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November 8, 2012When only the best will do…

Yesterday I signed off on the most demanding job I’ve done for some time. It wasn’t creatively difficult. And I can’t say there were time constraints, either. I’d spent six weeks writing four thousand words.

So what made the job difficult? Well, I was working for a particularly demanding client.

Hold it right there. I know what you’re thinking. This is going to be another one of those rants about how mean clients make this job difficult, right? Wrong.

I was working with a client who knew exactly what they wanted, and they wanted the best. It’s hard to fault anyone for wanting that.

Fact #1. Most copy is sloppy.

It may take a week to draft a 4000 word document that’s 90% there. So we take a week. But it may take another week, or even two weeks, to make that document 100% perfect. Most clients don’t have the appetite to pay for that extra work (happily, mine did) and most copywriters are bored by it.

Most clients would rather pay £1000 for something they’re 90% happy with than £2000 for something they’re 99% happy with. Why work on another four redrafts when the first four already get a passing grade of nine out of ten?

In an age of nearly limitless web content where pages and pages must be churned out every day on finite budgets, most copywriters have gotten used to lower standards. We check spelling and grammar, but we don’t check to see whether a clause calls for “which” or “that”, for example. Nor do we agonise over whether the audience would prefer a hard “z” or a soft “s” in a given word. Is the word “job” right in this context? Or should I use the word “work”?

Often, we don’t even redraft — and errors, no matter how small, seep through.

Is perfection a waste of time?

In ‘the Four Hour Work Week’, Tim Ferriss identified the “80/20” principle discovered by Pareto as being alive and well in the modern workplace. Pareto’s principle stated

“For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”

Translated, that means that 80% of your income usually comes from 20% of your customer base. Or 80% of your productive work comes from about 20% of your working time.

Ferriss suggests leveraging that principle in the workplace — concentrate on the 20% of your most profitable clients and lose the headaches who are causing you trouble but generating little income. Go email only and check your emails once a day. Avoid pointless busywork.

Is good enough really good enough?

Most importantly, the 80/20 principle states to me that if you spend a day making something 80% brilliant, why spend another 4 days – x4 your initial investment – working on that extra 20%.

My book, Think Like a Copywriter, is an example of the 80/20 principle in action. I promised myself that I would finish the book within a month. At the end of the month I had a second draft that was more or less 90% what I wanted it to say.

I might have spent another month — or even two months — turning down thousands of pounds worth of work in the process — turning that 90% into 100%.

I sent it out after a month. The book was still a success.

So if 80% or 90% is good enough, what’s the point of going that extra mile?

You might think it pedantic, but in an age where more or less everything is 80% or 90% good, those things that really are 100% truly stand out.

The client I was working for this week demanded the very best, were willing to pay for the very best, and they got it. Their copy shines in a way that copy rarely does.

Dustin Curtis has posted recently about how important it is to have the best of everything and part of me is inclined to agree with him.

Perhaps the 80/20 principle needs to be revsited — eight times out of ten, good enough is good enough. But sometimes you need to go that extra mile.

I thoroughly enjoyed producing a draft of copy that was 100% perfect, even though it took three times as long as writing a draft that’s only 80%. It reminded me of some obscure grammatical rules and forced me to revisit my thesaurus for the first time in months. Best of all, the copy truly stands out.

Before you sign off on a project, ask yourself if it’s really good enough.
You might be surprised at how refreshing it can be to go that extra mile.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, November 8th, 2012 at 12:05 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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