Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sometimes I have to revise my copy five times before my client says it's right. What should I do? -- signed "Tired of Rewriting"

Dear Tired:

It's a sad fact: not all clients say what they mean or mean what they say. Part of your job as a freelance copywriter is to get the message straight---before you start writing. Most advertising agencies and design studios use an account planner to draft a “communications brief” (also called a "creative brief") at the start of any creative project. It’s an essential document that gets agency and client singing off the same sheet of music. But as a freelance copywriter, you probably don’t have an account planner. No problem, just ask your client the following six questions, the answers to which will make your life a lot  easier. 

Who are we talking to?
List the audiences and influencers for the project. Order them by importance. 

What do they believe about (Company/Product/Service) now?
Put down what the target audience thinks about your client’s company/product/service, e.g., “Target audience thinks that Company A only sells server software.”

What do we want them to believe?
Put down what you want the target audience to think about Company A after they read your copy, e.g., “Wow, I didn’t know that Company A offers a full range of software for desktops and networks.”

What is our key message?
The key message is the principal idea or claim your copy should deliver. Don’t confuse the key message with a tag line, positioning line, headline or theme. It is none of these. It is simply a one or two sentence statement that describes the focal point of the piece you are writing. Nail the key message correctly upfront and your copy will practically write itself. (Not really, but it will seem that way.)

The key message should sound believable. And interesting. The trick is to come up with a set of words that not only defines the uniqueness of your client’s company/product/service, but is also capable of supporting the creative concept you’ll develop.

Continuing the example from above, one possible key message might be: “Company A’s comprehensive software offering makes it easy for customers to find the tools they need to maximize their productivity and efficiency—regardless of the software platform they use.”  

What makes this true?
Using bullet points, list three to six facts or proof points about Company A that validate its key message. 

What affects the creative concept?
Describe any limitations or mandatories that affect the work, e.g., “In building Company A’s brand, it’s important to a find a unique space that Company A can own and occupy by itself. Therefore, the creative concept for this project should help define what that space is.”

One more thing...
The communications brief you develop is of no use until you share it with your client and he or she signs off on it. Once it’s approved, you’re ready to write. 


  1. Very much liking this Robert! My own client briefing sheet is longer and changes according to client/job/sector etc, but yours gets right to the point. If the client finds it hard to pinpoint the key message, I find it's useful to phrase the question as "If readers remember only one thing from this communication, what do you want it to be?"

  2. Good point, Tamara. I use that line often. When I first started freelancing, my questionnaire was two pages long. Now, I subscribe to the less is more model. I should have added, though, that these are starting points, conversation starters. The copywriter still has to probe, explore and expand.

  3. Copywriting is the act of writing text for the use of advertising a product, business, person, opinion or idea. Thanks! Look for additional posts on this topic soon.