“That’s not what I wanted to say!”

One of the first lessons I learned as a speechwriter is that the first draft often serves as a whipping boy—the poor unfortunate member of the court who received the corporal punishment it was illegal to give the prince. Seeing another person suffer on his royal behalf was supposed to make the prince feel chastened. I doubt it ever did. But I digress.

I remember the first time I wrote a speech for a CEO. I sat in his regal presence for an hour, dutifully copying down his words. I turned those words into a typescript of the appropriate length, and took them back to him. He looked at the paper and bellowed, “That’s not what I wanted to say! I wanted to say…” and he reeled off a bunch of data points, none of which had figured in our previous conversation.

That’s when I learned first drafts can be disposable. Sometimes people need to see what they don’t want to say before they can articulate what they do want to say. That’s an important lesson for a corporate writer to learn, and I think it’s one reason I have an easier time absorbing edits than my peers who write under their own names. I’ve always been clear that it’s not my work, it’s my client’s; when they’re happy, I’m happy. And I build that into the fee, of course—I base my rate on 2.5 drafts per speech: first draft, major revision, minor revision. Works almost every time.

Knowing first drafts are disposable allows me to take creative risks. And I’ll tell my new clients that, reminding them not to expect perfection on the first pass: “That’s why it says ‘draft’ at the top.”

Still, occasionally it’ll get to me. Like when a client gives me a very detailed outline and instructions to write only what’s in the outline—”don’t add a thing, because we want to keep this very lean.” So I do. And…you know what’s coming, don’t you? They returned the draft saying, “Why isn’t X in here? What about Y? How could you leave out Z?”

[That soft thudding sound you hear is my head meeting the desktop. Repeatedly.]

Half of my frustration stems from my clients’ indecision, or re-decision; the other half is me wondering how I can possibly be surprised by this. Clients change their minds. That’s their right. And, hey, at least on this project they’re paying me by the hour.

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