We’ve been taking a closer look at adapting sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein’s business rules for writing to your copywriting business. This is the third in a five-part series — you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
To refresh your memory, here are Heinlein’s five rules for being a successful writer:
- You must write.
- You must finish what you start.
- You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
- You must put it on the market.
- You must keep it on the market until sold.
In this post, we’ll explore his third rule. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
Rule #3: You Must Refrain from Rewriting Except to Editorial Order
When Robert Heinlein established his third rule, “You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order,” he addressed a common pitfall among fiction writers — the trap of endless rewrites.
It’s all too easy for writers to become paralyzed by perfectionism, continually tweaking and revising their work out of fear that it’s not quite right.
Endless revisions lead to procrastination, stalled progress, and abandoned projects. Heinlein recognized that moving forward was vital for a successful writing career, and he cautioned against becoming stuck in a cycle of rewrites without clear direction from an editor.
This principle holds insights for copywriters as well. Like novelists, copywriters may fall into the rewrite trap, especially when facing uncertainty about the content’s effectiveness or client expectations.
Of course, polishing and refining are part of the writing process. But there’s a line between making meaningful improvements and getting caught in an endless loop of minor tweaks that don’t add value.
Endless revisions can lead to delays, increased costs, and even a loss of the original spark that made the copy compelling in the first place.
Tips for Avoiding Unnecessary Rewrites
Heinlein’s rule doesn’t mean you should write without care or attention to detail. Instead, it should encourage you to develop a focused, deliberate approach to your process.
Here are 10 practical tips (with examples) to help you avoid needless rewrites.
1. Identify the Objective
Before you begin writing, identify the main objective of the copy. What is the primary message you want to convey? What result does the client want? Knowing the goal helps keep revisions focused and prevents you from straying off the path.
Example: Before writing a product description, you outline the main selling points and the specific benefits the client wants to emphasize. This gives you a clear objective that guides your writing and streamlines the revision process.
2. Know Your Audience
Understanding your audience’s preferences, pain points, and desires ensures your copy resonates with them. The more you connect with your readers, the less you’ll need to revise later.
Example: When writing an email campaign for a fitness brand, you research the target demographics and discover that the primary audience is millennials interested in home workouts. You tailor the language and content to resonate with this specific group.
3. Set a Revision Limit
Determine a sensible number of revisions before starting the project. A limit helps you maintain focus and encourages you to make significant changes rather than endless minor tweaks.
Example: You decide on a maximum of three significant revisions for a client’s landing page. This boundary keeps the project moving forward and helps you focus on the most impactful changes.
4. Use Feedback Wisely
Collect feedback from editors, clients, or peers and use it constructively. Make changes that align with the given feedback and avoid making unnecessary alterations that don’t serve the copy’s objective.
Example: After receiving client feedback on a blog post, you revise the call-to-action as requested without overhauling sections that were not flagged for changes.
5. Embrace “Good Enough”
Perfection is elusive. Knowing when to say, “It’s done,” is an essential skill for copywriters. Recognize the point when further revisions don’t add significant value.
Example: You write a social media post and make a few modifications. Though tempted to make additional tweaks, you recognize the post meets the objective and aligns with the brand voice, so you submit it.
6. Adapt to Editorial Changes
Stay flexible and adapt to editorial changes from clients or editors without over-complicating the revision process. Focus on the requested adjustments and avoid going down unnecessary rabbit holes.
Example: An editor requests a change in tone for a magazine article. You adapt the style without unnecessarily altering other aspects, ensuring the revision process remains focused and efficient.
7. Build Templates
A collection of tried-and-true templates can save you time and reduce the need for extensive revisions. Your templates can be a reliable starting point tailored to specific projects.
Example: You create email templates that align with different promotional strategies. These are starting points for various campaigns, reducing the need for extensive rewrites.
8. Emphasize Communication
Clear communication with clients or editors helps set expectations and reduces misunderstandings that can lead to unnecessary revisions.
Example: Before starting a website copy project, you hold a detailed discussion with the client to clarify expectations, target audience, brand voice, and goals and create a content or copy brief. A well-developed brief helps minimize future revisions.
9. Learn from Revisions
Treat each revision as a learning opportunity. Analyze what needs changing and apply those insights to future projects. Editors and clients love it when they only have to ask for something once.
Example: After revising a sales page, you note that the client consistently asks for more vivid language. You apply this insight to future projects, leading to fewer revisions down the line.
10. Balance Creativity and Efficiency
Maintain a balance between creative expression and efficient writing. Creativity is vital but shouldn’t lead to a never-ending cycle of rewrites.
Example: While writing a newsletter, you allow creative exploration in the first draft but set clear boundaries for revisions, so your creativity enhances the content without leading to a time-consuming rewrite cycle.
Self-Awareness In Editing
In the context of copywriting, the “editorial order” could come from an editor, or it could be feedback from the client for whom the copy is being written.
But Heinlein’s Rule #3 applies even when you’re writing for yourself. Whether it’s copy for your website, a blog post, or marketing materials, it’s important to recognize when to step back and say, “It’s done.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all revision process.
As you gain experience and learn your unique writing process, you’ll know when to put down the pen (or close the laptop) and move on to the next project.
My process is usually three rounds, which sounds like a lot, but it works best for me to focus on one piece of the editing puzzle at a time. If I try to do everything in one go, I miss things.
Round 1 of editing is about the flow. Does the content read well and make sense? Are things in the correct order?
Round 2 eliminates unnecessary words and tightens up the text.
In Round 3, I run the piece through Grammarly to see if there are any grammar issues I missed.
Final Thoughts on Rule #3
Now it’s your turn to implement these tips and take control of your revision process.
Whether you’re crafting content for clients or yourself, these insights can free you from the endless rewrite loop. Try them in your writing practice today.
Next time, we’ll explore Rule #4 — You must put it on the market.