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Nathan Midgley
May 9, 2017

Here’s what writers really think about your rubbish brief

Okay, that last-minute one-line idea is better than nothing... but only just.

The brief is the single most important thing in the writer-editor relationship. It’s a guide to doing the original idea justice, a quasi-contract that sets out expectations on both sides, and a mutual reference point when disputes crop up further down the line.

But sometimes – and more often than you’d think – briefs go off half-cocked. They arrive late, incomplete or wildly unrealistic; they get changed beyond recognition after the first draft; sometimes they just don’t arrive at all, leaving the writer to muddle through on a hunch or demand payment for a wasted shift.

We asked some working freelancers to share their bugbears and horror stories about briefs. Enjoy – and if you’re guilty of any of these yourself, head to our guide to briefing writers for some practical tips.

I called them at 3pm to be told the client had a terrible hangover and wouldn’t be able to supply any more details that day or the following day. I still invoiced them.

The incomplete brief

As freelancer and Spotdeco boss Louise Downing points out, a lack of detail can hobble interview-dependent pieces:

“The biggest bugbears for me always come down to clarity, especially where work requires interviewing people. You need to be precise about the finer details, such as the rationale, the key messages, the desired response. No writer wants to go back to their interviewees with additional questions if they don’t have to. Getting around this can mean finding and interviewing new people, which is time-consuming. What’s more, it’s never fun having to explain to someone why they haven’t featured in your article!”

The kicker is that writers know the missing detail will usually crop up later, after they’ve put in a considerable amount of work:

“Asking for things that weren’t in the brief when it comes to the first revision.” (David Whitley)

“Keeping to word count, then being asked to add detail, often hundreds more unpaid words.” (Annie Bennett)

The last-minute brief

Timing matters too, particularly for meatier pieces. This one comes from an anonymous travel freelancer:

“The main problem, I find, is with disorganised editors who don’t send a brief until the last moment. I like to receive something at least 24 hours in advance of starting the work, just to give myself some thinking time. I’ve taken on work on a day-rate basis where I’ve been booked for two days, and by the late morning of the first day I still haven’t received the brief. I then get something – clearly put together in a hurry – and have to attempt to do all the work in the remaining time.” (Anon)

The unrealistic brief

This was a popular category…

“Being unrealistic on how many words are needed (i.e. giving 10 words for a priced package).” (David Whitley)

“Saying pics are essential but providing no extra money for the provision or sourcing of them.” (David Whitley)

“Being asked to write ‘a sentence or two’ on a big general subject.” (Annie Bennett)

I recently pitched something. The reply came back: ‘Yeah, ok. Do it how you want.’

The non-brief

Complete freedom is a writer’s dream, right?

“I recently pitched something. The reply came back: ‘Yeah, ok. Do it how you want.'” (Anon)

The reality is that ‘do it your way’ is rarely a genuine tabula rasa. More often than not an open remit dissolves into endless rounds of questions and revisions, as the editor reverse-engineers a proper brief out of the first few drafts.

“My bugbear is editors sending a brief and then pretty much rewriting it (the brief) when you file the first draft. But I don’t think this comes from anything other than someone wanting to make the most of an idea and realising that there’s another angle to cover when they see the copy.” (Anon)

“The client has a hangover”

And finally, the absolute standout story we received. However seat-of-the-pants your briefing is, you’re still doing it better than this editor:

“Last year I had a client who booked me for three days. First day was fine. At the end of the day, I sent over what I’d done, and awaited instructions for the following day. Nothing came. On day two they told me that day’s brief would be over by lunchtime. I called them at 3pm to be told the client had a terrible hangover and wouldn’t be able to supply any more details that day or the following day. I still invoiced them for the full three days – which they paid!”

Image credit: Alex Proimos

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