Host a Writeathon in Your City

A writeathon is an event in which community members collaborate on writing projects for a short period of time. Like a hackathon, writeathons tend to have a specific focus, for example, producing content for a city's website, though they could be used for other purposes.

They're a fun way to produce a lot of content quickly. For instance, if your group or organization needs content written for its website, you could host a writeathon and have community members create that content with you. And if you invite people who are also your target audience, you'll also get invaluable feedback about who they are and what they want or need from your group or organization.

Photo below is used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Burt Lum.

  • 1

    Decide What Type of Writeathon You Want to Have

    A great writeathon has a clear focus and purpose. So figure out what your end goal is before you plan the event.

    Be sure to answer these questions:

    • What's the content you want people to write?
    • How will you motivate them to write it?
    • What research materials or tools do they need in order to write the content?
    • How will you collect the content?
    • What will you do with the content afterwards?
    • How will you follow up with attendees after the event?
    • Do you plan to host future events like this?

  • 2

    Decide Who You Want to Invite

    In addition to inviting community members to write, you'll also want to invite other people. For example, is the writing topic general or specific? If it's specific, plan to invite “subject matter experts” to the event who can answer questions for your writers as they write.

    Other people you might consider:

    • Is there anyone you "should" invite? Or people in the community (or outside of it) that you think would benefit from seeing the event in action?
    • Who are the people who must be there to make the event successful?
    • What kind of press coverage (if any) would you like?

    Tip: You're likely to get more ideas if you invite a few different groups of people, for example, city employees and city residents, or schoolteachers and computer programmers.

  • 3

    Choose a Date

    Choose a date. To include as many community members as possible, you'll want to plan your event for a weekend. Start publicizing your event 3 to 4 weeks in advance so people have plenty of time to plan for it.

  • 4

    Choose a Venue

    Find a location to host the writeathon. Co-working spaces are often already involved in civic activities, so they can be good options for this type of event. Depending on your group size, other possibilities include a local library or cafe.

    Tip: Unless the content your writers will be researching is available in paper format that you'll have on hand, your location should have wifi so people can use the internet for research.

  • 5

    Decide the Writing Specifics

    For example, do you want to gather "rough" content that you or your group will later turn into "real" content? If so, you won't need to provide as much structure or support for your community writers.

    If you're planning to use the community writers content as is, you'll want to organize support for them. Without writing/editorial support, average community writers aren't likely to produce what you want in a short period of time. So be prepared for this.

    The kind of support you'll need depends on your goals. Support can include a short introductory session where you review some "good" and "bad" examples of writing. Or have a guest writer or editor speak about the kind of writing you want to produce. Or you or your group can circulate amongst the writers and assist them on an as-needed basis. Or combination of all of these.

  • 6

    Plan the Food

    If you're providing breakfast and/or lunch, look for a local sponsor. At a recent Code for America event in Honolulu, a local restaurant donated lunch when we explained what our event was trying to accomplish.

    There are a lot of people out there who want to help groups who are doing good things. As one example, on the day of our writeathon, a cupcake food truck that was in the neighborhood donated 50 cupcakes as a post-lunch snack for our writers!

    Be sure to have plenty of drinks on hand.

  • 7

    Finalize the Event Agenda

    You've done all the ground work. Now it's time to finalize the day's details. Plan to spend about 4 hours total. Provide morning coffee and snacks. If you're planning your event during mid-day, plan for a lunch break.

    Your event's agenda will depend a lot on the goals you're trying to accomplish. But here's a general agenda you can refine for your event:

    9 AM: Registration and Coffee

    9:30 AM: Introduction - Why We're Here Today

    9:45 AM: Remarks from guest writer and short how-to session on good writing

    10:15 AM: Start writing!

    12 PM: Lunch

    12:45 PM: Resume writing

    1:30 PM: Closing remarks and congratulations for writers

    2 PM: (Optional) Socialize at a nearby restaurant, cafe, or bar

    Tip: More than 4 hours starts to feel like “work.” If you want to do this again, you'll want people to walk away feeling inspired and energized, rather than tired.

  • 8

    Publicize Your Event

    How you publicize your event depends on who you're trying to reach.

    An online registration tool is a great way to automate some of these tasks. For example, you could use an online tool to post your event and handle signups. Here's a link to our online signup that you can use as example.

    Also try direct, in-person outreach with people you know. And use your social networks like Facebook and Twitter to get the word out.

  • 9

    Organize Supplies and Volunteers for the Event Day

    You'll need a few people to help you set up the event space, so be sure to organize these people ahead of time.

    Since it's a writing event, you'll want to have writing materials on hand: pens, paper, and notepads. Large whiteboards are also useful if have groups who want to brainstorm together.

    If you want writers to write in digital format, it's a good idea to create an online form for them to fill out. For instance, create a Google form that people can complete and submit for each topic. If that doesn't work for you, be sure to have a few thumb drives on hand, so people can offload their final writing to you in digital format.

  • 10

    Prepare Writing Topics

    If you have specific topics you want people to write about, prepare and print these out ahead of time.

    If you'll be asking community writers to brainstorm topics, be prepared with "back-up" topics. It may take people a while to warm up to the exercise, so back-up questions can be a big help.

  • 11

    On the Event Day

    Organize the prepared topics and post them in a public space.

    Ask each community writer to pick one of the topics and write about it. When they're done with that topic, have them choose another one to work on. And so on until you've covered all the topics.

    If you invited press, be sure to spend some time with them to make sure they get the story you want to tell. Have press spend some time with a few of the community writers - this is a great opportunity to drive home the fact that you and your group are co-creating content with the community.

    Remember to take your own photos and video!

  • 12

    Wrap Up the Event

    Thank everyone for helping you or your group achieve your goals. If you have time, ask a few writers to say a few words about the experience. Solicit feedback from the writers -- what worked well, what didn't work well. Let them know that you'll use that feedback to improve the process the next time around.

    End the session on a high note. Praise the group for what they've accomplished today. And be sure to provide ways for the group to keep in touch, especially if you're planning to do more events like this.

    If you or your group has an existing tool for keeping in touch with volunteers, for instance, an email list or a Facebook group, be sure give that information to everyone so they can keep in touch with you.

  • 13

    After the Event

    Document the event and the goals you achieved. Write a Story for Neighborhow - we want to hear about your success! And if your Writeathon did something new or different, write a Neighborhow Guide so other people can learn from your success!

    Post the photos and videos you took in a public location. Then send a link out to everyone who attended your event. If it's appropriate for your group, you'll want all of these people to share that link with their friends and family, so be sure to post materials in a public location. If press attended, send them the same materials.

    All photos used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Burt Lum.

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