Briefing is the most important stage of any freelance writing job. If a project goes wrong or a client is not happy, more often than not, the problem can be traced back to the brief. Spending a bit of time upfront getting the brief right can save you hours of rewriting, and reduce the risk you’ll have unhappy clients and negative feedback.
The purpose of the brief
The brief is a simple set of questions that you ask the client before starting a new project. As well as giving you the instructions for what to write (and how to write it), the brief is an agreed upon point of reference in the event of a dispute or if the client is not happy with the end result. Ask the right questions and you’ll have a much better chance of nailing it first time and avoiding endless rewrites and frustration on both sides.
So how much should you ask? A good brief is not too long, while still covering everything you need to know to complete the job to your client’s specifications.
Before you get in depth it’s a good idea to cover off the basics, like:
- Type of content (webpage, blog, social post etc)
- Number of pages
- Length of content (usually this is given as number of words)
- What the content is about.
Once you’ve got the basics covered, you’ll want to ask a few more in depth questions so you can really understand what the client is looking for in terms of style, tone and what they want the content to achieve.
Here are five questions you should always ask as part of the briefing process:
- Who is your target audience? This is the cardinal rule of copywriting. If you don’t know who you’re writing for, it’s next to impossible to write effectively.
- What’s your brand style? While not all clients will have an official style guide, they should at least be able to give you an idea of whether they’re generally formal, informal, fun, serious, relaxing etc.
- What’s your key messaging? What are the main points they want to get across in their content? They may want to address certain customer pain points or obstacles to buying, or perhaps they want to communicate a certain set of benefits for the reader.
- What’s the objective of the content? It’s always a good idea to find out what the client wants the piece of writing to achieve. Once you know the overall objective, it’s a lot easier to frame your copy so it gently guides the reader in that direction.
- Are there any SEO requirements? If the content is for a blog or website, the client may have SEO related instructions and keyword data for you. Or, they might be expecting you to undertake the keyword research – so it will pay you to clarify this before you quote, and to ensure any SEO instructions are included in the brief.
What if the client doesn’t want to fill out a brief?
All freelance writers at one time or another will come across a client who doesn’t want to fill out a brief. This might feel they’re pressed for time, or that they don’t really know what it is they want (early stage start-ups are frequent offenders!), or even that they ‘shouldn’t have to tell you how to do it’. They might suggest that you ‘just write something,’ or ‘see what you can come up with.’
Refusal to fill out a brief can be a big red flag. Writing without a brief will often result in the client suddenly (after you’ve completed the first draft) supplying a long list of specific things they wanted to include in the copy but didn’t think to mention. Stand firm and insist on a brief – if a client is really resistant to completing one, you might want to consider walking away.
That said, there are other reasons someone might be reluctant to fill out your brief. Some people have excellent verbal communication, but struggle to write. Often it’s because English isn’t their first language, and writing isn’t something they do on a daily basis. For these potential clients, it’s a great idea to offer an alternative method of providing their brief, such as speaking with them by phone, completing the brief for them, and having them review and approve it.
Asking the right questions at briefing stage is the key to success as a freelance copywriter. With a good brief you’ll have a much better chance of nailing every job, every time.