On any given week, I receive anywhere a number of briefs for pieces of writing from clients.
On any given day, my home office is strewn with briefs (I have to read them in print!); empty coffee cups; and whatever else I’ve deemed necessary to survive another week in the tumultuous life of a freelance writer. Which is probably more cups of coffee.
I commonly get asked “what’s a brief?” and “what do I need to include in a brief.” Here’s a template version. But if you prefer explanations, then here’s a run-through of everything I think is required in a strong writer’s creative brief.
What’s A Brief?
A brief is simply a set of instructions for a writer … or a graphics designer. They’re used throughout the creative world.
Briefs are typically documents and marketing agencies are particularly adept at getting them right. Which makes sense when you think about it because they spend a good chunk of their time briefing staff writers and freelancers on what they need to get done and when.
The format isn’t set in stone, however.
Your client could send you a series of WhatsApp messages at one in the morning, scribble some notes on the back of a business card at a conference, or bark some instructions down the phone.
That being said, you should really try to get your brief down in some way that can be memorialized — for your writer’s sake. Freelance writers commonly work with quite a number of clients. Things get very confusing very quickly. And when we forget what project client X told us about and when it needs to get done, the brief will be where we go to refresh our memories.
Written briefs are always good. Those delivered verbally should be recorded if possible. You could even do that yourself to make your writer’s life that much easier.
What should be included? Here’s a non-exhaustive list.
What A Great Brief Should Contain – Your Checklist
Here’s my personal ‘must have’ list to deliver quality work for clients:
✅ Administrative details
Agencies that are in the business of briefing many writers many wish to include some administrative details on the brief in order to keep everything in check.
These might include:
- The purchase order (PO) corresponding to this writing project
- The writer’s name
- A link to the style guide if the publication or website has one.
✅ Article title
Let’s use the example of an article here because it’s a relatively short lived project.
You may have chosen a specific title for SEO reasons. That’s probably going to inform the contents of the piece. So tell your writer what you’re going with.
Title: How To Brief Freelancer Writers — The Pro’s Guide
✅ Article length
If you’re working with a writer on a per-word basis, then you should tell your writer how long the article should be. My preference is to have both a minimum and maximum word count.
This is a tricky one because it depends what you’ve agreed contractually. If your writer has quoted you for 1,000 word pieces then it’s unreasonable to brief him on a 2,000 word piece without discussing a rate adjustment first. Otherwise, your request might be construed as asking him (or her) to write another 1,000 words for free.
Articles lengths are often chosen for SEO purposes and there’s a bit of wiggle-room. Often, 800 words is fine for an article that’s supposed to be in the 1,000 word range. Why not share this information with your writer so that if there’s nothing more than 800 words worth writing about, he/she feels at liberty to leave things there.
If there are multiple stakeholders involved in managing the writer, make sure there are no crossed wires and that everybody’s clear on what the expectations and contractual agreements are.
✅ Article purpose
Here’s a common one that clients neglect to include.
It’s really difficult to write something good for a client if you don’t know exactly why they’re authoring this piece of writing. It’s like flying blind. You don’t know what your client’s objectives are.
Commonly there are multiple objectives.
You don’t need to be effusive in going into what all of them are. A few words are sufficient, but sometimes more are helpful.
Short example: demand generation, SEO.
Longer example: we’re writing this article to try position ourselves as the experts on X. Our competitor, Y, recently wrote this piece [link] and we’d like to do a better job.
✅ Take home message
I like to ask my clients what they think the take home message of their piece should be.
If we’re talking about online writing, then we all know that people tend to skim writing rather than read it linearly.
To decipher what the take home message is, I recommend putting yourselves in the shoes of your average reader.
If they were only to skim your article or read it while waking up in the morning, what would be the message that you would want to jump out at them?
That while there is much to love about the cellular networks that major telecom providers are bringing to market, ultimately LPWANs provide far more agility and allow companies to provision IoT networks without needing to wait years for regulatory approvals.
✅ Secondary messaging
Another one of my favorites.
If we’re talking about an article of any length, then there’s commonly both a main message that the client wants to get across as well as a series of secondary messages that should also be communicated.
In screenwriting terms, think: what’s the main plot and what are the sub-plots?
In the corporate environment, particularly among large organizations, messaging is often very tightly coordinated. Providing this information might involve sharing a formal strategy document.
Secondary messages should be:
- Rapid endpoint deployment requires scalable and agile supporting communications networks
- LPWANs put the power in the operator’s hands
✅ Target publication(s)
If you’re pitching this for Entrepreneur or Fast Company then I really need to know that. (I’d also charge more — you’ll understand why shortly).
Offsite media often have very stringent pitching and submission guidelines and there’s often wide variance between them.
Sometimes they even ask for conformity with different well-known style guides such as the Associated Press (AP) or the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). It’s all over the place.
Being set down by fastidious types like me, rules are often very exacting. One publication might demand that no Oxford commas be used. Another might insist on no author bios. Another might insist that ordinal numbers all be spelled out.
If you want to be published in top tier media, then you need to read these details to a ‘t’. As the writer that means me. This, in a nutshell, is why I have different rates for on-site blogging and offsite articles.
We’re going to be pitching this to Y. Their style guide and submissions guidelines are at these links.
Just as it helps to know what the target publication is if you’re writing for an offsite placement opportunity, it’s useful to know what segment of your target market this piece is for if it’s going up on the company blog.
Information here can be demographic or more descriptive in nature. If you have developed formal buyer personas, then you might mention which persona(s) most closely align with who you’re trying to target with this piece of writing.
