I sometimes write 30 drafts.

David Sedaris

I was a lifeguard my first summer of college.

One day a girl at the pool gave me a book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. She said it made her snort laughing.

We are 30 times more likely to talk to ourselves than laugh out loud alone, so that is quite a review.

I read it, and sure enough, I laughed.

Fast forward to quarantine in 2020. I subscribed to Masterclass and saw that the same author, David Sedaris, taught a class on storytelling and writing, so I checked it out.

He said the things you would expect from good writers. You must read a lot. Great writers write every day. And so on.

Then, I heard something I have probably heard before, but never in a believable way that clicked.

He said, “I sometimes write 30 drafts.”

What!? Thirty drafts.

Now, is that thirty full re-writes? Possibly. In most cases, the basic ideas are there early and it is more reordering, going deeper, slowing down here, speeding up there.

Normally, he writes 12-18 drafts before showing it to an editor.

I could be terrible at anything, but the 18th something is going to be better than the first, and if I care enough to do it that many times, then I am going to improve.

That single sentence I sometimes write 30 drafts has influenced my behavior in a meaningful way over the past three years.

Show Me

Sedaris doesn’t just tell us what we should do. He shows us, by walking us through his 2018 essay, Active Shooter, published in the New Yorker.

This is one of the most brilliant passages I have ever read.

He infuses humor into a sad situation, while delivering profound insights into human nature.

Listening to him read it in his unmistakable voice is priceless.

Draft 13 of Active Shooter by David Sedaris (The New Yorker, 7/2/2018)

“Lisa rolled her window down halfway….I rolled my window down all the way.”

The way he one-ups her, physically and conversationally, all with surprisingly good and wise intentions.

It’s genius.

Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it.

Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius.

It is the fruit of labor and thought.

Alexander Hamilton

So, forget writing. In your vocation, do you do it eighteen times if necessary before finishing it? Thirty?

If you are willing to redo something thirty times and stick with it for decades, you are inevitably going to become a genius.

Sedaris wrote every day for 15 years before his first book was published.

You are not going to rewrite every email 18 times. You are not going to rebuild an IKEA nightstand 18 times.

The obvious downside to this is the time cost. There has to be a value judgment on what you are working on.

There are a million ways to think about this, but one way is by asking:

  • Who is my audience?
  • How long could this last?

As a writer, Sedaris’s audience is theoretically everyone and his work could last forever if preserved properly.

If you make burgers at Shake Shack, your audience is your customer and boss. If you remake a burger 12-18 times for one customer, you are going to be looking for a new job.

Now, the creator of the original Shake Shack burger probably did more than 30 drafts. The audience is again everyone and the business could last forever if the burgers are good enough.

Anything that can last is worth spending the time to do this.

Amateurs do it until they get it right. Professionals do it until they can’t get it wrong.

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