March 30, 2022
December 24, 2020

Building a content production system

It’s 9pm, and I really just want to turn off for the day.

I was up 16 hours ago, sitting in front of this same laptop, typing away — a Japanese lesson.

I got the first draft done in a couple of hours. Not bad. Then later in the day, Rei checked it, and her feedback was… not what I wanted to hear.

She basically told me to rewrite it from scratch. Which I did.

And she checked it again even later in the day. And thankfully, there are now only a few small changes to be made. This should be the last edit, but it has taken us all day to get here.

The above story used to be a common occurrence for us. This was back when we sent out daily Japanese lessons via email.

What I didn’t mention is the work that went in before I first “started” writing the lesson early in the morning:

  • Rei poring through books, blogs, and other resources, determining the content we should teach.
  • Rei writing the example sentences.
  • Me translating them.
  • Me writing the literal breakdowns.
  • Rei checking everything.
  • Me rewriting everything based on her feedback.
  • Rei giving me the green light to write the lesson.

Note that this was without getting audio for any of the content, which multiplies the complexity of producing a lesson several times over.

We started the daily lessons in December 2015. And we sent them out — 7 days a week* — until we had over 900 of them.

*We dropped to 5 days a week toward the end, and on two occasions we took a break for a couple of weeks.

It was a rough few years, if I’m being honest. And I didn’t take a full weekend off for several years as a result.

I’m not complaining. I really loved producing the Japanese content. Our students learned a ton. I learned a ton. And I got a lot better at figuring out what, exactly, makes one lesson better than another.

Hiring writers… and letting them go

Since 2015, I would estimate that Rei and I have hired and trained about 100 freelancers for various writing, editing, translation, and voice acting jobs.

Some of these have been for NativShark, others for my own work in writing and editing for book publishers in Japan.

Overall, I would guess that about 10% of these freelancers saved us time.

For the most part, it’s not that they didn’t do their job, or that they didn’t have the requisite skillset to complete it. (I quickly learned to terminate contracts immediately when there is any sign of this.)

The problem, instead, is that it is very difficult to explain a complex creative project well enough that someone else can do it for you.

Imagine you have an idea for a fantasy novel.

Now imagine trying to hire someone else to write it. Will they get the details of the world right? Will they write in the voice of each character properly? Will they space the sentences and paragraphs the way you like? Will the chapters be the right length?

In short, will it be the novel you envisioned?

Probably not. Because to do that you would have to have a crystal-clear picture of everything. And you’d need to be able to communicate that picture to another person.

You might as well just write the novel yourself, right?

This is what I used to think. And Rei. And it’s why in the end we always ended up firing the writers and translators. They just weren’t getting it right, no matter how many ways we tried to explain things.

But what if you couldn’t do it all yourself? What if the project was so big that it would be physically impossible for two people to create all of the content?

In other words, what if the project was NativShark?

Well, you’d need to come up with a pretty amazing content production system.

Setting standards

After all of this work we’ve done on establishing a system for creating content, I actually believe it would be possible to outsource a fantasy novel and have it match your vision.

Because I’m seeing us succeed at the equivalent for NativShark.

First, let’s go back a few steps, though.

It was extraordinarily difficult, but Rei and I were able to publish 1 Japanese lesson per day 7 days a week.

So why aren’t Units coming out this fast?

The reason is that a Unit is much different than just a lesson. It contains much more layers of complexity than just a lesson. And for each added layer, the time and effort required to produce the Unit as a whole doubles.

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We need a content production system that can result in all of these elements of a Unit getting produced at an acceptable standard, and they all need to fit into their place in both the Unit and the Phase as a whole. And it needs to happen quickly and regularly.

To do this, we broke down Units into the smallest independent pieces possible. (Internally, we call these “Materials.”)

And then we set standards for the creation of a Material.

Take an example sentence, for instance. We have standards for:

  • What is considered a natural sentence.
  • The way it is split in a literal breakdown.
  • The formality marker.
  • The way the context is written for it.
  • The matching of the context to the sentence.
  • The translation of the sentence as a whole.
  • The translation of the pieces in the literal breakdown.

These elements of an example sentence are all dependent upon one another. But a mistake in a single one of them “breaks” the sentence, so to speak.

For example, we have never had a writer write what we could consider natural sentences on their first day working for us.

I could talk a lot about Japanese here, but instead I’ll use English for the example. I outsource a lot of writing and translation work to independent contractors. About a year ago, we started creating an English vocabulary book to be sold in Japan.

The writers I hired for this job had to write example sentences for a list of words they were given. Consider these example sentences that were submitted to me for the words “cope,” “genius,” and “elite.”

  • The woman has learned to cope with the stress of her new job.
  • That singer is a musical genius.
  • Only the children of elite politicians go that school.

I don’t remember if these sentences were accepted for that publication, but I can tell you they would never see the light of day at NativShark.

“The woman” — who? When do you ever say this? Maybe it would work if it just said “she”, but wouldn’t “she’s” be more likely? Wouldn’t “the stress of her new job” or at least “of her new job” be apparent based on the context in which this sentence is being said? Seems redundant.

“That singer” — what singer? Why wouldn’t you just say their name? If you already knew it, would you even use the word “singer”?

“That school” — what school? And this sentence is almost certain to be factually incorrect. There are not schools with only politicians’ kids. If there are, we need the context showing that. There are schools with kids from elite families, but that is not what is said here. In any case, where would this sentence be used? In an article about the school? In a discussion about schools in the city? In both of those situations, this sentence is unnatural.

What this really boils down to is teaching writers to consider who is talking to whom and in what situation. Even saying that, writers tend to get it wrong the first few hundred times they write a sentence. Which means we need better instructions.

All of this is only talking about the first bullet point, “What is considered a natural sentence,” by the way. We run into somewhat similar problems for each of the bullet points.

Luckily, we’re getting there.

It just takes a lot of instruction writing. A lot of charts and diagrams. And extremely clear standards of what we consider to be publishable content.

Building the flow

Having set the standards for each Material, we then needed to create a workflow so that the content is getting created quickly and on a regular basis.

The first several iterations of this workflow didn’t work very well, but we have landed on a version that appears to be working.

Content creation gets broken down into a 10-step process:

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The first 4 of these steps — which happen to be the most difficult steps to get correct — have been hammered down quite nicely.

And every day our list of publishable sentences (with audio!) grows.

Here are some coming through the pipeline right now:

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I would estimate that we’re probably about 4 weeks from having all 10 steps being worked on daily, which translates to having dozens — and soon thereafter hundreds — of new sentences added to our content library every day.

Work that remains to be done

We still have a few things to finalize.

We need to:

  • Make our sentence library available to students.
  • Finish our “Learn Mode” so that students can study and learn individual sentences more effectively.
  • Build some integrations so that this new content getting created gets uploaded to our platform automatically.
  • Build some permissions into our Content Management Platform (CMP) so parts of content creation that can’t be handled in third-party services — e.g. lesson writing, literal breakdowns, and dialogue creation — can be completed quickly and regularly.

Once all of this is set up, then people like me and Rei won’t be trying to create Units by ourselves. We’ll be overseeing the creation of Units.

And that’s what needs to happen for us to publish Units faster than any student could hope to complete them.

For those of you who have been waiting for more and more content, we’re deeply grateful that you’ve been patient as we get these things worked out.

Please know that we always have you at the forefront of our minds. We want to get you the volume of content you need at the standard of quality that is necessary to learn natural Japanese day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Back to swimming.

I’ve got some workflows to oversee. ^_^

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