By Tim Hayes

On an episode of the old “Mary Tyler Moore” show, Mary and Rhoda stay up all night writing pre-emptive obituaries for use on the air when notable people would pass away.  The last one they write – while in a state of exhaustion and silliness – is for “Wee Willie Williams,” at 110 years of age, the oldest living citizen in Minneapolis, where the show was set.

It’s four in the morning by this time, and Mary and Rhoda start making up crazy facts about Wee Willie.  Things like, “His favorite hobbies were traveling, gardening, and breathing,” and “There were other citizens of Minneapolis who were older, but they happened to be dead,” and “His favorite game was ignoring people and staring into space, but the good news is he can play it even better now because he doesn’t have to worry about blinking.”

The next day Wee Willie actually does die, and to Mary’s horror, pompous anchorman Ted Baxter takes the obituary from Mary’s desk when she’s not there and reads it verbatim live during the newscast.  Even the dim-witted Ted knows this was a major faux pas, and strides into the newsroom, chiding Mary with, “What’s Wee Willie’s Mom gonna say?”

Poor Mary had fallen victim to the scourge of copywriters everywhere: Draft Drift.  The challenge of maintaining a consistently clean document through innumerable reviews by multiple individuals.

I’ve been on the tough end of this phenomenon scads of times over the years, and it never gets easier.  You can start to get a whiff of Draft Drift as the inflexible release date for a document approaches, and more people feel compelled to “help fix” it.  Knowing that responsibility for the final product will fall on you makes minimizing Draft Drift even more imperative.  A misspelled word, an incorrect statement, or the appearance of language removed during the review process that somehow survived until the final draft – all mean embarrassment, recriminations, and buckets of hot water that nobody welcomes.

Many years ago, I wrote a news release about my company, an electric utility, sending linemen and equipment to a sister utility that had suffered considerable damage due to severe weather.  All my facts were straight, there were solid quotes from the appropriate managers.  Just one little thing I missed, though.

The utility receiving our assistance was Niagara Mohawk.  In the news release, however, I had erroneously renamed it Niagra Mohawk.  Now that may not sound like such a bad thing to you, but to me, my bosses, their bosses, and their bosses, it sure was.  And appropriately so.  We fixed the release, retracted what had been sent out, and resent it with the proper spelling.  My next stop?  The woodshed.

Draft Drift can rear its ugly head in more complicated and serious situations, as well.  When writing sizeable documents like annual reports, sustainability reports, white papers, or large websites with multiple pages, many more cooks crowd into the copywriting kitchen.  Certain segments of the project will get reviewed by two, five, eight people, each suggesting revisions (some that even contradict each other) that must be distilled and synthesized by the writer to achieve consensus while maintaining the integrity and consistency of the intended message.

Keeping track of the master file during these whirlwinds may be a challenge, but it’s unavoidable.  Your reputation, your professional standing, even your job could be on the line.  She may have been able to “turn the world on with her smile,” but after Mary’s screw-up with Wee Willie’s obituary, her boss, Mr. Grant, had to let her go.  “You can take any liberty you want in any other area.  You can kid around all you want. But the news is sacred,” he told her.

So is the integrity of your employer’s or your client’s written documents.  Mark each version with a date and time code as part of the actual file name.  Make clear to the people reviewing files where revisions should be sent, and insist that they use Track Changes when they do their markup.  Print out every set of revisions and mark who provided them.  Maintain the master file and denote it as such. Remove as many variables as possible, so as to never fall victim to Draft Drift.

And never try to write anything important in the middle of the night with Rhoda.  She’s trouble.

Copyright 2012 Tim Hayes Consulting