So You Want to Write a Corporate History

Corporate history writing is a specialized skill--here's how to crack the code.

Writers frequently reach out to CorporateHistory.net to offer their services. From their queries, it’s easy to see who does or doesn’t understand what’s involved in this genre, which is a hybrid of corporate communications and journalism.

Here are seven essential things corporate history writers should know, based on Marian Calabro’s experience. As president of CorporateHistory.net, Calabro directs national corporate history projects and has written or co-written more than 20 company histories herself. She also edits the writing of other top corporate history authors.

  1. Do the reporting. Be ready for extensive document research–not always in well-organized archives–and oral history interviews with anywhere from ten to 60 employees, board members, and other stakeholders. A corporate history pro gets along with everyone, from the C suite execs and retired board members to the facilities folks.
  2. Possess a firm grasp of narrative structure. You’ll need to write to a word count and develop an informed outline. Each chapter should have a hook or turning point at the end.
  3. Capture the culture. Comb through those research notes and interview transcripts for the illustrative stories and quotable quotes. Identify major themes that act as touch points throughout the history. Lots of people can write about data. Not as many can make culture and personalities come alive.
  4. Have a plan for handling the sensitive stuff. Every organization has made mistakes. How has it recovered from them? These stories must be finessed. They add authenticity and illustrate lessons learned.
  5. Rewrite with a smile. If you’re touchy about editing, you may not cotton to corporate history writing. These are psychologically complex projects for clients. If you have diva tendencies, save them for your personal writing.
  6. Roll with delays. Clients are busy with a thousand other things. Thus projects can lag, especially when there’s no definite event driving the delivery date (such an an anniversary gala or annual conference). It’s part of the territory.
  7. Remember that the client has the final say. Corporate reviewers and/or your editor may kill a few of your darlings. Professional corporate history writers understand this.