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How Many Rewrites Should a Document Require?

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The short answer: your organization should rewrite its documents as many times as needed to produce successful output.

But this short answer belies a lot of complexity. How do you know when the output is “successful,” for example? How do you know if your rewriting processes are working well (keeping rewrites to a minimum) or if problems in the rewriting process itself are preventing successful output?

The goal is to produce a document that will achieve the desired objectives, with as few drafts as possible. Some rewriting is necessary, certainly, but there’s a sweet spot here. Too few rewrites, and the text will be raw and unpolished; too many, and you’re wasting time tinkering without improving.

So, what’s the perfect number? There are a few ways to approach this question.

1: Formalize the Rewriting Process

One strategy is to “proceduralize” rewriting and define a set number of rewrites, that fit into a standardized review, revision, and rewriting procedure. Ideally, each rewrite will focus on a specific aspect of the document, instead of just wholesale rewriting the entire document over and over.

For example, we’ve previously described four different types of editing:

  • Developmental
  • Mechanical
  • Line Editing
  • Copyediting

Each represents a layer of the rewriting process, working down from big-picture elements (developmental) to proofreading for spelling and grammar errors (copyediting). Your organization might plan on four rewrites, one for each type of editing.

Alternatively, you might follow the protocol described by author Dorothy Parker in her book, The Art of Fiction (an approach that works for nonfiction too): “I would write a book or a short story, at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

Ultimately, how you proceduralize the rewriting process will be unique to your organization, based on the types of content you produce, your goals for the content, and the resources available to you. Something like a communication audit or strategy consultation can help you determine the right number and type of rewrites.

2: Rewrite According to the Number of Reviewers

Another option is to give one rewrite each to a set number of reviewers, especially if each reviewer brings a unique focus and skillset to their rewrite. One reviewer, for example, might focus on subject matter accuracy. If it’s a piece of technical writing, the subject matter expert can review for technical correctness. A second review and rewrite might then focus on clarity and readability, ensuring sure the intended reader will be able to understand the technical material.  This collective approach allows for a multilayered refinement of the writing, where each layer of review adds depth and polish to the final product.

Beware of the “too many cooks” problem, however. This is why we suggest giving each reviewer a different focus, as this avoids one reviewer stepping on another’s toes and avoids unnecessarily repeated (wasted) work.

3: The Optimal Stopping Problem in Rewriting

The concept of the optimal stopping problem, a principle from the world of mathematics and decision theory, offers another possible framework for determining the ideal number of rewrites. More common to questions like “How many job interviews should we conduct before making a hiring decision?” (known as the Secretary Problem), this principle can apply to the ideal number of rewrites too.

We’ll spare you the math behind the answer, but in general, this theory suggests that you should stop at the first rewrite that is superior to the first 37% of attempts. For instance, if you have five days before a deadline, and you can afford to rewrite once per day, you can potentially rewrite a document five times. Mathematically, you should plan to rewrite at least twice (~ 37% of five). Following these initial rewrites, you should stop at the first subsequent rewrite that you judge to be better than either of the first two.

First Draft First Rewrite Second Rewrite Third Rewrite Fourth Rewrite
  Initial Bypass Phase
Use these rewrites to improve, experiment, and explore. If you have the time and resources to conduct five rewrites, you should plan to accept the best revision after the first two, according to optimal stopping problem theory.
 If the output of this rewrite is NOT superior to either of the first two rewrites, rewrite again. If the output of this rewrite IS superior to the first three rewrites, stop here. (If not, rewrite one more time).

The optimal stopping approach balances the need for improvement with the practical constraints of time and diminishing returns of ongoing rewrites.

4: Minimize Rewrites by Improving Initial Output

It’s worth mentioning that sometimes a given work requires an unnecessary and inefficient number of rewrites simply because the author(s) and/or reviewer(s) aren’t skilled at the task. As a result, their first draft leaves something to be desired. The reviewers themselves then struggle with their own task; reviewing and rewriting, after all, include skillsets separate from drafting the initial work. The result is more rewrites than necessary.

So, one of the best ways to minimize the number of rewrites is to develop writing and reviewing skills to a higher level. More skilled writers will work faster and produce higher quality output from the start. Just make sure you focus on building writing skills geared toward the exact type of writing your team does (for example, taking an academic writing course will be beneficial only  if your team does academic writing).

To get more in-depth guidance in handling revisions and rewrites at your organization—and/or to get help addressing other problems unique to your situation and needs—contact Hurley Write for a custom, no-obligation consultation or contact us for more information about our customized “Better Reviewing Techniques” workshop. 

How Many Rewrites Should a Document Require?

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Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483
Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483

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