Updated December 2023

If your content creation process is bogged down with rewrites and loads of clarifying emails or meetings, the biggest problem with your content workflow may not be your workflow platform.

We work with lots of clients, most of whom have adopted CMS and workflow systems to accelerate content production. But we notice something across every client type and every platform, and it’s a problem that can’t be fixed with better scheduling and monitoring.

Your biggest workflow problem isn't process, it's people.

If you're having trouble efficiently producing the kind of content you need, you could have a straight-up process issue. But in many cases, the biggest workflow problem is more likely a human problem than a technological one: Not giving good assignments to begin with.

The trouble usually starts one of three ways:

  1. Client or stakeholder’s half-baked or downright bad idea. As the content expert, you’ve got to push back when people propose content topics that just don’t make sense. If you don’t immediately “get it”, then the audience won’t either. Don’t be afraid to get clarification or to guide the client in recasting the subject matter into something that’s going to be great, not just “what they asked for”. But too often, these crap ideas get passed to a writer who’s told to “make it work”. They do, only to have the article returned for a rewrite when it’s finally clear to everyone this wasn’t a great idea. At best, the project gets killed. At worst, you have to start over, meaning it took twice as much time and effort to produce one piece of content. Learn where to find better content ideas.
  1. Assigner’s insufficient understanding of subject matter and/or target audience. Many ideas go off the rails because the assigner just doesn’t have enough understanding to create a strong assignment. You don’t need to be an expert in every subject to combat this problem, but you do need to be curious and do a little research on your own (even just to see what’s already been created on the topic) to create some context for the assignment. This helps rein in broad topics to a sweet spot or make too-narrow topics broad enough to sink your teeth into. When a project’s not scoped properly, researchers and writers lose time trying to find an angle that works through a lot of back-and-forth with you or thrashing around in background information. Similarly, not knowing enough about the audience’s needs, wants and real lives leads to assignments that are practically designed to be irrelevant. Learning more about the daily challenges and aspirations of your audience helps assigners create ideas that are highly relevant and break through the noise. In a related vein, not knowing the audience often results in a voice or tone problem that requires extensive rewriting—yet another unnecessary cycle of writing and reviewing. Watch our slide deck on writing with your audience in mind.
  1. Assigner’s inadequate time to think through ideas and/or prepare solid assignments. Sometimes the problem just comes down to time. Assigners sometimes have the right idea and sufficient knowledge of audience and topic, but they don’t take the time to convey that clearly to the content producers. In the rush to get assignments out and back, many managers just throw something together and hand it off, leaving it to the writer to sort it out. The resulting uncertainty means additional conversations or emails to fill in gaps, which eats more of everyone’s time. It also adds frustration and decreases velocity.

Bring Back the Assignment Editor

In the old days, skilled assignment editors created solid assignments so writers and researchers spent more time writing than trying to nail down the angle or main idea for the piece. These editors perform a crucial task in the content supply chain, selecting or helping select editorial and graphic assignments, developing and planning the work and providing the context in which writers and other content producers do their work. These functions may also be performed by managing editors. Regardless of what the title is, the responsibility is key for producing relevant content consistently and quickly at scale.

Having one person or a team of people in charge of this key stage in the process is a smart move that avoids misdirections, reduces superfluous back-and-forth on foundational details, and ultimately speeds content production. Sounds great, right? Yet few of our clients even know what an assignment editor is, much less have a person or team dedicated to performing that function.

I think that’s a mistake. As the assignment editor for our team here at The Word Factory, and I know that every minute I invest in making better projects saves us tons of time down the line and greatly improves our ability to produce the right content on time (if not early), cutting out additional edit passes and speeding time to delivery.

8 Tasks for Assignment Editors

The assignment or managing editor nails these things down before handing off a project:

  1. Angle: Establish the specific point of view or perspective of the story
  2. Value: Explain why the reader should care about this topic
  3. Main Idea and Support: Determine the most important thing readers should know and the explanations, examples and evidence that support it to serve as a guide for the writer, researcher, etc. (This might include key items the client wants mentioned)
  4. Goals: Identify what the client wants the reader to think, feel or do after consuming the content
  5. Preliminary Research: Vet the topic with a short research expedition to make sure the angle holds up, verify that the purpose can be achieved and develop some questions the story should answer (and maybe the writer should ask). You also may suggest some sources you uncover in your research, that you have in your own network, or that the client provides.
  6. Voice: Set a tone for the piece that will resonate with the reader and is appropriate for the subject matter.
  7. Format/Genre: Figure out the best way to tell this story
  8. Models: Supply content producers with examples of successful content that meets as many of your goals and requirements as possible

Would it be great if you could have one person or a team of people dedicated to doing this for every piece of content you produce? Yes. But I know that’s unrealistic for many operations. That’s why we have people who rush through the process, skipping steps or blindly filling out workflow forms.

If you can’t allocate someone for this function, make it a more important part of existing jobs. Provide some training to teach or reinforce the key skills needed to perform these tasks, and mentor employees new to the idea. It may seem like a lot of investment upfront, but the return is high in terms of employee and client satisfaction, workflow acceleration and content quality.

Pro Tip: We use the People-Information Goals Strategy as a briefing document to capture most of this information in one place. We tack on the additional information so everything’s in one place and blessed by all parties before the assignment is made. Doing this upfront saves us valuable cycles later.

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