Tracy Wilson, Editorial Director at HowStuffWorks.com  / Photo by Dylan Fagan ©2015 HowStuffWorks.com
Tracy V. Wilson, Editorial Director at HowStuffWorks.com / Photo by Dylan Fagan ©2015 HowStuffWorks.com

HowStuffWorks.com attracts nearly 30 million curious visitors each month and offers top-rated podcasts such as Stuff You Should Know. So, Editorial Director Tracy Wilson knows a thing or two about leading content teams that thrive. We talk with Wilson about her successful editorial processes, fighting writer stereotypes, her skepticism of the 80/20 production rule, and who she thinks is killing it in content right now.

HowStuffWorks.com produces a steady stream of unusual content that your audiences love. Can you walk us through the editorial process?

At this point, we have three main processes for our three different types of content.

  1. Classic Articles with a Core Process
    The first [process] is for our classic content – like How Engines Work and How Zombies Work. For those, we have regular brainstorming meetings and also maintain shared documents that people can get into and put their ideas in.Once a month, I get into those documents, and I put them into a calendar that assigns those individual articles to the freelancers who will write them. Those freelancers are always paired up with the same editor.  We try to keep editors and writers together so that they build relationships with each other, learn one another’s quirks and are able to do good work together. We also try to keep people as much as possible in a stable situation where they are regularly getting work and they know what to expect and we know what to expect of them.

    The time from assignment to publishing is about three weeks.

    • The freelance writer will have between one and two weeks to write an article that is usually at least 1200 words long.
    • Then the editor will have about a week to get all the art for it, edit it, either publish it themselves or get it over to one of our publishers, depending on what the need is.
    • Then those articles get featured on homepage and promoted through social.
  1. Podcasts and Videos – Aligned Autonomy
    We have our process for our podcasts and videos such as Stuff You Should Know. The podcasts are largely in the realm of the individual podcasters to work out for themselves what their workflow is going to be. How is it going to work? How are they going to create a good show in the time that they have allowed? So, the individual podcasters do basically all of it – the research, the writing of the script if it’s scripted, or writing notes if it’s unscripted and the recording. Then, we have a producer / editor who then does the production and creates the actual file.I can speak from personal knowledge about Stuff You Missed in History Class because I work on that one. The other host [Holly Frey] and I research one episode per week, and then we exchange that research with each other so that we educate each other on what we’re talking about. We record the podcast, and then it publishes two weeks later.  But, that [timing] is not related to how long that takes to edit. It’s just related to making sure the podcast isn’t interrupted if one of us takes time off or somebody gets sick or something happens like the power goes out and we can’t get into the studio. Our podcasts have that kind of buffer so that they are not interrupted when life or whatever happens.
  1. Now – Immediate Content with a New Process
    Now is a new portion of our site that is much more immediate, such as Could Turkey Trots Get a Whole Nation to Run? For Now, we have brainstorming sessions twice per week, and we may move that up to daily. Those sessions are more of  a pitch meeting – everybody comes with an idea that they think is important and pitches it. We’re still trying to keep people writers consistently paired with the same editor, but there’s a little more flexibility because we’re working on a much tighter turnaround. The writers will have a day or two, and the editor will try to get [the piece] edited and up on the day they receive it. There’s a whole social promotion and homepage promotion that happens after that, also.

    Could Turkey Trots Get a Whole Nation to Run? went from pitch to launch in just a few days
    Could Turkey Trots Get a Whole Nation to Run? went from pitch to launch in just a few days

How do you effectively manage the needs of content production, advertising, and other needs with your teams’ needs?

My role has really been about balancing multiple needs since I first stepped into it. And, a lot of times, it’s been more than just the needs of the team. There are also the needs of our ad sales team, the needs of the audience, the needs of the publishers. Normally, my approach is to try to meet the needs of everyone to the highest degree possible.  

For example, if we need to write five articles on a particular subject by a particular day, I will start by saying how much lead time we’re actually going to need to get that done. That lays the groundwork from the beginning and sets expectations that we are all able to meet so that we don’t get into a situation where we need five articles on this [subject] by tomorrow.

One ongoing goal of mine has been to correct the perception that writers are temperamental. That is the stereotype of writers. And I have found that pretty much invariably to be false. There are definitely those who take [feedback] a little personally, but for the most part the idea of being difficult is a total misnomer. Writers want their work to really shine. So, if a writer is being asked to do something so that work is not going to shine, that is where the writer will say, “Well, I don’t want to do that.” That’s not them being precious about their work. It’s about delivering something that the audience is actually going to like and respect them for.

So, a lot of my role as Editorial Director is about listening to all the needs of all of these people and then balancing them to come up with a plan that’s going to meet as many of the needs as possible.

In your experience, is there a magic number for content production?

No. My answer on that is definitely no. There’s a complex relationship between what you’re producing and whether people are reading it. So many people have talked about the 80 / 20 rule over the years about how 80% of your traffic is coming from 20% of your content. I don’t know if I actually buy that. But I have definitely seen – and not just at How Stuff Works but at lots of other websites – a lot of writing, but only some of it is what you really want to read. I think there’s a complicated relationship between how much stuff there is, how many people are reading it, and what it took you to put that content into the world. The magical number is somewhere in that relationship. The return on the investment of the work it took to do the stuff, how much of it there is, and what did it accomplish once it got out there.  

Besides HowStuffWorks.com, who do you think is doing digital content really well?

The Toast. It is particularly appealing to me because it is about gender and sexism in a way that is funny and insightful. And, then, sometimes it’s just about things that I care about.

For example, the Toast will do these articles that are about people invading personal boundaries in western art history. And it will be all of these little, medieval illuminated manuscripts of people standing a little too close and little captions that are hilarious. One of the reasons that it’s great is that every time I see one I want to share it and not because of some click-baity headline. It’s because the content itself is so funny and it resonates so much with me and people who think like me and are interested in the things that I’m interested in. So, it is very shareable in a very natural way, not a scammy way.

Don’t Stand So Close To Me: People Ignoring Personal Boundaries In Western Art History from The-Toast.net
Don’t Stand So Close To Me: People Ignoring Personal Boundaries In Western Art History from The-Toast.net



And it feels like there’s a surprisingly large amount of [this content] for what it is. It’s definitely a niche thing, it’s probably not going to appeal to the entire world because not everyone loves weird medieval art, for example. But, they’re able to do a lot of stuff that is creative, innovative, and funny.

The Authors

Content Science is a growing content strategy and intelligence company and the publisher of Content Science Review. We empower digital enterprises for the content era by taking their content approach to the next level. Customers of our professional services and one-of-a-kind products (such as ContentWRX and Content Science Academy) include the Fortune 50, the world’s largest nonprofits, and the most trusted government agencies.


Tracy V. Wilson joined HowStuffWorks as a staff writer in 2005. In 2007, she took on the role of hiring and training HowStuffWorks’ new writers and editors. She became site director in 2010 and editorial director in 2014. Tracy previously cohosted the PopStuff pop culture podcast with Holly Frey; the pair now cohosts Stuff You Missed in History Class, one of the top 25 podcasts on iTunes.

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1 year 6 months ago

Thanks, Tracy, for this awesome account of what it really takes to put together amazing editorial day in and day out.

 
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