How to Avoid 26 Rewrites

I talked last week with a friend at a consulting firm about the challenges of extracting thought leadership material from a firm’s professionals, and how the process often degenerates into a long series of rewrites. This is actually very common, and I thought it might be helpful to explain how and why it happens.

boredIt goes like this; a professional who has done a project or two in similar ways believes that he has something new and publishable to say. He drafts an article and submits it to a writer or marketer to tidy it up. Simultaneously or subsequently he circulates it among his colleagues for review. What he expects to be a few edits quickly extend into a series of rewrites that takes many months and dozens or hundreds of hours of work to get a good product. Often it never gets to a good result at all, and either peters out or produces a piece that no-one is happy with.

The fundamental reason for this is that a professional’s draft is usually a poor starting point for an article. It is typically short on data and poorly structured; short on data because the assertions are extrapolated from a couple of projects and perhaps an ounce of survey data, which is not nearly enough; poorly structured because the author is usually oblivious to the existence of structures and standards for good business writing.

So the marketer or writer has an impossible task. The best he can do with inadequate content is to turn it into well-written inadequate content. The colleagues meantime don’t have it much easier. They do their best to make improvements by editing several thousand words of prose. Prose is very hard to manipulate, especially among several people at once, and especially when there are still substantive issues of fact and logic to resolve. Hence a long, expensive and frustrating process for all concerned.

We have written extensively about the ‘right’ approach, and you can find a thorough description here. (The article refers to white papers, but applies to any point-of-view development.) I will describe a short version below which should tell enough to avoid the syndrome of 26 rewrites.

First, make sure that there are enough data to support the contentions. There must be several case examples of companies that have done things in the way that is recommended and which have derived measureable benefits. Surveys and secondary research can be used in support, but if there aren’t good primary examples, there isn’t a story.

Second, organize the argument into the following structure, which is a good standard one for a point of view on a complex business issue:

  • The problem
  • Why traditional approaches don’t work
  • What does work – in summary and then in detail
  • What barriers there are to overcome
  • How you can overcome them
  • The benefits companies derive

Third, expand the argument into an outline of the POV, that is a bulleted, indented list of all the key points, data and arguments that the final article will comprise (example here). Typically it will have around 2/3 the number of words of the final product. It can be the basis for other media too. The outline will clearly show the structure and logic and will be much easier to syndicate and manipulate than prose.

Finally, when the outline is agreed among everyone involved, draft the article. You’ll find you only need a couple of rounds of edits and the writing process will be done in a couple of days.

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