Writing yesterday about John Kenneth Galbraith drafting each of his speeches 13 times, I remembered a cartoon I saw framed next to the door of my friend Vanessa Park’s elementary school classroom. The caption seems to be cut off. It reads, “You wrote 82 drafts? I only wrote 79.”
Vanessa had some kick-ass English teachers when she was growing up (I know because we shared the same classes), and it turned her into a pretty rigorous English teacher herself. If the world had more of those, I might be out of a job. And so might Vanessa, who has now opened up her own editing shop. (She also blogs here.)
One year, she had a student whose mother created cartoons for The New Yorker. The experience Liza Donnelly‘s child had in Vanessa’s class inspired the cartoon above, an unpublished gift to my friend.
In the real world, 82 drafts might be a tad excessive. Early on in my career I had a client who went through so many drafts that I stopped identifying them by number and went to letters, which take longer to quantify. Later, working for someone even more finicky, I adopted a letter-plus-number system. Just thinking about it gives me PTSD.
Generally, sane clients require only a couple of drafts to get it right. I usually set my fee to accommodate two and a half drafts—first draft, major revision, minor revision. Some clients want to revise up until the last moment. Others, recognizing that they need time to rehearse—I love these clients!—freeze the speech a week or even two weeks ahead of time.
Musical theater legend Ethel Merman always stipulated that she would not accept changes to a new show less than a week before it opened. When composer Irving Berlin tried to change a lyric after her deadline, Merman retorted: “Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”
Would Berlin’s change have made the song better? Probably—he was Irving Berlin, after all. But would it have made Merman’s performance better to incorporate a change so close to opening night? Probably not. And she was enough of a pro to know that.
Draft when you need to, absolutely. But, as the old public service announcements used to say, “Know when to say when.”