Freelance writing: The Brief

Getting the brief right may be the most important step in the writer for hire process

Writer for hire assignments arrive in several ways and many forms. The freelancer’s dream is that the client knows precisely what s/he wants and has set it out in a clearly understandable set of instructions – The Brief. That happens, in my experience, in perhaps one case in thirty. More usual is one of the following:

  • the client knows exactly what s/he wants but describes it in a single sentence, or even a phrase, and is then disappointed by the first draft;
  • the client does not know what is wanted but thinks that the writer will intuit the idea;
  • the client has a good idea of what s/he wants but is not able to formulate it precisely until the writer sends a draft brief, asking for it to be either confirmed or amended as needed.

I am now reluctant to accept an assignment as writer for hire until a document exists which has been the subject of debate with the client and on which both writer and client are agreed. That document is The Brief and should form part of the contract. I reached this point after a number of experiences – not a lot, but one would be too many – where I delivered something and the client said, ‘It’s very good but it isn’t what we wanted.’ I accepted that that was my fault because I’m the professional and it’s up to me to make sure that what appeared to be a meeting of minds really was that.

What the client wants, the client should get. The client is the boss. No one can possibly dispute that. The writer, however, may have to take a hand in helping to define exactly what it is that the client wants.

What should go into a brief? Well, the first and most obvious thing (and this should come at the beginning) is a description of exactly what it is that the writer is to write. What is the subject matter to be? How many words does the client want?

Next should be anything that has been agreed on, for example: the tone of the piece; any external documents that need to be referred to; anything that should not be included; the system to be used for references and/or citations, if these are to be included – it can be a long list and the client needs to understand that, if something isn’t in the brief, there can be no complaints when it isn’t in the finished work, either.

Then deal with timing. Freelance writers need to make a fetish of deadlines – deadlines must be met. Here’s an example taken from a draft brief I submitted this morning for the client to amend or approve: A first draft of the paper shall be submitted to the client within not more than four (4) hours from receipt in the writer’s bank account of 50% of the total sum contracted for. Hours for this purpose are defined as those hours falling between 08:00 and 18:00 UK time on all seven days of the week. This provision will also be included in the contract but I find it useful to have it in the brief because, in cases where there are both creative and administrative people on the client’s side, the creative person will probably only read the brief. Including this sort of provision means that I won’t have irate calls demanding to know where my material is when I haven’t had the agreed first payment.

After that, if this is a draft brief prepared by the writer and not by the client, any outstanding questions from the client’s original contract should be addressed.

Finally, these words or words very like them should appear at the end of the draft: Please advise any changes you wish to see in this draft brief, as the brief will act as the definition of the work the writer is required to do under the contract.

The brief is an example of that rule we are all familiar with – that any project that has been thoroughly prepared will run better than one that has not.

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