Why asking for ‘a rewrite’ is A Bad Thing

May 13, 2016

Sometimes clients say they’ve got a website, or a report, or a speech, and the copy is OK – but it’s not in the right tone of voice. The ideas are there. But it just needs to be friendlier, shorter, simpler, or maybe all of the above. In other words, the client needs a rewrite. Oh, and since it’s only a rewrite, the job should be quicker. And cheaper.

This way, friends, lies strife. For everyone. Because, in so many cases, it’s not about how you’re saying it – it’s what you’re saying in the first place.

Last year, I worked with some other writers on a project for a global financial services client. This client wanted us to rewrite their website. They wanted us to use the content on each existing page, and rewrite it in a clearer, more conversational way.

And that’s exactly what we did. We rewrote a few ‘test’ pages, and – feeling pretty pleased with our work – sent them to the client for approval. We felt the tone was spot on. Which is why we were surprised when the client got in touch to say that they, erm, kind of hated what we’d done.

The problem wasn’t that we’d failed to make the original copy clear. The problem was that we had managed to make it clear – and, in doing so, we’d made it possible to see that the original content was rubbish. For instance, once we’d got rid of all the corporate waffle and silly jargon about the products being dynamic, flexible and customer-centric, and explained what the customer could actually do with them, the client realised: er, we can’t say that, because the product isn’t really very dynamic, flexible or customer-centric at all.

The pages didn’t need a rewrite. They needed a rethink. In the end, it took a HUGE amount of time speaking with product managers, marketing teams and other stakeholders, to agree what content needed to be on the page. And that was before we’d written a single word of the final ‘friendly’ copy. A quick rewrite turned into a much more complicated – and more costly – job.

Writing is thinking

The thing is, it’s pretty much impossible to separate words and ideas. I’m reminded of a quote from the very clever Lindsay Camp:

‘…when a writer runs into difficulties, it’s very rarely words that are the real problem. Almost always, confused and over-complicated thinking is to blame.’

And there’s absolutely no way of getting the words right without getting the thinking straight. Imagine your document as a house: a rewrite is a bit like painting the walls. But if japanese knotweed has played havoc with the foundations, no amount of Farrow & Ball is going to make you move in.

If your thinking is clear, your words can be too. But if you don’t really know what you’re trying to say, you can’t connect with your audience – whatever tone of voice you use.

My suggestion

Happily, the whole thing has an easy fix:

Project Managers – ask your writers to have a good look through the original documents before planning any rewrites with a client. And make sure everyone understands exactly what is meant by ‘rewrite’. Is the client really happy for your writers to use the existing content on the page, and no other content whatsoever?

Writers – when you’re looking at the document, ask yourselves: do I really know what this is trying to say? And is it saying the things it should say? Do I need to factor in some time to find new content, or can I just sweep away the abstract nouns and chop up the humungous sentences?

And, clients – remember never to skimp on the thinking time. It’s worth far more than friendly words.

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