Drafts: Zero to Three

The client was terse. “Your copy did not hit the mark, I will write the copy myself.” And she did. I suppose she was unhappy because the first draft didn’t mimic her own ideas. Or maybe she had forgotten my request that a first draft would be a start, and her feedback would be a way to get to the heart of the matter.

page1“If you can’t get it right the first time, you aren’t much of a writer,” she said. I thought about how that would look if we applied it to the rest of life.

To a toddler: “Just one step? If you don’t get up and run 26 miles, you aren’t much of a marathoner.”

To a calf: “You are still drinking milk? If you can’t produce milk yourself, you aren’t much of a cow.”

To a seedling: “Just one leaf? If you can’t produce an apple, you aren’t much of a tree.”

Writing is an art of iteration. Of drafts. Of writing long and cutting it down. I’ve never seen a first draft that was perfect. I’ve seen lots that aren’t very good but that get better with each draft. It’s funny that clients think that if you need more than one try, you aren’t talented.  Thomas Edison tried 6,000 different materials until he found one that worked as a light bulb filament. James Michener’s boss told him to quit thinking he was a writer, instead, he should keep his eye on doing his job as an editor or he’d be fired. This was months before Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for South Pacific. He went on to write 40 other titles, including Hawaii, Chesapeake, and The Drifters. Each one went through several drafts.

Julia Child cut up piles of onions before she felt competent wielding a knife. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger had been flying airplanes for more than 30 years before he put the U.S. Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson so that all 150 passengers could stay alive. Bet he couldn’t have done that the first time he stepped into a plane.

So, alas, I lost a customer. I did not shed a tear or spend more than two deep breaths mourning the loss. Good writing takes drafts. Good writing takes cutting and feedback. And if you don’t think it does, you’re getting bad copy.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and coach. She has a practice and loves practicing.


16 thoughts on “Drafts: Zero to Three

  1. Good for you Quinn! That situation would probably have filled me with self doubt etc. I admire your courage and confidence! Something I need to learn!

    • When you’ve been writing as long as I have you know the difference between a client’s personal preference, a power play, and universal acceptance. It’s the only way to survive as a writer.

  2. I love babies. Not because they smell like a slice of heaven, especially after they wake from a nap, but because they are bundles or perseverence . . . they never give up. A baby has the most complex tasks to master in co-ordinating their little bodies and brains yet there is no recorded incident of a baby giving up even after countless attempts . . . some take longer than others and maybe the client is the same and needs more practise.

    If I master creating like a 4 year-old (endlessly curious, non-judgemental) I might have a shot at developing a baby-size dose of perseverence! Or do I need that first?

    • Perseverence is built on confidence. Babies keep trying because they have no fear of failure. Sitting down because they are learning to walk just means getting up again. Babies know they will succeed eventually. So will you.

  3. Quinn………Your post today spoke volumes to me on so many levels. Early in my life the lessons of taking apart and re-doing until you got it right, do it again and again until it works out, give attention over and over to the garden even when you do not see the first leaf, write and write and write thank you notes until doing so is easy and a part of receiving anything,…some good, often tough bits of the journey. I thought about the two poetry reading and writing classes I take each year, the article I write every 8 weeks for a paper/blog on art with a textile bent…each writing project is always a write and read and read and read…..find the bits that are unnecessary, find the words that are out of tune with the composition, look for the heart pulsing in every part of the piece…read aloud and listen to the sound the words make. All of this is practice and so necessary for me even after a long lifetime of writing. There are shelves of journals, files of ideas, sketches for projects to explore in the studio all a part of that wonderful process you wrote about today….yes, each step is a way to lift and brighten something dull, and then to polish with the gentle cloth of a keen eye until the piece is truly ready for the eyes and ears of others..
    I read your words every day and appreciate the flavors they impart to me on my travels with my writing, my art and fully with my life.

  4. My guess would be the client discovered they can’t afford to pay you and wanted a way to save face. Nobody who’s generally functional can possibly be so obtuse they think first drafts of anything are finished.

    • Nope. Plenty of cash. It was a power thing. They wanted me to read their minds and write like they did. Then why hire me? The ad was dreadful and didn’t work. They blamed their agency anyway.

  5. It’s so hard to get clients to take time to give feedback, much less to collaborate in the true give-and-take that I cherish and always hope for–but have almost cmpletely stopped expectng. I’m sorry this happened. Clearly that client has no idea how to work with a consultant. You’re a wonderful writer. xox

    • Thanks, Lin. High compliment, indeed. You are right. The client had no idea how to work with a consultant. The client wanted to prove her power. I’m not that person. Writing is about content.

  6. Wow, what a harsh comment, “If you can’t get it right the first time, you aren’t much of a writer.” I loved your response, take a deep breath and walk away. Thank you for reminding me that it is okay to just walk away. There are times in my life that I wish I had done just that. It would have saved me a lot of heartache. Your posts always teach me something new to think about. Thank you!

  7. As a writer for hire myself, I’ve had experiences like that too, but fortunately they’ve been few and far between. I think all of us who create on demand have gone through it. When we are hired to translate someone else’s vision my feeling is that when situations arise, it is because one of three things are going on: 1. the client either cannot express what he or she is looking for in the first place 2. the client does not know what he or she wants or 3. the client cannot give up control. Therefore, what we produce will never be satisfactory because the client wasn’t committed to the idea or of someone else translating it. You are better off without this client, if only for the lack of respect toward you, your expertise, your craft, and the process. Sometimes it is chemistry, but I think that’s a catch-all for an underlying lack of respect for the process. .

    • You are dead-on right. It was a mix of all three, but it was mostly #2 and #3. Had I come back with two totally different concepts, she would have said, “I want the headline from #1 and the body copy from #2” (that’s happened to me before). When you explain the two ideas are different, and you can’t just put things together that you like, you almost always hear, “I’m the client,” or worse, “I know what I want.” Sadly, it is almost never what the reader needs.

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