The first draft is powerful, the sixth, spineless

A first draft may be brimming with passion and details; a review process should help tighten the language without destroying the interest of the reader. How many drafts are required to ‘get it right’?

Crumpled PaperWhen writing, the review process can either provide insight, new facts and word-play or syntax improvements, or it can strip an article of its meat, perhaps even it’s skeleton, leaving a bunch of text with no clear message and little to engage the reader.

Have you ever written a fantastic first draft only to some how lose it? Perhaps something crashed, or didn’t save correctly. It felt hard to start again didn’t it. You knew what was needed to be said, but you couldn’t re-capture the zing of the first one. Everyone says your article is good, but you’re left feeling it’s somewhat insubstantial and lacking. You didn’t enjoy re-writing it from memory, and you don’t believe it has the spontaneity of your original work.

First drafts are precious. They may never see it into print or onto screen, but they capture your original frame of mind and speak from the heart. First drafts should be saved so you can refer back to them further along the review process, in case you think draft 5 is lacking in something…

Now, second drafts are cool too. If your first draft has been past the eyes of an editor, then either your second draft is their re-working of the article or it’s your re-draft based on the editor’s comments.

Perhaps the word count has been reduced and sentences tightened up. Maybe the order of paragraphs / subject matter has been jiggled to ensure the salient details aren’t buried at the bottom. Maybe the odd unsubstantiated or controversial ‘fact’ has been deleted to ensure accuracy and to prevent misunderstandings.

All that stuff is great and necessary, but it’s the third draft that is golden in my mind. The third draft allows the content expert to re-assert their objectives, and discuss the deletions in the second draft with the editor. It’s possible that the editor deleted what the author thinks is an important line, so that line can now be discussed on the phone. Maybe the editor didn’t realise it was an important line because the content expert, not being an experienced writer, buried it in a mass of text. The editor can now make a feature of that sentence, raising it up the article, maybe starting a section or paragraph with it. Or, the editor (who knows the ‘big picture’) can explain why the sentence doesn’t work or can’t be said in public yet.

So this makes the third draft golden; it’s almost ready to publish. When it comes to inconsequential publishing, perhaps online, it’s this third draft that I’d probably be happy going with. Like this article, it just gets published!

But there are two more steps you should go through if you’re serious about quality control, and they are absolutely necessary for print publications.

interrobangSense check

Someone who hasn’t seen the article and knows little about the subject matter should read it. It’s their job to ask ‘what does this article mean? What’s its point?’. A sense check is incredibly important for complex matters; the content author, and to some extent, the editor, may know the subject matter inside out and have  read the article and surrounding supporting documentation numerous times. They can become ‘word blind’ to the subject – their eyes literally skip across the page as they scan read, letting their brain fill in the gaps. This is how big mistakes get past dozens of reviewers – they all know the subject so well that they don’t really read the article.


Typewriter 01Proof-reading is a skill, not something that just anybody does. You can ask your Work Experience student or PA to ‘sense check’ an article but you cant ask them to proof-read it unless they have some real experience.

Proof-reading requires an attention to detail that borders on obsession. Every space, comma, apostrophe, ise / ize needs to be processed by the brain, not just skipped over by the eyes.

Professional proof-readers use ‘printers’ markings’ to mark up a document with corrections – if you don’t know these markings don’t call yourself a proof-reader!

Amateur proof-readers like you and me can be helped to properly proof by reading the article backwards. If you read it forwards you’re probably just ‘sense checking’ it while double checking commas, but if you read it backwards your eyes and brain will note each letter, paragraph spacing and indent.

Then, you should read it forwards out loud to check that sentences are the right length and flow in to one another correctly.

The spineless draft

If you find yourself on the 25th draft for a brochure article, then don’t be surprised. There are so many stakeholders (the service provider, marketing, managers, etc.) that each sentence will get tweaked. But if you’re writing for the web and you find that your article is on it’s sixth or seventh draft, stop and ask yourself if everyone involved knows the purpose of the article. Are all the stakeholders making changes based on their own objectives, rather than that of the article? An article can carry only so many messages, don’t allow diverse people to overload a single article.

Ensure reviewers and editors know the objectives and key messages of the article before you get drafting. Don’t let it get to draft 6 before you realise that the ‘story’ has been ripped out of the article and there’s no longer any reason for a surfer to read it.

Did I just say that web publishing is less respected and easier than print publishing? No, I just recognise that people invest more money in print publishing (and therefore more effort) when they know that they can’t revise the brochure, book, magazine once it’s in the public’s / customers’ hands.

How many drafts?

I asked my friends on Twitter how many drafts it takes to get an article through a review. Obviously, it all depends on the medium, audience, purpose and stakeholders. Here’s what I heard.

@Jeff Parks said that it can take a lot longer with Governmental articles than Private Sector documents and that we need to clarify the objectives of the article with stakeholders first.

@StuartGH notes the importance of having a process to keep published content up to date.


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