How to brief your copywriter

Frustrated with copywriterEvery now and then we get a particular type of enquiry from a prospective client. It goes something like this …

*PHONE RINGS*

WMS: “Hello, Write My Site, how can we help you?”

Caller: “Hello! I urgently need you to write some copy for me. I hired another copywriter and they completely messed up!”

WMS: “Sorry to hear that. What went wrong exactly?”

Caller: “They just didn’t GET us – the copy they wrote sounded nothing like our company.”

WMS: “OK – can you send us the brief you sent the other copywriter, and we’ll take a look.”

Caller: “Ah … well, there isn’t really a ‘brief’ as such …”

And therein lies the problem. Without a brief, how can a copywriter possibly hope to capture the spirit of their client’s business?

The briefing process: Client or copywriter?

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the onus to create a brief shouldn’t rest entirely on the client. Any professional copywriter worth their salt will refuse to begin work until they are clear about the requirements, and they will ask questions to fill in any gaps.

Most small business clients do not possess reams of corporate-style branding guidelines, copybooks and style guidelines, and therefore the copywriter and the client need to work together to set the parameters for the work.

The perfect copywriting brief

These are the areas a copywriting brief should cover:

Full breakdown of work

Yes, you want ‘copy for your new website’ but how many pages, and roughly how much content on each page? Copywriting agreements can quickly turn sour if you ask your copywriter to quote for 5 pages, and you later reveal that each of those pages has a further 5 sub-pages, each requiring 500 words of text!

Tip: Produce a simple ‘wireframe’ detailing the layout of your site, then go through it page-by-page with your copywriter, making sure to note which pages need content, and how much.

Key messages

Explaining what you do is easy: you’re an accountant, a lawyer, an IT services company. The trouble is, so are thousands of other companies, many of whom will offer the exact same set of services as you. Your key messages are absolutely crucial because they help your copywriter differentiate you from the competition.

Tip: ‘Unparalleled levels of customer service’ won’t cut it. Every company makes this claim. If you really do offer amazing service, give your copywriter something specific to work with.

Tone of voice

This is probably the most challenging part of the brief, both for the client who has to explain the tone of voice they are looking for, and for the copywriter who has to capture it and bring it to life.

Tip: Getting tone of voice right often involves a bit of trial and error. Before you give the green light to produce the first draft, consider asking your copywriter to draft a few samples, where they re-write a couple of paragraphs in different tones of voice. This can often help pinpoint the required tone of voice.

No-go areas

There may well be certain topics, terminology, formats or styles that you simply do not want. That’s absolutely your prerogative but don’t expect your copywriter just to ‘know’ that you don’t want any of these things, even if they seem obvious. You need to communicate what is not required just as clearly as what is required.

Tip: A simple bullet-point list of ‘Things to Avoid’ should do the trick!

Competitive landscape

Chances are, you have thousands of competitors, but try to cherry-pick a few of them to show your copywriter. It’s always helpful for them to be able to put your business into its competitive context. Even better, if there are particular things you like or dislike about your competitors’ websites, this can be really helpful for your copywriter.

Tip: ‘I want something just like this’ is not a brief; it’s a cop-out.

Supporting materials

A copywriter should be utterly unfamiliar with the concept of ‘too much information’. The more supporting material you can supply alongside the brief, the better. Even if you think it’s not very well written, your existing marketing material gives your copywriter valuable insight into the way you present your business to the world, so don’t be shy about sharing it with them.

Tip: Don’t forget your offline literature. Fill a folder with your brochures, flyers, newsletters, press releases, and print ads, and hand it to your copywriter when you meet with them.

Happy copywriter; happy client

Ultimately, a successful copywriting project is about good communication. A professional copywriter should, by definition, be pretty good at communicating – at least in writing! – but clear verbal communication between both parties is needed at the briefing stage.

Almost without exception, copywriting projects that go wrong do so because the wires between copywriter and client have been crossed from the outset. Both sides need to sit down and thrash out the details of the project. It may take an hour or two, but that’s preferable to the days or even weeks that can be lost when a copywriting project goes wrong.