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The Glorious Rough Draft: Confessions of a Ghost Writer

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“If you’re going to do something right, do it right the first time.” My grandpa said this. He wasn’t a writer. A good man, a great man – but not a writer. Quality prose always starts with a good idea that you wrangle into a rough draft. It never spills out of the brain a fully-formed article, ready to send into the world. As a writer and reporter, I know this to be true, but it’s an internal battle I fight often when developing content for our clients, and I know I’m not alone.

As a ghostwriter, I used to hem and haw, chew my nails, pace over the question, “How early is too early to share a draft with a client?”

When working on a writing assignment (be it articles, blogs, emails, scripts, digital ads – any piece of written content) we want the piece we share with our clients to be perfect – a final draft. However, that approach fails to acknowledge that creating the best piece of credible, quality content possible often requires collaboration. The whole “two heads are better than one” belief.

So here’s my confession: I love sharing good ol’, ugly, glorious rough drafts and transforming them into quality content. I may be a ghost, but I rarely work alone. Let me explain why...

A Collaborative Writing Process In Marketing

Each company, organization, and institution has a unique brand and voice. That voice should shine through in every piece of content that you share – through word choice, phrasing, and personality. Whenever I start writing for a client, I know that first of all, I need to learn and understand what their unique voice is and how they communicate with their audience

How do I learn their voice? Well, if they’ve worked with an agency or other writers before, they likely have lots of past content I can review. If they haven’t though, this is where collaboration becomes especially important and fun. Each draft becomes an opportunity to shape the voice and develop the direction for all future marketing.

A traditional drafting process might look something like this: 

  1. The client and writer pick a topic
  2. The client and writer set a deadline for the first draft and a deadline for publication
  3. The writer conducts initial research 
  4. If necessary, client helps the writer determine subject matter experts (SME)
  5. Writer researches topic further 
  6. Writer prepares draft
  7. Writer shares draft internally for revision 
  8. Draft delivered to client 
  9. Revisions
  10. Polish
  11. Publish
  12. High five

Doesn’t look too bad, right? Pretty straightforward steps for composition. In reality, however, the editor or client could have any number of responses to a first draft, ranging from, “Perfect, you hit the mark” to “This isn’t what I was thinking at all.”

And that’s okay!

Depending on the topic, a rough draft might be, well, rough. Perhaps it is more of an outline, with questions, notes, highlights, and links to sources. Alternatively, even if the piece is pretty dang close to perfect, I still like when a client offers some constructive feedback. 

In fact, I don’t think having a first draft approved without any changes is always a good goal. When a first draft is seen as “perfect” at the first exposure to it, I’m nervous that something was overlooked.

Establishing Expectations for First Drafts

Collaborative writing begins with clear expectation setting. When the client receives a work-in-progress draft, there needs to be a general understanding that you – as a writer, agency, partner in the client-agency relationship – are asking to work and write together on this content. 

Here are steps I recommend for starting a streamlined, collaborative drafting process with a client so you all feel confident about the draft you submit. 

  1. Make sure your client is open to it: Some clients expect drafts delivered on a silver platter, and honestly, many of them should. However, you still need feedback, and you need that client to help you identify who can review them with you, whether it’s a contractor, employee, or someone else who knows the client’s expectations. (Thanks to my wife for helping me clarify that sentence.)
  2. Communicate early: Agree that, “When the topic calls for it, once in a while, we’re going to talk through a half-written draft so that we can help shape it and clarify our understanding of the topic and your preferences on the overall writing style.”
  3. Have a calendar: Nothing feels worse than chasing deadlines. Give yourself plenty of time for review, and go through an early draft together so you can talk through what you’re thinking, and the purpose of the draft. This will help disarm any critical feedback you would have otherwise received if you had just sent a “finished draft” to the client.
  4. Who’s the final decision maker? Eventually, you’ll have a draft that is as close to perfect and polished as possible. Make sure you and the client have determined who will be the final person to give the green light to publish.

writing as a Team Sport

In the beginning, writing almost always starts as a solitary quest. Sometimes, the only way to find out what you know and don’t know is by assembling your rough draft. I had to learn this as a journalist. You can’t start writing a solid draft until you know your subject. Writing helps me sort my own broken thoughts, disjointed pieces of information and identify blind spots, but that is not writing a draft. That’s writing to help understand. You are your own audience. From that emerges clearer questions for your collaborators and sources.

And from there, writing can and should get a lot more social and collaborative – it’s a team effort. The reason we create content is that we want to answer people’s questions and help them make informed buying decisions. A good ghostwriter should ask for clarification, seek out experts, and help clients share their expertise and stories with the world. 

So I say, long live the glorious rough draft!

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