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6 ways a writing lab will help your organization

Last month, we posted about our Guide to the 18F Writing Lab to shed some light on our internal processes. Since then, we’ve gotten a good number of questions about our Lab, including some inquiries from folks who are wondering if a lab is right for their organization.

Only you and your team can decide whether a lab is something you all could (and should) use. As you’re making that decision, though, we at 18F encourage you to consider the benefits a lab can bring your company or institution.

Labs increase content quality

By and large, the biggest benefit a writing lab can offer your organization is increased content quality. By providing exactly the type of content help a piece or project needs most, Lab editors make sure that no detail goes unattended to. And by taking on timeboxed, ad-hoc projects, lab editors are able to give attention to projects that might not have received it otherwise.

Along with improving across-the-board content quality, a lab can help your organization get more content written, period. To give you a sense of the scope of work your lab might be able to accomplish, consider this: Since starting less than one year ago, 18F’s Writing Lab has completed 154 discrete tasks — 154 tasks that might otherwise never have gotten done.

Labs also increase awareness of the time it takes to produce and maintain content

A writing lab can also provide folks insight into how much time and effort go into creating and maintaining content.

Folks who aren’t on the content team (or who don’t serve in content-focused roles) may have a shaky idea of how long writing, editing, publishing, and governing content takes. This lack of knowledge isn’t malicious, by any means — it’s fairly common to have a semi-solidified idea of what goes into other folks’ jobs — but it can have negative impacts. When people don’t recognize the time and effort required to produce good content, they may under-resource the content team or improperly scope projects.

By bringing visibility to the content team’s work, a lab can help people form a more realistic view about what goes into content work which, in turn, can lead to better resourcing and scoping decisions.

Labs serve as a diagnostic tool

Related to the previous point, a writing lab can serve as a diagnostic tool, drawing attention to projects that need dedicated content help.

Under the model 18F uses, anyone who approaches the Lab for help needs to label their request with a time estimate. This serves two purposes: It helps Lab editors budget their time and claim only those tasks they can complete, and it also helps people more easily recognize how long different sorts of writing and editing tasks take.

With some exceptions, our Lab doesn’t take on tasks that require more than a few hours’ worth of work, as our model isn’t meant to address these engagements. What we can do, though, is encourage the folks requesting that level of help to have a conversation with our leadership team about getting the dedicated resources they need.

One example of how this benefit has worked at 18F is the Every Kid in a Park initiative. The product lead approached the Writing Lab for “writing and editing help,” not knowing that what the project really needed was a full-time content designer. After a conversation with the Lab, the PM requested — and received — full-time content help. Thanks to that initial conversation with the Lab, Every Kid in a Park has received extensive praise for its thoughtful, well-researched content, which has helped spread the word about this amazing program.

Labs promote better organization-wide use of time

18F’s Lab is partly inspired by Alan Lakein’s Swiss-cheese method of time management. The method, if you’re not familiar with it, is pretty straightforward. It posits that, to complete a large, complex task, all you need to do is break it into smaller tasks related to the main goal, and then knock those tasks out one by one. These smaller tasks are the metaphorical holes in the Swiss cheese, and the completed project is the slice of Swiss cheese itself.

18F doesn’t follow Lakein’s advice to a T, but our approach is similar. Most notably, we encourage folks to submit smaller tasks rather than larger ones. Similarly, if folks are thinking of submitting a really time-intensive or complex ask, we encourage them to split it into smaller, easier-to-complete ones.

This allows Lab editors to claim and complete tasks during the small, “off moments” in their days — the bits of time between meetings or right before lunch. These bits of time may not be ideal for starting a big project, but they’re perfect for completing a short copy editing task. By using these small, often-forgotten bits of time, Lab editors have been able to improve 18F’s organizational efficiency.

Labs shed light on others’ work

If you work at a medium-sized or large organization, you might have trouble keeping up with what all of your colleagues are working on at a given time. This is an issue that the 18F team is facing, and though the Writing Lab doesn’t completely solve it, it does help ameliorate it a bit.

Because people from all across the organization (and who work on vastly different projects) can request help from the Writing Lab, Lab editors gain exposure to a broader array of projects than they would otherwise. This, in turn, helps editors identify projects that they might want to work on in a more sustained way.

It also helps them serve as better stewards of our organization: If folks can speak more eloquently to the work their company is doing, they have a stronger likelihood of forming and maintaining positive relationships with partners and clients. To cite just one example of this benefit in action, members of our Outreach team use Lab editorship as a way to stay on top of organizational communications needs and learn more about projects before official launches.

Labs provide a professional palate cleanser

We Lab editors are no strangers to fun. Whenever we have the chance, we try to imbue our workdays with a bit of levity, and the Writing Lab helps us in this regard.

Lab engagements offer editors the equivalent of professional palate cleansers — small tasks that are already contextualized and quick to complete. Because editors choose the tasks that appeal to them, they’re (very) likely to select jobs that appeal to their personal interests, creating a more enlivened workday experience.

And because editors often complete tasks in the odd bits of time between longer engagements, Lab tasks can aid with context-shifting — they serve as a contextual buffer between larger projects. To frame it differently, if you’ve been working on technical documentation all day, taking a break to work on a presentation deck can provide a nice breath of fresh air.

Ready to learn more?

If you’re keen to learn more about 18F’s Writing Lab, check out our post on how the Lab lends an editorial helping hand. Also, stay tuned for our upcoming post on the steps you can take to start your own lab from scratch!

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