Friday, October 5, 2007

Remembering the Process

Not to brag, but I rarely get asked for revisions.

When I think about my time in college when I learned to structure an essay, I remember how much emphasis was placed on the process. You never got anything right on the first try. The first draft was just a draft, and while sometimes it counted for a grade, it was never perfect. It usually came back with at least a few marks from the dreaded red pen.

How different it is when you're writing for a living.

When I started freelance writing, I was just a couple of years out of college. And I still thought of writing as a process. I never assumed that the first draft would be perfect, and it never occurred to me that clients would not expect revisions. But when I started working, I was surprised when my first paying client accepted my work on the first try: "That's perfect! Just what we wanted! Send over an invoice!" I was thrilled that she loved it, but I was also wondering what happened to the process. Are you sure? I wanted to ask. Isn't there some way this could conceivably be better?

As time went by, I had a lot more clients who loved the first draft. Less than a quarter of my clients asked for revisions. And I realized that there was sometimes a gulf between a client's expectations and the way I had been taught to view my writing. There's a small but vocal minority of clients who believe that since they're hiring a professional, they should get a perfect product on the first try. And sometimes they're so shocked and amazed that they don't get a picture-perfect first draft that they're willing to take their project to someone else--or they might try to get out of paying the writer. Just look what happened to the poor Frump.

These clients don't understand that any writing activity is a process, not a one-shot deal. And as a professional writer, you can ask as many questions as possible on the front end--but there's still some possibility that you'll misunderstand something, the client might misstate something, or you'll both just have different visions for the piece. Creativity is not an exact science.

These days I rarely do get asked for revisions. I've learned to ask questions, check out websites on my own, and try to combine client-given info with what I observe about their business. I also choose writing projects that fit my strengths, and try to screen for clients who are a good match. But every so often, I do get asked for revisions. And sometimes they're extensive.

Once, I had a client who was so dissatisfied with the first draft that he stopped the project partway through. This was when I was just starting out, and it really affected my confidence. It also made it very clear to me that some clients don't see writing as a process at all--that they expect a home run on the first pitch.

To this day, I still think of that project when I get asked for extensive revisions. It hasn't happened again so far--of those who've needed revisions in the several years since, all have been able to work with me to get things exactly right. But it shows me that I've come to expect the same thing from myself that some clients expect from me: perfection at all times.

Maybe it's time for me to re-learn what I used to know: writing is a process.


Charlotte Rains Dixon said...

Funny, I was just thinking about this very issue earlier today--how in copywriting, it is all about nailing it on the first draft. However, and this is a big however, it is a whole different world with my own creative writing and my creative writing students. There multiple drafts still rule. Kind of makes you wonder--are the creative writers (and I wear both hats, creative and copy writer) over thinking things? Hmmmm.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Not sure...I think that at the end of the day, "copy" is more utilitarian...we just want it to do its job, whether that's to sell or inform or whatever. Creative writing is something that most writers are more invested in, and put more time into. Not to mention success in the creative world is much harder to come by, so people have to strive more to stand out. Or something.

Love your blog, by the way. You're going on my blogroll.