Knowing when to walk away

Early in my career, I wrote short articles for a website called Some of these articles are still live, such as this groundbreaking piece of work.

Premium content. 

Premium content. 

The fine people at eHow paid me $20 per article. I'd find an article in their list of 300,000+ article titles, write the article, press submit, and it would go to an editor who was paid $5 to edit my article. 

The editor would either approve the article, at which point it would be published and I’d be paid, or he or she would send me feedback. If that happened, I had one chance to get the article up to scratch. If the editor still wasn't happy, the article would be rejected, and I'd get nothing. 

I could also let the article expire if I didn't want to make the edits. The article would disappear, the title would go back into the list for someone else to claim, and I would face no penalty - aside from not getting paid. 

You can see the problem here. $20 an article isn’t much, so I really needed to write at least 2 articles an hour. Even with no edits at all, this is barely possible, especially because every article needed at least 2 sources.

So when edits came back from a piece I’d spent thirty minutes on, there were three things that could happen:

  • The edits were superficial, and could be done in 30 seconds. 
  • The edits were substantial, and would take at least 15 minutes. 
  • The edits were so significant that the entire thing needed to be rewritten. 

This is where I learned how to walk away.

Thanks for the tip, big guy. 

Thanks for the tip, big guy. 

Cutting losses

In the first situation, it was always worth doing the edits -  30 seconds of cleaning up some typos (while wondering why the editor couldn’t have just done it), and $20 would be on its way. Easy.  In the last situation, it was never worth it. The best-case scenario was that I spend another 30 minutes, probably more, rewriting the entire article, and I'd make $10 an hour - less than minimum wage.

Even in these scenarios, the editor could reject my rewrite, which would put me in a position where I'd spent an hour or more on an article that paid me exactly 0 dollars and 0 cents. 

It’s the middle scenario that made me agonise - at least for the first few months. If something needed another 15 minutes of work, it was hard to justify throwing it away. After all, $20 is better than nothing, and $20 in 45 minutes was more than minimum wage at the time. But as I went through this process again and again, I got more ruthless. If anything came back with edits beyond crossed t’s and dotted i’s, I’d discard it and move on. It just wasn't worth putting any more time into each article. 

The impact on my hourly rate alone was pretty significant - an extra 15 minutes dropped my targeted hourly rate of $40/hr to $26/hr. That's pretty significant! What's more, this was the dreaded second round of edits. If the editor still wasn't happy, that was it. No third chance - just a flat rejection. 

This meant that even if I managed to appease the editors on my rewrites to 5 articles in a row, if the 6th one got rejected, my hourly rate plummeted even further. 

With all this in mind, I was better off walking away and choosing a fresh article from the pile, where the clock was starting at 0 and I still had 2 shots at getting it right. 

Back to you

This is something I tell clients all the time - know when to walk away. When you’re producing content, whether it’s a blog, email marketing campaign, or something else, there are times that it just won’t work. You may have had an idea when you started, but once you finished a draft, you realised it wasn't quite doing the job you had in mind when you first thought of it. 

This is where you have to weigh up your priorities. Say it’s a blogpost. Is one single blogpost worth three, five, ten rewrites? Probably not. If something just isn’t working, don’t be afraid to kill it and move on. It’s painful, especially if you’re the person who wrote it, but in the scheme of things, your time is better spent writing two things that get published quickly, rather than one thing that languishes in edits for months. 

Of course, your walk-away point will become further and further away, the more valuable the project is. If eHow had been paying me $300 an article, then of course I would have worked through their editing process. I also would have spent more than 30 minutes on each article. 

For your purposes, if you’re working on a multi-million dollar ad campaign, then you’re obviously going to want to spend a lot of time getting it right, whereas a single blogpost may be worth abandoning early on. 

But there is always going to be a point on a project where the time you’ve spent on it is no longer worth the benefit you’ll get from publishing it. Once you reach this point, don’t be afraid to walk away. It never feels great, but your overall content strategy will be better for it. 

Image credit: Badgreeb Records via Flickr