How many rewrites until I have a final draft?

Q: How many rewrites until I have a final draft?
A: Do you want someone to publish it?

One of my writers recently admitted, “I get tired of what I’m writing after about three drafts.” Give her points for honesty. To be clear: I don’t think that means she’s giving up after three drafts. She’ll just give it a rest, until she’s got the stamina for another three drafts.

A writer I know recently sold her first article to a very prestigious publication. Took her 12 drafts. Yes, a dozen. And give her points for recognizing that each draft made the piece that much better.

Neither of those people would have passed muster in my friend Vanessa Park‘s middle school English class. This cartoon sums up the experience of one of her students—a young woman whose mother is New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly.

how many drafts until the final draft?

“Uh-oh. You did 82 drafts??!” the young man says. “I only did 79!”

The point, of course, is not quantity but quality. So how do you know when to take the D-word off the top of the page and call it a finished piece?

Sometimes you run into another D-word: Deadline. I could futz and finesse all day, but if I told the client she’d have it by 5pm then by God she has it by 4:59.

But if you don’t have an external deadline, give yourself an internal one. The futzing and finessing stage can last (probably literally) forever. When you find your revisions shrinking from paragraphs to sentences to words, you’re getting as close as you’re ever going to get.

Is it perfect? No. Because it’s never going to be. As my old coach Samantha Bennett (no relation) says, “Get a C.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent “C” work out into the world and found it received as an A-plus.

We writers can be unreliable judges of our own work. That’s why we need trusted colleagues to read and comment. Sometimes that’s a writing group. Other times it’s a sympathetic magazine editor who asks for Draft 9, then 10, 11, 12. Each time you get feedback, your work gets better.

How long until you have a final draft? If your editor doesn’t tell you, your deadlines will.

Of course you know how to read. But do you know how to read like a writer? Learn that essential skill in my critical reading course. Next cohort starts in late February.

Drunk on creativity — another 5×15 Challenge in the books

I got drunk yesterday. On creativity—it would have to be creativity since I don’t drink alcohol. (Well, the occasional sip of a fine Champagne if it’s on offer. I mean, you’d have to be crazy to pass that up. But anyway, the creativity. It wasn’t mine—not yesterday. It was my writers’. And that was even better than Veuve Cliquot.

I spent yesterday morning in two private coaching sessions, working with writers on pieces so beautiful they brought me to tears. One was literally gut-wrenching, a powerfully emotional experience for both writer and reader. And then I went right into a webinar to celebrate the 5×15 Writing Challenge that ended yesterday. That session turned into an impromptu writers’ group—a taste of some of what we’ll be up to in the 90-Day Writing Challenge beginning July 1st.

And after two hours of emotions seesawing between the sadness and anger provoked by one writer’s piece and the joy of seeing the creativity unleashed by this group of writers—after two hours of that…what can you do?

What I was supposed to do was dive into my corporate speechwriting; I had a ton of work on my plate. But much as I love my clients, their content can’t compare with an emotional punch in the gut. Clearly I needed to sober up before I could work.

Creativity detox

In a perfect world, I would have been able to take the rest of the day off. Sit with some of the emotions my writers stirred up. Celebrate their accomplishments. Savor the small role I played in facilitating them.

But the “perfect world”—at least my perfect world—bans all deadlines. And, alas, the world I currently live in does not.

So I took the dog for a walk and I took myself out to lunch. I drank lots of strong, hot tea.

But great writing doesn’t just vanish because you’ve upped your caffeine intake. It hangs around. Hangs…yes, I suppose I had a creativity hangover.

I did eventually get my writing done and delivered. I’d promised it to my client by close of business—and warned her that it might mean close of business in California. Or someplace in the Pacific. I got it to her before 5pm in L.A. Not ideal, since my client is on the East Coast. But if she’d heard the things I heard yesterday, she would have been drunk, too.

Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

Time Out

The irony is not lost on me.

Last week, Freelancers Union published a piece I wrote about the need for balance, unplugging—the importance of using the other F-word, Fun.

Now, I’m cursing my calendar, trying to find a clearing for just one day off somewhere in the next two weeks. Actually, I think my root canal today should take care of that, but it might be nice to unplug when I’m not in pain.

Now I’m not complaining. (I can’t; I started a “no complaints for a week” challenge today.) I love my work and I’m grateful to have clients who understand flexible schedules and the need for balance. But sometimes deadlines don’t flex, and this is one of those times.

A “busy season” in the summer seems cruel, especially for a baseball fan. Then again, the Mets haven’t exactly been tearing it up lately.

So enjoy your cookouts and your fireworks; I’ll be hunched over my desk. At least I won’t have to worry about mosquitoes.

Shipping News

I don’t usually obsess over my work.  I write; I edit; I send, or as Seth Godin puts it, “ship.” No problem.

It’s easy to ship when you know the reaction will be favorable.  I just signed my fifth or sixth annual contract with my main client.  I know they love me and respect my work, and even if I should happen to fall short on an assignment (hasn’t happened yet, but you never know…) or try something a little too off-the-wall for them, I trust they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt: They know what I’m capable of.

Absent that warm reassurance, shipping turns out to be not so easy.  Case in point, the Test Speech.

A prospective client recently offered me the opportunity to be one of several speechwriters creating a speech for the same event.  All of us would get paid, but only one of us would win a new client.

It’s nerve-wracking enough to write for a new client when you get to meet the speaker (or at least the communications team) first, talk about their expectations for the speech, and ask questions.  It’s even more nerve-wracking to write for someone you’ve never met and never heard speak – they wouldn’t even send me written copies of the guy’s speeches!  And although they sent me a detailed outline, I found I disagreed with it at several points (I think that was part of the test), so the speech I turned in was not the speech they were expecting.

They gave me a week to complete the assignment; I did it in six days.  And the last day or day and a half was just pure obsessing.  Is this word right?  Could that be said just a little better?  I finally gave myself a stern talking-to and just pushed Send.

The good news is, once the speech was gone, so was my obsession.  Even better news, I aced the test and won myself a new client.

I can’t wait to meet him.

When is a deadline not a deadline?

I understand deadlines – I’ve been working with them for over 20 years.  And I’m proud to say that I have never in my professional career missed a deadline.  Not once.

But apparently not everyone feels the same way.  Case in point, the gentleman I just spoke with from the customer service department of a major financial services company.

I happened to be checking my bill online this morning when I noticed that the due date had been moved forward by two weeks – in this instance, from early July to late June. Problem is, for as long as I’ve been doing business with this company I have budgeted to pay the bill early in the month.  So I called customer service:

“Oh,” the rep said, cheerfully. “You don’t have to worry about that.  I know it says ‘due by June 28th’ on the bill, but it’s not actually due until mid-July.”

Then why doesn’t it say mid-July?

Apparently, this company treats its customers like college students who require an automatic extension on the term paper.  I mean, if they don’t think I’m responsible enough to understand a deadline, then why are they doing business with me in the first place?

For me, good customer service is honest and transparent.  Say what you need and I’ll deliver on it.  I really can’t imagine doing business any other way.