office may have different software or IT systems to support content development and revision. Depending on how familiar everyone is with the software—or how reliable the hardware and systems are—learning and using these programs can reduce or increase costs. For example, if the project team does not have reliable technology or the ability to use it, costs will increase.
This is probably the most hidden of costs but the one that can haunt a team long after the project is complete. Every task will require multiple people to put in time and effort. When it comes to writing, people can feel especially overwhelmed or diminished if:
- Their words or edits are changed,
- The document is not well-received, or
- The purpose and usefulness of the work isn’t clear.
The cost of staff goodwill and motivation can be high. Although it may not have a dollar amount easily attached, you (or your manager) can’t ignore that cost.
Step 3. Acknowledge the difference between cost and value
With all these factors potentially raising the cost (tangible and intangible), you may wonder whether the work is ever worth it. The short answer is – Yes!
The more precise answer is – Yes, good writing is generally worth the effort, but that effort should be in balance with the value of work to the organization and the public.
- Is it worth spending 10 hours to perfect a tweet that will save lives? Absolutely!
- Is it worth spending 10 hours to perfect a memo about an issue important to the organization? Most likely, yes.
- Is it worth spending 10 hours to perfect a webpage that very few people are likely to access? No, probably not.
This is where
value comes into our calculation. Cost is about what we spend. Value is about what we (and others) gain.
When considering a project, it’s worth considering who could gain what from the work. Will you gain experience? Could the organization gain prestige (or avoid embarrassment)? Would the public gain knowledge or assistance?
Some of these questions you may be able to answer for yourself, but ultimately, the project leader should be able to describe the value of the work — though you may have to ask the leader to articulate it.
Step 4. Create opportunities for reducing cost or building value
We are writers and editors, not superheroes. We cannot make every piece of writing transcend time and space. We can, however, work with our teams and the project leaders to strike a balance between cost and value.
The first step in this balancing act is helping the leader and team understand what you can contribute and how plain language can help them meet their goals and increase the project’s value.
A next step is determining what the perceived value is and what level of quality is necessary to attain that value. If possible, discuss the project’s intended impact and whether the document you’re working on (even if it’s a social media post) is meant to reach a wide audience or last a long time.
Remind people about the three factors for projects:
- Time (how quickly must it be done),
- Quality (how perfect does it have to be for your goals), and
- Cost (how much staff time and goodwill can you spend).
Then, get a sense of some of the aforementioned hidden cost factors. Ask about the approval process and whether there are ways to streamline it. Learn about the available technologies and known issues. Also, try to determine whether there have been any recent failed or successful writing projects that could be affecting staffs’ motivation.
Finally, you may be able to introduce some practical tools into the process. For example, templates can reduce time and costs and improve quality. Sometimes, spending hours to fine-tune a template can be a great use of time and a chance to build trust and goodwill.
Moving forward as a community
Our community conversation about cost helped uncover that many of us are seeking ways to articulate our value or to help our teams understand when and how to best incorporate us into a project (ideally during the initial stages; not at the very end).
As a community, we are considering future huddles on topics such as:
- Articulating value: Developing talking points to articulate your value, how to use your expertise most effectively, and the goals of plain language.
- Leading from behind: Managing your managers to ensure project success.
- Developing templates: How templates and processes can streamline work.
At the end of the day, we aim to bring value to readers and writers, and to share information and grow knowledge. As writers and editors within this community, your time and expertise are precious resources that deserve to be acknowledged. By addressing the cost of work on you and your team, you show the importance of this work and articulate the value it can bring.
Join GSA’s Communities of Practice to connect with writers, editors, and other content creators across government:
Here are some government resources on content and writing.
- An introduction to plain language
- The art of storytelling in a hybrid world
- Going public: writing about research in everyday language (PDF, 239 KB, 24 pages)
- 10 Tips to Create, Maintain, and Present Non-English Digital Content: A Q&A with Michael Mulé
- An introduction to translation technology
- Content design for beta.ada.gov: writing for action and flexibility
- Content governance: What it is and how to get started
- Accessibility for content designers
- A happy compromise between people-first and plain language