In Part 1, I told the story of Christine, a copywriter who felt she had wasted her time writing five drafts of an article that eventually got nixed. She didn’t buy it when I told her that nothing writers write is a waste of time, that every act of writing makes us better writers. Christine, I just learned, is now studying to be a Starbucks barista.
Soon after the article appeared, Dennis Jerz, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire writing professor, emailed me with another story. “Last semester I was approached by a dot-com that needed a lot of short online articles written or edited,” he wrote. “It seemed like a perfect writing assignment, so I had four dozen students across three classes write or edit the articles. After students got their grades, they spruced up the articles (or I did), and I shipped them off.
“This morning my contact at the dot-com emailed me to say the company had lost its funding and was retroactively canceling the project as of three weeks earlier.
“While I was moping about this during class, one of my students, Danielle Preston, emailed me your ‘Writing Is Never a Waste of Time’ article.
“As you said, that kind of rejection is pretty much all in a day’s work for an experienced writer — and I would have done most of the work anyway in the course of marking student papers. But I do feel very bad for all those students, who put more than ordinary efforts into their writing.”
One of the students, Matt Hoy, also emailed me. He explained, “After we’d slaved over the articles, Professor Jerz critiqued them and we made the suggested changes. About an hour after I’d submitted my final draft, Professor Jerz sent me an email detailing the company’s pullout. They’d waited three weeks to tell us. Now that’s class.”
The pullout was a cruel blow for Dennis, Matt, and the other students. As Dennis put it, they were “downsized out of a job on account of somebody else’s mistakes.” Understandably, they were disappointed, frustrated, and angry.
But the good news is, they get it. Thanks to a student named Danielle Preston, they know the work they did wasn’t a waste of time.
How Many Drafts Are Enough?
My older son is in seventh grade, which means he has better things to do than write multiple drafts of a writing assignment. He’ll wear the varnish off a new skateboard in one day perfecting his backside kickflip, but two drafts of a writing assignment are one draft too many. His thinking: “If I can write it once and earn a B, why write it twice? A B is good enough.”
I know his teacher encourages revision because his writing assignments often require three steps:
- He writes a rough draft.
- The teacher edits it.
- He rewrites it.
But what teachers need to teach is that two drafts are only the beginning — something accomplished writers understand well:
- John Kenneth Galbraith: “There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.”
- Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written — they’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
- Mark Twain: “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.”
- Robert Cormier: “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.”
- Vladimir Nabokov: “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.”
- John Irving: “Half my life is an act of revision.”
- A.E. Housman: “I do not choose the right word. I get rid of the wrong one.”
- Richard North Patterson: “Writing is rewriting.” (To which I would add “And rewriting is writing.”)
Don’t Settle for Less Than Your Best
But revision takes time, lots of time, something Web writers don’t always have. So how many revisions are enough for online copy?
Here’s what I say: Keep revising till you’re out of time. Then, if necessary, revise the live copy — the beauty of the Web is that you can do that.
Because when it comes to writing, whether you’re a seventh grader, a college student, a professor, a beginning copywriter, or an accomplished novelist, a B isn’t good enough.