Set your clients expectations before you give them the first draft
If you’re a writer, you know rough drafts are just that: rough. They’re not meant to be polished and perfect. They’re going to have mistakes. But your clients most likely aren’t writers, and they’re not going to know that. And when you hand them one thing and they’re expecting another, it has the potential to cause a problem.
It’s our job as the professional guiding the process to set the stage. We don’t want the client thinking the rough draft is the final book, minus the official cover.
I’m going to talk about the specific steps I take to manage clients’ expectations, but first I want to talk about the kinds of mistakes we have in those early drafts:
Mistakes in the writing
There are mistakes in things like punctuation and grammar, transitions, even chunks of material that may need to be shifted to a different section. And that’s all okay, because now is not the time to be delivering a smooth, tightly-written draft. Editing happens later in the process, after the draft is written to completion.
For one thing, if you’re still doing interviews, you’ll be getting new information about a subject or time period you’ve already covered in the draft. Nobody tells their story during the interviews in a completely chronological fashion—and that’s why they’re hiring us, to put the bits where they belong, so they don’t have to worry about how they’re telling the story, they can just go along with the flow of it. It doesn’t have to come out in any given order.
But when you’re on interview five and they go more in depth into a story that they told you back in interview two, you’re going to go back and work that into the draft. If the writing is already tight and smooth and flawless, then it’s going to take you that much more time to sort of disassemble it, work the new material in, then polish it up again, with the proper transitions etc. So in the end, you’ll spend time un-doing and re-doing the work that you shouldn’t have done yet in the first place.
These are the mistakes that will probably bother us as writers the most. But unless your client is a retired English teacher, they’re not going to be paying nearly as much attention to the prose as they are the content.
Mistakes in the content
This brings me to the second big category: mistakes in names, places, dates, details of their life story. They know things that you’re just getting acquainted with, so you don’t have the “reading glasses” so to speak, to see them. You can create all the timelines and place lines and gather all the data in a super organized system, but mistakes will still crop up.
Now, sometimes that’s because we misread something, or just got confused about something, but sometimes it’s because the storyteller has contradicted themself , or you find something in a source document that contradicts what they’ve said. I’m working with a client right now who didn’t find some new materials written by older members of his family until well into the process, and there was a bunch of stuff he told me that turns out to be flat out wrong. I never picked up that he was just speculating when he was talking about the earlier generations and he never told me he was doing it. And it’s all okay now, because he was ecstatic to find these memoirs written by the people about their own experiences.
So mistakes will happen. And that’s perfectly acceptable—as long as you prepare your storyteller.
How do you set the storyteller’s expectations?
Talk to them.
For all mistakes that originate with the client, it’s really important to let them know that it’s natural and it happens to everyone. The one thing we want to avoid like the plague is to have them start self-censoring. We don’t want them getting hung up on whether their grandma was born in 1903 or 1906—those things can be verified, or just left out.
And if they contradict themselves, even if the draft comes back and they tell us we got something wrong, well, the customer is always right. We make the correction and move on.
Setting a storyteller’s expectations
1) Start with a conversation
Have a conversation BEFORE you hand them the draft. Tell them clearly and directly that they should expect mistakes, and talk about the two categories of mistakes.
Make sure they know that editing for things like grammar and punctuation doesn’t make sense until the end, AFTER all of the material is included.
Tell them there will be mistakes in names, places, dates and details, because they know their story better than you do; and part of their OBJECTIVE in reading the draft is to make those corrections to it, right there on the paper.
The draft is also their chance to see if they want to go back to a story that’s already been written up and expand on it, or see where there’s holes, things they haven’t yet talked about but want to
2) Include it on the draft!
We’ve talked about the importance of redundancy before—well, here’s another place that I use it.
- For each draft I give to a client, I have a cover sheet with the client’s name, the date of the draft, my logo and contact info, etc and also the words “DRAFT-IN-PROGRESS”
- On the next page, right there in the draft itself, I include a note with some boilerplate text about how they should expect to see mistakes, what kind, and what to do about them—taking pen to paper, dog-earing so I don’t miss any (they never remember to do that!), etc.
- I include it in the running header. I say something like “Working draft—uncorrected.” It’s like a watermark, not only as a reminder to the storyteller, but also for any family member who make pick up the early draft. Because I may not have had the opportunity to have a conversation with them to manage THEIR expectations, and I don’t want them thinking, “What is this? It’s full of mistakes!”
- Last thing: if there is contradictory info in the interviews, I use an inline annotation set off with square brackets and put in a different color text (taking into account my client’s eyesight; colors are sometimes harder to see than black on white).
- early drafts will have mistakes, in the writing and in the content
- it’s your job to set your client’s expectations about what they’ll see in a draft
- do it early and do it often—have a conversation with them, and have it in writing on the draft itself
Want a checklist cheatsheet to remind you of the steps to take before giving a client an early draft?
I hope this has helped. If you have any questions or better yet, if you have a different way of dealing with this, share them in the comments.
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Thanks for listening. Now go out and save someone’s story.