Why ditching that last draft is a false economy

June 3, 2016

There are lots of ways to cost a writing project. You might agree a fixed fee with your writer. Or you might ask them to work on a ‘taxi meter’, where the costs are based on the number of hours they’ve notched up. In some projects, a writer and their client might agree on a maximum number of drafts. This is perfectly fine – but it’s worth making sure that everyone understands how the writing process works, and why some drafts are worth more than others.

The other week I was working on some brochure copy for a client. We’d agreed a price based on me writing three drafts – but, just as I was about to start writing, they asked: if it turned out that we didn’t need to do all three drafts, would that reduce the cost of the job?

(This is actually a trickier question than you might think. Yes, my fee was based on me writing three drafts. But that can get hazy – it’s fairly typical to end up doing ‘half drafts’ or ‘just a few last tweaks’ without asking for more budget. That’s no problem. The three drafts I’d outlined were primarily there to keep everyone focused and on track. Also, does this kind of arrangement actually discourage writers from turning in an awesome first draft, nailing the brief and saving their client valuable feedback time? It’s worth thinking about. Anyway.)

I didn’t mind keeping the costs flexible. But I did need to flag a couple of things that some people might not have thought about:

Different drafts do different jobs

When I cost a project like this, I don’t attach the same cost to each draft. The first draft takes by far and away the most time – it’s the one which involves all the upfront research and brainwork, and it’s the only one where I’m starting with a totally, intimidating-ly blank page. So, depending on the size of the project, this first draft could cover a big part of the cost.

The second draft, and those that come after it, are usually easier, since there’s at least a framework for the writer and client to knock about. So, even if there are big changes, they probably won’t take as long as writing the first draft from scratch. Later drafts should just be about polishing and tidying. And the final one often doesn’t take very long at all.

So, you could ditch the later drafts. But you might not save as much budget as you expect. And in saving a relatively small amount, you might end up making a false economy…

Don’t fall at the last hurdle

You might think: well, if the last drafts are easier, we can do them ourselves in-house. But I’d advise against it. Those last bits of polishing can make the difference between a line that sings and a line that falls flat. I’ve often had a well-meaning designer tweak something in the final copy, only for the parallel structure to become unbalanced, the alliteration to be lost, or for some other very clever thing I was trying to do be unintentionally and completely cocked up. Someone once said to me that hiring a writer and tinkering with their final draft was like employing a mechanic to fix your car but then trying to sort the exhaust pipe yourself. I’m no driver (got three majors on my first test, lucky for you I never took to the driving seat again), but it’s kind of the right idea.

So, even if the first draft is pretty good, think about going through a few more, refining as you go. Sometimes, in those later drafts is where the magic happens.

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