No More “Version 10”: Three Root Causes for Being Caught in Endless Revisions

underground river in a dark stone cave, unknownI recently got into a conversation with a very sharp freelance video/radio producer and we commiserated about a dreaded client scenario: Endless revisions of document text. You thought you had clear understanding with the client about the concept, yet all of a sudden, you find yourself quibbling about word choice and stuffing in extra ideas while the version notation in the file name creeps up to v9, v10…and on and on.*

“Version one is the only time you should be working on concept- or strategy-level changes. This should be the only labor-intensive round of review. By version two, you’re making a few changes for style, flow or length. By version three, you should be proofreading for typos. That’s it,” he averred. I clinked his pint glass in affirmation.

Let’s take this out of the realm of vendor whining and talk about what this endless markup process means for clients. Why is this happening? What is it costing you? And how can you avoid it so you can spend more time doing what you’re good at and less time fussing with verbiage?

First of all, this is not to dismiss the client who is fully engaged, cares about quality and wants the project to be a success. We marketing vendors cherish you. But when you’re stuck on the endless iteration treadmill, there are usually three underlying reasons. Being conscious of them will save you time and help you do more (and better) work with your vendor or colleague:

You were never clear or confident about what you wanted to say in the first place.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to rush through foundational strategy (creative briefs, abstracts, positioning statements) and run right into the “Yeah, yeah, just show me the copy” mindset. Because if clarity is missing at the strategy level, your output is going to be off, too.

Of course your writer is serving you poorly if they don’t do their part in clarifying the strategic purpose of the project, reflecting previous conversations back into an easy-to-understand distillation of the theme.

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But if they’ve done that and you both feel like you’re spinning your wheels on version five, consider a halt to marking stuff up, call “time out” and do a strategy-level check. In the course of crafting the first version, you may have uncovered flaws or gaps in your thesis. Maybe you’re even writing about the wrong thing! Huddle with your writer and fix it at the DNA level now. Because running off endless iterations of a mushy premise will only magnify flaws and waste a bunch of time.

This requires an honest bit of self-reflection; are you the type of person who has the nagging feeling that you haven’t done your job unless you leave a bunch of tracked changes on a document? Here are a few tips for avoiding this pitfall:

  • Those new ideas you keep adding are probably ideas for subsequent pieces of content. I find it’s quite common to get buy-in on a concept or abstract then find that my valued client jams in all kinds of other stuff that doesn’t necessarily improve the content.I like to propose that these are good ideas that should be flagged for future efforts. It’s not uncommon for “scope creep” to set in as a client wants to say as much as possible about their offering. But the analogy I use to help them around this tendency is this: You’re spending a day at the gym in hopes that the repetition over time yields results over weeks and months, not lining up the one shot that blows up the Death Star. If your document is on strategy and doesn’t have any typos, approve it and get on to the next thing.
  • My Fusion Marketing Partners colleague, Christopher Ryan, had an excellent alternate take on this: The opportunity cost involved in wasting too much time trying to perfect something. We realize that you care about doing the best job, but let’s be realistic: Unless you’re a heavyweight analyst about to shake up a niche market with your latest research, the world is not trembling in anticipation of your next white paper or video.All the time you spend inserting extra ideas and second-guessing word choices on the 10th iteration is that much less time you can spend growing your footprint with more content. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
  • You’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen. This is a basic process management issue: If a piece of content needs the input of an internal subject matter expert that’s not you, get them to weigh in on an early version, let your writer incorporate their input and jump in at the end to make sure there are no major liabilities. Figure out who the go/no-go person is and give them authority to approve without circulating it among six people each time. You’ll never, ever finish the thing — or if you do, you’ll have a bloated, “designed by committee” piece that nobody wants to read.Not everybody needs to be included for each point in the approval/input chain. Map out a maximum of two people (besides the writer) who are on the editing/approval team, and stick to it.

If you have clarity on your topic and you haven’t made sloppy mistakes in fleshing it out, chances are you’re already done! Take the time you would have spent fiddling with versions four and beyond and start digging in on your next piece — or doing something else in your wheelhouse that moves your business forward.

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