Tempted to Throw Away the Manuscript on 5 Separate Occasions

😣The dark secret about showing the client the “first” version

I just finished reading my first book written during the pandemic era. The title is Cloud Cuckoo Land: A Novel by Anthony Doerr. A significant length of 640 pages, but the book didn’t seem long. You can hear the editor’s praises (without giving away spoilers) here.

Now I know why the book was on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks. The novel is about five characters whose stories cover almost six centuries. The people are all interconnected through a priceless ancient text.

Why mention it?

First, in case you didn’t know, Anthony Doerr is famous for winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He invested ten years researching and writing the award-winner, All the Light We Cannot See.

The book received reviews like this:

“If a book’s success can be measured by its ability to move readers and the number of memorable characters it has, Story Prize-winner Doerr’s novel triumphs on both counts. Along the way, he convinces readers that new stories can still be told about this well-trod period, and that war–despite its desperation, cruelty, and harrowing moral choices–cannot negate the pleasures of the world.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

And this:

“Intricate . . . A meditation on fate, free will, and the way that, in wartime, small choices can have vast consequences.” The New Yorker

But if you suspect I’ve drunk **the Anthony Doerr is the Greatest Author of All Time kool-aid**, hold on.

I do think he’s great. But not just for his awards, hard work, and writing talent.

He gets my admiration because of the confession he wrote at the end of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In the Acknowledgements chapter.

Do you read the Acknowledgements section in books? Well, I do, and what he discloses is worth sharing.

He wrote: “Profound thanks to three extraordinary women: to Binky Urban, whose enthusiasm for early drafts saw me through many months of doubt; to Nan Graham, who edited and improved more versions of this manuscript than I or she could count; and most of all, to Shauna Doerr, who spent much of our pandemic year hunched over pages of this book, who kept me from throwing it away on five separate occasions …”

I wrote: “Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

What a relief, I thought. He’s a fine writer, an excellent writer, and yet he still gets frustrated and wants to quit. I. Am. Not. Alone.

But the main point?

The book — the final version — that I held in my hands while reading at lunchtime, on the sofa in the evenings, and early mornings for several weeks … he admitted the draft was reworked and reworked and reworked.

The final draft we see was many, many versions later. Anthony and his editor lost count because of the multitudinous versions.

And the final draft you see at the copy review was many, many versions later. Sometimes, the copywriter loses count.

Lesson for Writers

Revel in the rendering of countless drafts. Celebrate ugly first drafts, and ugly third drafts, and ugly fourth drafts, and so on. To expect brilliant content in the first version is unrealistic. And unfair to you. No one writes a perfect page when they sit down and begin writing on a blank piece of paper.

That’s why the process to create great copy separates writing and editing. Combining both when you sit down to write will discourage you. Sit down and write first. Schedule another appointment with yourself to do the editing.   

Lesson for Clients

Be aware the first version you review with your copywriter has evolved through several reiterations. Appears innocent enough when you want to add a word or delete a phrase … okay, probably manageable for the copywriter. But when you are tempted to move sentences, change headlines, and redo the copy, please pause.

No, I’m not asking you to withhold your feedback. If you see the copy is inaccurate or not matching the creative brief, speak up. But understand extensive work was already accomplished behind the scenes. The research involved in writing the webpage. Interviewing salespeople and customers. Scouring the internet to investigate the competition. Listening to your customers as they comment on social media.

Gathering all the data and then organizing the messaging hierarchy. Then making the copy appealing to your audience.

A change you request that’s seemingly inconsequential is quite consequential.

Especially in storytelling. Especially in persuasive copy. Particularly in marketing copy.

Lesson for Marketing Team

When you think the copy is a mismatch to your expectations, I suggest you look at the start of the project.

Did your team—->

  • Prepare a clear strategy?
  • Establish goals?
  • Define the project’s scope?
  • Clarify the project’s specifications?

Answering the above questions in the beginning will get you closer to being satisfied with the final version. The upfront investment of time to be super-clear and precisely-specific saves so much time in the end.  

Lastly, the Acknowledgements had one more revelation. Doerr thanked over 47 people who contributed to creating the masterpiece. He couldn’t have written the book alone. People who fact-checked, gave him ideas, solved problems the characters were experiencing, as well as shared expertise he needed on topics such as electricity, prison life, and the Greek language.

He relied on experts who do what they do best so he could do what he does best. And he got excellent results.

So try the Doerr method. Rely on your copywriter to do what she does best. Leave the copywriting to the copywriter. 

Image by The New York Times

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About Shannan Seely
About Shannan Seely

B2B and Healthcare Digital Copywriter 📝 | Website, landing pages and email copy expert

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