I’m the only copywriter in a small, busy agency (15-20 folk) and will soon be looking for freelance help on projects that I’ll be working on as well. I’ve never briefed another writer before; I’m quite nervous about briefing someone more experienced than me, and even more so about feeding back on their work. How do I approach briefing another writer and giving them feedback?
Sam Palin, Senior Writer, Reed Words
Good question! I’ve seen this from both sides – as the freelancer, and the briefer. I dreaded giving feedback when I first had to, so I feel your pain.
The first thing to remember is, you’re definitely worrying about it more than they are. Freelance writers are used to taking the work as it comes, and not being precious about it. Their main concern is doing a job everyone’s happy with. The more experienced they are, the more thick-skinned they are likely to be.
But, if you’re like me, that won’t stop you squirming at the prospect of giving feedback.
So here’s the most important point: you know more than they do. Hopefully, you’ve prepared a thorough written brief which you’re planning to talk around – I’d definitely recommend putting the key points in writing. But even so, you know the client, and your agency’s style. They don’t. You aren’t saying ‘I don’t like this’; you’re saying ‘I don’t think this is quite right’. That distinction matters a lot.
And it’s not a failure of your brief, by the way: even the clearest brief is open to interpretation. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t need a writer.
So be kind – but remember that you’re in charge. Unless you’re directly contradicting something you’ve said before, most writers are open to feedback. They want you to like the end product. And they’d much rather that feedback was clear: try to avoid being so apologetic that they don’t know what needs changing. Again, writing out the key points is useful here. Good luck!
Caitlin Milne, Director, Kindlemix
I always try to brief a fellow copywriter as I like to be briefed myself. For bigger projects I pull together a 1-2 pager which covers all the info the client has given me, plus my interpretation or plans for the project. This takes time, but it’s worth it. For a smaller job I’ll just put as much info as possible in an email. If you have previous experience of the client and you know what they like/dislike, put that in the brief. If you have specific ideas for how the piece of writing could be approached, include them.
Be clear with the copywriter what your role in the work will be. There’s a difference between passing on a job to another copywriter, and commissioning them as part of a project you’re managing. In the latter you take on the role of managing editor, taking overall responsibility for the work, liaising with the client, giving guidance on direction, approach and tone. You’ll probably need to edit the work yourself before it goes to the client to ensure it’s in line with whatever else you’re producing.
When it comes to giving feedback I always try to be honest, positive and helpful. This might mean interpreting client feedback into something a bit more specific (providing a steer on how to address that slightly vague comment for example) or advising where it’s ok to push back on something. Think of it as a collaborative process where you refine the work together.
Sue Keogh, Director, Sookio
I think there are two important parts to this: clarifying the brief and giving the writers clear guidance from the beginning.
1. Getting the brief straight is always going to be a crucial factor in making a project a success, but it’s particularly important in situations where the writers may not be familiar with the client or have attended the same meetings. So you want to be careful not to assume any knowledge.
A briefing template can be useful to make sure nothing obvious gets missed out – like how the copy is going to be used, what the client’s goals are, or word length.
2. Giving guidance to the writer about what you actually want is equally important. By this I mean best practice examples and explaining why they’re so good. Say we’re talking about blog content, this would mean finding a quality post and highlighting the solid intro, explaining what makes that title particularly eye catching, and flagging up the sentence structure and tone of voice.
Having a structure in place will also be helpful when you come to give feedback. I often do it using the commenting tool in Word, always being fair and positive and explaining why I think the phrase could be developed in a certain way. It’s easy to go for the tracked changes approach, but the writer will only go through and click accept, accept, accept, without really seeing why things should be done differently.
Richard Owsley, MD, Writers Ltd
The main thing when preparing the brief is to think ahead a bit to when you might have to give them feedback. At that point, out there in the future, if they have met your brief, there is no feedback you can give them other than ‘well done’. Even if the copy is not right for the client.
So, the only way for the copy to be right is for the brief to be right, and for the copywriter to meet that brief. Apart from all the factual information they need, you’ll need to make sure your fellow copywriter is absolutely certain of the tone and style your client is looking for – and any other particular foibles this client may have. Also that you both agree exactly what the proposition (key message) is, the primary audience, and what the client is trying to achieve with the piece. Then if the work comes back and it’s not right, you can point out where it falls short of the brief.
If it comes back and it’s sort of OK, but can be improved with little tweaks and edits here and there, no writer should really mind that, as long as they are genuine improvements. Everyone’s work can be improved by passing it to another writer for a sense check or sub-edit. As you’re the junior writer in the relationship, then just be diplomatic, and say they are suggestions. If you’ve made it worse, a senior writer will be happy to explain why your suggestions don’t work.
The freelancer’s perspective
Tom Albrighton, ABC Copywriting
You can’t give too much information, but you can give it in the wrong way. Personally I find colossal briefing documents daunting and, when it comes down to it, not always that useful. Sit down with your freelance (or phone them) and talk through the purpose of the project, the audience, what you want them to think, feel or react and the elements of the copy as you see them.
If they have more experience, don’t be afraid to ask them what they think. They’ll appreciate the respect and they’ll understand that it’s still your call. There’s nothing more frustrating for a freelance than having someone impose a particular approach on a project just to stamp their authority or conquer their insecurity. It’s depressing being made to try things that you know, from long experience, simply won’t work.
Don’t hide behind the client (or an in-house suit) if it’s actually you who wants to change something in the copy. If you’re going to build a relationship, your writer needs to understand how you work, and what sort of thing you need from them.
Finally, when giving feedback, say what’s right before you say what’s wrong. Freelancers are often completely in the dark about how well they’ve done, plus they write and edit their copy completely in isolation. A little bit of love goes a long way.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this question – leave a comment to add your own advice.
If you’ve got a question that you’d like to ask other copywriters, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange an appointment in our Copywriting Clinic.