Dispatches: 11 life-saving tips for copywriters heading out to sea

by Richard Pelletier

They are the beloved ones. The ones who know how to work with writers. Who know good writing when they see it. Who know that good business writing is incredibly difficult to produce. They profess their love. They say things like, “Love this, but can we move that sixth line up a little?” We love them to pieces. And then there are the other ones. Who don’t quite know how to work with writers. Who don’t quite know how hard it is to create good writing in a business environment. We love them, too, but they are, sadly, a bit harder to love. Like your strange uncle Bob.

Herewith, an instruction manual for writers sailing into the murk. Who think they’ve boarded the tiny ship of order, only to learn they’ve been cast into a vast sea of chaos; the agency or firm with zero experience working with writers. For purposes of illustration, our fictional firm is Ace.

1 — no brief, no work

Never, not even if Hades, Miami and Cairo doth freeze over on the very same day, take on a significant writing project without a brief. If there’s no brief — signed by, or at least agreed to by the client — no work. Matthew Stibbe has a great example of what a good brief looks like.

2 — trust but verify

Don’t assume anything. Just because you’ve been hired by Ace, a seriously reputable firm with an impressive client list, and a good friend of yours brought you onboard, and they’ve agreed to your fees, doesn’t mean that Ace knows how you work, what you need to succeed and how to evaluate your product. If you want to trust team Ace, that’s great. But remember, trust is earned. Don’t give it away.


by gaping void

3 — claim your authority

You’ve been brought in for a reason. You’re the expert. Set the parameters. Write everything down and make it known early. “This is how I work and here’s what I need to ensure success for the client.” If you need frequent, direct access to the client, say so. If you need to revisit and rework assumptions, say so. If you think you need to add specificity to the scope, speak up. If you sense you’ll have to work around a problem person at Ace, find a way to make that happen. Your reputation is on the line, protect that thing, it’s precious.

4— introductions matter more than you think

You should be introduced to the client as an outstanding professional who has the chops and the experience necessary to meet the needs of the moment. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that it’s true, you are outstanding. The second is that it shows due diligence on the part of Ace. Third is the power of suggestion. If the client has some trust with Ace and Ace says you’re the person for the job, then you have some instant credibility. If you don’t get properly introduced, pay attention because the people that hired you or that employ you, are not singing your praises. Which could mean they see you as a commodity. You are not a commodity. If there’s trouble down the road, you’re probably on your own. If you think there might be an issue, take over. “Here’s how I’d like to be introduced to the client.” Keep it simple.

5 — find out who has your back

A firm that doesn’t produce content or copywriting in-house is not likely to have someone who can provide context and credibility in conversations with the client about what you are doing. As the writer, you’re the creative. If questions come up about your approach, you need someone — who is not you — who actually gets what you’re doing, to manage the situation at a senior level. If no such person exists, head meet chopping block. Before you take the gig, find out who that person is. Find out if they truly understand what you’re bringing to this effort.

“When you’re in the shit up to your neck, there’s nothing left to do but sing.” Samuel Beckett

6— push back

Keep a close eye on everything that’s relevant to your piece. If something doesn’t make sense to you, you need to make it make sense. Ask questions. If you get a lot of hand-waving, keep pushing. Go around whoever is in your way. Your job is to help the client. If the people who hired you are making that difficult, get to the next person on the food chain. This is when you have permission to be the world’s biggest pain in the ass.

7 — know where you stand

To work onsite means entering another business with all the wondrous possibilities that entails. It’ll be nice not to work alone, right? But you’re likely to be an employee. Even if temporary, do you want that? Or do you want to be an independent contractor? If the latter, that changes things. You might lose the gig if you don’t want to join the team. But you should know this ahead of time. If this statement is true, “I work from my own space, and I work in a particular way because it’s been proven to work for me and my clients over and over again,” then can you really work onsite inside someone else’s system?

8— client buy-in

See 1, above. If, due to some unfortunate navigational error onboard your little ship — you find yourself working without clear and unequivocal buy-in from the client on your approach — stop working and demand it. You’re wasting everyone’s time and money. This is another one of those moments when you have every right in the world to be an asshole. You’re trying to protect the client’s project, time, and money. Along with Ace’s reputation and yours. The longer you go without buy-in, the more time there is for a bullseye to appear on your back.

9 — sometimes you have to say no

Most freelancers take on most of what comes their way. Not all of us are in the position to turn down work. But there are times and situations where you have to walk away. A business coach told me once that you can always tell there are going to be problems in the first five minutes. Not long after, I was on the phone with a marketing director offering me a long-term project at good money. Her child was screaming at the top of his lungs in the background. In between talking to me, she was screaming back at him. Reader, I took the gig. Do I need to tell you how that went?

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.” ― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

10 — even the best-laid plans can turn to shit

A good friend of mine has been in the restaurant business for decades. His string of successes is rare and amazing. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s told me this about restaurants, “You can do every single thing right, and it can still fail.” Keep things in perspective. If you find yourself in a sea of chaos and you somehow manage to get back to dry land battered and bruised, take stock. Take an honest look at what you might have done differently or better. Then take your honey and yourself out and…

11— bourbon