The target audience for this piece is online readers that have found this piece organically through keyword research.
✅ Stylistic considerations (and/or ‘Tone of Voice’)
- What style are you aiming for here?
- Authoritative? Persuasive? Inspirational?
- How do you write and sound naturally?
If I’m ghostwriting thought leadership for somebody, I’ll dig out YouTube videos, podcast interviews, and whatever else I can find to get a sense for how the bylined author naturally communicates.
To cut down on the work I’ll need to do, why not send those on — as well as previous writing samples (that you wrote yourself, of course)?
Commonly, briefs contain a field specifying which ‘tone of voice’ the writing should use. This is typically asking for the same information.
The tone of voice used here should be authoritative but not overly serious.
✅ Controlled terminology
Here’s another one that I like to have in the mix.
As writers, we sometimes get miscellaneous instructions like:
- You can’t mention X
- Mention Y
- Call A A and not B
Sometimes we’re talking about naming conventions for certain products. At other times we’re dealing with public relations or reputational issues.
Whatever the case may be, if there are certain words and/or phrases that the writer should or should not use, then you should include these in the creative brief.
This post is supposed to talk to freelance creatives rather than writers specifically. Please refer to “creative briefs.” Also, don’t use the word “instructions” to explain the definition because it sounds too formal and serious.
Clients tend to be displeased when you cite some great research that a competitor has produced.
If it’s your first time writing about a client, make sure that you let them know who your competitors are.
Business relationships are not always apparent from the outside. If competitors operate research platforms which should also not be cited from, then make your writer aware of this fact too.
X is our main competitor and wrote piece [link] which you may come across in the SERP for ‘freelance writing brief’. So please make sure not to link to that.
✅ SEO Keywords
Yes, we’re in the era of online content and search engine optimization (SEO) must inform much of what we do and write.
Clients will typically send me on a list of keywords that they want to have included in a piece ordered by priority.
If your digital marketing / SEO manager has instructed that certain keywords must be included … then this needs to be conveyed to the writer.
Try to use the following keywords at least once, although don’t force inclusion if there isn’t a natural place for them to go:
- Freelance creative brief
- How to write a brief
- How to brief freelancers
I like to ask people if they’ve seen anything amazing written that they would like to emulate.
People often have favorite bloggers or competitors who they think are doing a really good job of explaining something complex in an engaging way.
Share that with the writer so that they know what you’re aiming for.
We loved this article about how to brief graphic designers [link] and thought it did a great job at packing a lot of information into a digestable format. Could you try to use a similar tone?
✅ A skeleton outline
Many clients will include a skeleton outline with some bullet points explaining what they think should be included in the piece.
This is really useful and greatly minimizes the probability that the client will ask “what on earth did you write? This wasn’t what we were looking for at all!”
As a writer, my advice to clients is that while some guidance is useful, too much starts to feel very stifling.
Feel free to set down the general direction you think the piece should take. But be careful not to micromanage or lock us into a very confining template. Those pieces are no fun to write.
H2 — What’s Brief Anyway?
One paragraph about what a brief is, what it is not, and where the term comes from.
H2 — Who Uses Briefs?
Talk about how important briefs are in the agency landscape and explain why creatives like having something they can refer back to when they’re juggling a lot of projects.
H2 — What Should Be Included
Please include up to 15 H3s which should all detail various things that should be included in briefs for freelance creatives.
H2- Better Briefs, Better Projects
Conclude by reiterating the value of using briefs when requesting work from creatives.
✅ Research resources
Anything that might help us write a great piece?
Then please include links and/or send attachments to them.
Here you have to be careful.
I’ve received briefs for 1,000 word blog posts that have amounted to dozens of pages of reading material. Unless you’re prepared to pay the writer to research material, make sure that what you’re asking isn’t unreasonable.
I’ve attached an internal presentation given to our marketing team last month about how to brief creatives. There may be some good points in here that you can bother. Also check out this guide I found online [link]
✅ English variant
This might seem pedantic, but I also make sure that I’m clear on whether the client wants something written according to American or British English conventions.
We need to know when you want this back by. Again, remember that there may be contractual layers about this. Has the writer agreed to a certain deadline? It’s usually best not to foist one on him/her without prior coordination.
Deadline: COB 17/05 GMT
✅ Readability score
Some clients demand that writers write content that passes some readability algorithm score. I’m not keen on this (at all), but feel free to include if it’s a requirement for you.
How Long Should A Writer’s Brief Be?
Finally, the question of length.
The shortest brief I have ever received consist of exactly one sentence: the title of the article the client wanted written.
The longest brief consisted of a lengthy email with a large amount of PDFs, some very lengthy, as attachments. I would reckon that there were more than 100 pages of background reading prepared for a 1,000 word blog post. I would regard this as nonsensical.
I would suggest that you can write a strong brief encompassing all of the above fields, and more, that doesn’t come to more than two pages of writing.
In fact, the vast majority of briefs I receive come in around that length. I would also suggest including only 2 to 4 of the strongest resources that you think are really essential for producing a great piece of writing although for longer projects like white papers you may wish to include more.
Creative briefs are time-tested. Those that prepare them frequently (namely, marketing agencies) tend to get very good at providing just the right level of information to steer writers through the authoring process.
For those brand new to the idea of working with writers, the process can be a more gradual one and a feedback loop with the writer should be opened. I’ve had to tell clients that they’re sending both too much and too little information.
Err on the side of inclusion, but don’t be unreasonable.
Set down whatever expectations you have in writing and convey whatever is needed to the writer. This, in my experience, ensures the most successful drafting process.
A version of this post originally appeared here.