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Lending a helping editorial hand: the 18F Writing Lab

Envision, if you will, the following scene: It’s Monday evening. Everyone else has gone home for the day, but you’re still at your desk, staring at a blank Google doc and mildly stressing about the presentation you’ll be giving on Friday.

You know what you want to say — the ideas are all there — but you don’t know how you’d like to say it, how to order your thoughts, where to include a joke, where to add a flourish of descriptive language so that it delivers the impact you want and doesn’t cause your audience to shake their heads in sad confusion. You’d love to ask for help, but you’re worried it’s too late in the game for that. What should you do?

If you’re an 18F team member, you should contact the Writing Lab.

What is the Writing Lab?

The Writing Lab is a virtual writing center where anyone at 18F can get personalized writing and editing help from members of the content and outreach teams. All of the Lab members are skilled content creators, hailing from backgrounds in journalism, creative writing, instructional design, technical writing, and more.

Because all of the Lab members are already part of 18F, we’re intimately familiar with 18F’s organizational vision, brand voice, and goals, and we can easily scrub into projects from any team.

Also of note: We call the Lab the Lab because it’s modeled after university writing labs. Folks seeking help don’t need to make an appointment to talk to us; they can simply “drop in” to our GitHub repo, file a request, and go on their way knowing that they’ll soon get the writing or editing help they need.

How does it work?

We’ve designed the Lab process to be as simple as possible, enabling people from all teams to get the help they need when they need it.

Here’s a rundown of how we work:

  • A person who needs help visits our GitHub repo and files an issue describing the type of help they’d like. (We offer generative, developmental, stylistic, and copy editing help, incidentally.) Our README includes a template folks can copy and fill in with the details of their request, which simplifies the filing process for newbies and seasoned users alike.

  • Once the filer submits their issue, a member of the Writing Lab will claim it. The Lab member will reach out to the filer with any questions they have — for example, the Lab member might ask for more details on the target audience, or whether the filer would like their work to have an authoritative or instructional-and-conversational tone.

  • After the Lab member has provided all the writing or editorial assistance the filer needs, and the filer is happy with the outcome, the Lab member will close the issue.

And that’s it.

We’re aware that not everyone is comfortable using GitHub, so we offer an alternative workflow for folks who prefer other channels. To make the Lab as accessible as possible, we also allow folks to submit requests in our Slack channel, and we’ll file the issue for them.

What types of projects does the Lab take on?

The Writing Lab is intended for discrete, short-duration projects. If a project needs more than a few hours’ worth of content help, it might benefit from longer-term resources from the Experience Design content team. The Lab also serves as a diagnostic tool, helping surface content needs that may not have been recognized or discovered.

We primarily receive help requests from individuals or small groups on existing projects, so we’re able to get started right away. Because we’re (usually) working with just one other person, our review and approval processes are comparatively quick.

Think of it this way: The Lab is there to help out with small tasks and ad hoc requests. We’re proud to complement the work of project teams and step in where additional help is needed.

What’s next?

The Lab has done some great work already — in the last six months of 2015 alone, we completed more than 70 projects, and we’re hoping to help even more folks in the months to come.

Here’s what we’ve got planned for 2016:

  • Creating documentation: We’re currently writing guides for folks seeking Lab help and for Lab members themselves. So far, Lab members have done an amazing job of providing writing and editorial assistance to the team, and standardizing the process will help us stay efficient and consistent as 18F grows.

  • Increasing our membership: We currently have ten active Lab members, and as 18F grows, so too will our team. We plan to engage new XD content members, as well as writerly types from other teams.

  • Providing final review: Recently, an internal team reviewed and redefined 18F’s content governance strategy. This team of experts determined that the Lab should provide editorial review of all 18F-related material that’s published. We’ll ensure consistency in brand voice and tone (and make sure that every comma is in its proper place).

  • Integrating into project workflows: Some project teams use Lab services consistently, and others don’t. We’d love to become part of each team’s workflow — especially those teams that don’t have a dedicated content designer.

  • Expanding our reach: Our stretch goal for the year? Start working with more partner agencies, whether that takes the form of content-focused projects or helping them get their own Writing Labs off the ground.

Though we’ve been around only a short six months, we at the Writing Lab are pleased with the work we’ve done, and we’re even more excited for the work that’s still to come. Stay tuned for updates — we’ll be blogging more about our progress in the coming months.

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