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March 10, 2010
Copywriters Need Feedback, Not Prescriptions

Everyone can write, but very few can write well.”
– George Lucas

How many copywriters out there have been in this situation?

You read the brief multiple times, did the research, and turned in what you know is copy gold -- multiple versions, in fact. After a few hours or days, you get an e-mail from the client with a Word document attached. You open it, and to your horror you see those red slashes copywriters fear more than blood: track marks. Lots of them.

This isn’t the copy you submitted anymore; it’s something much worse. The tone of the e-mail is less like, “Feel free to edit as you see fit” as it is, “Here are my edits to the doc.”


It doesn’t happen often, but every copywriter has run into a situation when the client doesn’t provide feedback -- they just rewrite the copy themselves. This is much easier for clients to do than designers, since like most writers, many clients know Word and can type. It gets even more complicated when it’s an in-house situation, where power politics come into play. Maybe even tougher if it’s your direct boss, like an editorial manager.

Edits happen. Where copy tends to get off track, though, is when the client (or manager) rewrites everything without reinforcing in any way their role as the informant and your role as the doer.

It’s even worse when it’s sent to a large group of people. Now the writer is in the awkward and time-consuming position of not only pointing out every reason this doesn’t work -- sometimes to both the client and a crowd, making it more awkward -- but using potentially flawed copy as a baseline. It’s going backwards.

Clients and copywriters have different skills, and while it’s the client who ultimately needs to be happy, it’s important to allow the writer to do his or her job.

Now before we go any further, let me say the vast majority of clients I’ve dealt with are perfectly wonderful (especially any current clients, of course). This article is about the minority: the bad client.

This isn't to suggest possessive writers who don’t want any feedback ever are in short supply. That’s a shorter article, since it’s much easier to lose the bad writer than the other way around.

Of course, situations exist when it’s completely appropriate for you, the client, to provide specific edits or rough copy to tweak and build on and qualify it as such. After all, you’re the subject expert and the boss.

However, in those situations where none of the above applies, clients who rewrite everything do the writer, the project, and the company a disservice.

In private conversation, an old colleague on the creative side used to grouse at whatever not-present client had broken this unspoken circle of trust: “Tell us that what you’d like to be addressed. We’ll take care of the how.”

I know when I made the transition from writer to managing other writers, it was tough for me to “get out of the weeds” and not just rewrite everything myself. While we’ve acknowledged that bad writers can be too precious about every last word they write, the good ones just want to make sure it’s right out of a sense of responsibility to themselves and the client’s needs.

Clients overwriting copy doesn’t just pose a problem for the writer; it causes problems for the company. For one, micromanagement in general is a morale killer; it implies to those on the receiving end that they don't know what they’re doing. Two, micromanagers who do things themselves instead of providing direction cost their company money, especially since the client or manager’s hourly rate is typically higher than their writer’s. The bottom line is that company’s paid too much for the rewrite -- and one that’s often two versions behind where it should be.

At this point, the client reading this might be thinking, “Yeah, but if the copy’s terrible, I need to rewrite it to get the job done.” This is true if you’re not getting what you want. Maybe the writer didn’t get it, or maybe they’re just bad. However, the good ones have the objectivity to write in a way that’s not only strategically on-target but that also resonates with the customer.

Like the bad writer who’s too close to their copy, the bad client is too close to their product/service, the too-long laundry list of features/benefits, the established, written-in-stone party line. Just as it’s a good client’s role to responsibly inform the content, it’s the good writer’s task to look at the communication problem most objectively, from all angles, and provide consumer-facing communication that’s clear, prioritized, and focused.

If there’s one thing clients and writers alike can agree on in today’s text messaging, sound-bite, and tweet-driven communications world, it’s the effectiveness of bullet points. Here are some for fellow writers in the position of having to manage their client relationship by saying in so many words, Tell me the ‘what,’ I’ll take care of the ‘how.’ The same points could be kept in mind for the writer dealing with the manager who initially spent too much time overwriting his team’s copy instead of providing feedback.

Getting feedback instead of prescriptive copy with no license to polish or edit it:

  • Helps me [the writer] get insight into your rationale and what you [the client] want. I realize it’s sometimes more time consuming to provide feedback than to just rewrite something yourself, but providing feedback empowers me to better meet your needs.
  • Empowers me to present you with a solution you might not have thought of or expected. It will almost certainly allow me to present copy that’s well considered, polished by a professional, and meets your needs and standards.
  • Shows respect for our respective skills, disciplines, and roles on the project. You want the best work, and I’m capable of giving it to you. Providing feedback and guidance provides the proper context from both a content and professional standpoint for that to happen.

(Note: You probably don’t want to deliver these points in these exact words. There’s a time and place for managing the relationship with tact, and a lot can be said for making certain points at the right time, and not always in writing.)

(Second Note: On the rare occasion the client is a brilliant copywriter and they want to rewrite copy for you, and you know it’s good, use it and make sure you know what you need to know to write better copy next time.)

Hopefully, this short article provides a service to both writers and clients alike. Either side should feel free to e-mail me with any feedback to this post, or share your stories.

Just don’t send me a rewrite.


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Richard Turgeon is a freelance writer and creative director based in San Francisco. His book, "Indie Rock 101: Running, Recording and Promoting Your Indie Rock Band," is now available in bookstores everywhere. Vist http://richardturgeon.com.

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