Never expect mission-perfect prose in the first cut

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By Leo Valiquettewriting

Ernest Hemmingway once said in an interview, that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times because he was having trouble “getting the words right.”

Effective writing is about much more than appropriate comma use, subject-verb agreement, passive versus active voice, or avoiding exclamation marks and adverbs. These details are important. They are the nuts and bolts of writing, the technical stuff that, if diligently policed, gives prose its final polish.

But the essence of great writing is much more subjective. Great writing engages, entertains and educates. It distills ideas, opinions and concepts into provocative new forms that find resonance among audiences they haven’t before.

As Hemmingway’s timeless example illustrates, great writing seldom emerges in the first draft, no matter how skilled the writer. It is an iterative process. Review and revision by wise readers who are representative of the intended audience, as well as eagle-eyed editors, is crucial. Review and revision is the difference between good and great.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have grand ambitions as a novelist. In the fiction world, there’s a rule of thumb that you take your time with the revisions of your manuscript, but you get the first draft written as quickly as possible. I see a clear correlation between this and the principles of lean and agile product development in the world of technology startups. Get out there, take risks, fail fast, learn from your mistakes, and carry on to the next iteration until you have something that is commercially viable.

Creating strong and effective writing is no different. And yet, as a consultancy for hire, we often see reluctance on the part of technology executives to apply the same iterative approach to their marketing collateral as they do to the products they are developing for market.

Content development is an iterative process

It doesn’t matter if it’s web copy, client case studies, brochure-ware, thought leadership articles placed with the trade and industry press, or even a media release. Each of these is a calling card for your business, intended to, and capable of, driving leads into the sales funnel. If your product was a result of an iterative design process, why would you expect the process to create the marketing collateral to help sell it be any different?

The reasons for this impatience with the iterative nature of the writing process are not hard to finger.

First, the marketing folks are often brought into the product development cycle far too late, when a release date is looming. They have to scramble, and scramble fast, with their efforts subject to review by committee. Too many would-be editors and wise readers often serve to frustrate, rather than enable, the process.

Second, writing is a field of endeavor that suffers from its own form of dissociative personality disorder. On one hand, a great writer can command a substantial premium. On the other hand, many people view it as a cheap commodity, and pay accordingly, only to complain about how they can’t find a decent writer to do a decent job for them. You get what you pay for.

If great writing was so quick and easy, you wouldn’t need to hire a professional to get the results you want, would you?

I’ve written before about when it may be time to hire a professional writer and how to vet them. But even after you’ve worked through all of that and have them on your clock, don’t expect them to toil away in solitude and produce sterling prose on demand. This is a development process every bit as iterative as any other going on in your shop. A great writer is a craftsperson who will work with you and your team and you must work with them in return. Together, you will create something far sharper and effective than either of you would alone.

The key thing is to not bog down this iterative process by having too many would-be editors and wise readers in the mix. Otherwise, you may be doomed to suffer Hemmingway’s dilemma – and nobody has time for 39 rounds of revision.

Image: marketingsuccessblog.com

/// COMMENTS

One Comment »
  • David French

    September 24, 2013 1:57 pm

    Great article, Leo. It resonates with my message about inventors working with a patent attorney. A patent attorney is like a journalist, he has to write-up the story of the invention.

    I like your statement: “A great writer is a craftsperson who will work with you and your team and you must work with them in return. Together, you will create something far sharper and effective than either of you would alone.”

    The same is true about generating a good patent. The inventor and the patent attorney have to work together. In doing so, they will create something far sharper and more effective than either of them could working alone.

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