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Nathan Midgley
August 23, 2016

How to brief a professional writer: a guide for content marketers

Commissioning a writer for the first time? Find out what they need to know from you to get the best results.

If you aren’t creating compelling content, your content marketing will never make it out of the blocks. And to create compelling written content, you’ll need to either get good at writing yourself or learn to work with professional writers. There are several elements to that (paying on time works wonders), but the crux of the relationship is the brief.

Why good briefs matter

A clear, thorough writing brief sets out exactly what you want and how you want it delivered. It can be a time-consuming thing to produce, but it’s far more economical than facing repeated revisions further down the line.

Good writing briefs also provide a crucial reference point when revisions are required. If you request multiple changes based on requirements you didn’t communicate in the first place, you’ll quickly sour the relationship with your supplier.

And there’s a third, more abstract reason for writing a solid brief: it helps to crystallise your ideas and ensures you have a clear idea of your objectives. Refer back to your content marketing strategy – where does this piece fit in? Could it be better aligned with your target audience and business goals? If you just write simple, one-line briefs it’s easy to avoid asking yourself those larger questions.

What should a brief contain?

Topic and angle

Goes without saying, doesn’t it? At the very least, give your writer the topic (what you want them to write about) and the angle (how you want them to approach it). For instance:

  • Topic: Working with freelance writers
  • Angle: How to brief a professional writer

But the more specific you can be, the better. If there are any specific questions or issues you want a content writer to address, tell them. A bulleted list is a good way of laying all this out.

  • Topic: Working with freelance writers
  • Angle: How to brief a professional writer
    • Essential details (angle, word count, tone)
    • Background information (business goals, medium)
    • Presentation details (delivery, layout)

Word count

You’d be amazed how many people forget this when they brief a professional writer. It can be as easy as just quoting a number, but it can help to fine-tune your content brief by specifying word counts for particular elements. For instance, a 500-word blog post might break down into:

  • Intro: 50 words
  • Theme 1: 125 words
  • Theme 2: 125 words
  • Theme 3: 125 words
  • Conclusion: 50 words
  • CTA: 25 words

Key elements

Think of this as the superstructure of your piece. What elements do you want your writer to provide? Do you want a headline suggestion from them, or will you write it yourself? Does your template demand a standfirst? Should they source images and/or video? Should media items be captioned?

You should be led by the requirements of your CMS or print layout, and by the skills and capacity of your in-house production team. Look at all the fields you need content for, from big ones like body copy to tiny ones like image captions. Then decide which you’re happy to write in-house, and which you want the writer to provide.

Style and tone

Consider whether you want the writing to be casual and laid-back, funny or serious. Think about the level of complexity and sophistication you want. Would your audience prefer long or short sentences? Do they use technical or simple language? Readability Score can be a great resource for helping you fine-tune your content’s level of complexity, and giving your writer a score to aim for will be enormously helpful.

On top of this, make sure your writing brief includes a style guide that covers punctuation, layout, banned words or phrases and any specific style requirements relating to your trademarks. Don’t have a style guide? Get started with our eight style guide essentials, or just ask your professional writer for advice – they will have experience of working with several style guides, and will be able to recommend a public one you can adopt.

Target audience

Who is the content being written for? Outline the age, location and gender of your target audience and include as many extra details here as you can, such as their hobbies and interests, lifestyle and education.

Business goals

Why are you creating this content and what is its purpose? For example, are you aiming to position your brand as a thought leader or do you want to showcase the benefits of your products over competitors? Understanding the goals of the content will ensure a content writer tailors their work to meet these objectives. Make sure you include any specific CTAs you want the writer to work into the piece.

Format

Outline any specific formatting you want to include in the content, plus details of the delivery method. For example:

  • Do you want fact boxes or bulleted lists in addition to the body copy?
  • Do you want the writer to include HTML code?
  • What kind of file do you expect to receive the content in?
  • Should the copy be emailed or uploaded to a shared folder?
  • Are there particular font or layout requirements?
  • How should the writer name the document?

If you have very specific delivery requirements – for example a CSV or a Word document with a custom layout – you should provide the writer with a template.

Distribution

How will the content be used? Is it for a newsletter? A landing page? A blog post? While you’ve already covered style and tone, it can help a writer to put a piece into context – and if they’re really experienced, they may even have some advice of their own about writing for the chosen medium.

Sample text

Samples of similar content you’ve created in the past can be a helpful guideline, showing a content writer the exact type of work you’re after.

Additional information

Outline any specific sources you would like your content writer to include, and any individuals you would like them to interview and quote. If you require statistics to support the content, tell them and be clear on how you would like these attributed.

Keywords

If you want the content to be optimised for search engines (and why wouldn’t you?) ensure you include any keywords you would like your content writer to include. Provide one primary keyword or phrase and a few secondary ones. It’s also worth providing some direction on where you want keywords to appear – the headline, first paragraph and sub-heads are all important spots.

With all this in place, you’re on course to create a thorough, usable brief that writers will love you for.

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