New clients are often surprised when they open up my first draft and find “DRAFT A” at the top. Don’t people usually number their drafts? Show me a numbered draft and I’ll show you a writer who’s never had to do endless revisions.
I switched over to letters early on in my career, when I had a client who got me to Draft 23, or perhaps beyond. They were paying me well for the privilege of being picky (or indecisive), so I couldn’t complain. But I did celebrate when the project ended.
That’s when I decided I needed a more opaque draft-identifying system. Letters.
Yes, I could figure out that Draft W was actually Draft 23 in disguise. But that would take effort, and in the midst of revision that was effort I was unlikely to expend.
My numbering system got a bit more baroque when I worked in-house for a bit. My boss was a serial reviser and we also sent multiple revisions to the external clients. I needed to identify the drafts that had managed to escape—er, that the external folks had reviewed. So it became letters for external review, numbers for internal. Thus Draft B3—the third in-house revision of the second draft the external client would receive.
Did I say endless revisions? The external clients would approve before we got too far into the alphabet, but the internal numbers routinely broke two digits. You’d better believe I celebrated when I escaped that situation.
Endless revisions — the search for perfection
Look, I understand the constant search for “better”—my own personal writing projects can hit Draft L before I push them out of the nest. Fortunately that’s just a letter, not a Roman numeral.
But sometimes revisions make things worse.
So how do you know when to stop?
In the beginning, the best practice is just do to it. Stop. A lot. Stop after each draft and let the piece rest—overnight if you can; for 15 minutes if that’s all you’ve got. Heck, take a five minute walk around the office. That’s enough to refresh your perspective a little. Maybe enough to recognize that the piece is good.
Good. You can live with “good.” Good is better than average, better than most of the stuff out in the world. Good is good enough to ship.
Once you’ve sent “good” out into the world and the sky hasn’t fallen, it’s easier to do it a second time. And a third. And you’re on your way to stopping the cycle of endless revision.
Which is also good. And feels better every time.