If you’re working with a freelance writer to roll out a thought leadership or content marketing campaign, then you’ll want to make sure that they have all the information they might require to produce the best possible piece of writing for you. This will require sending them a writer’s brief.
If you’re not sure where to start, or haven’t worked with a freelance writer before, then this short guide should give you a good idea about what kind of information is helpful to include.
- If you’d like to skip straight to using my brief template, then you can access that form (also available for download) here.
- If you’d like to download an example brief (for this article), then click here.
What’s A Writer’s Brief? And How Should I Send It?
A brief is simply a set of instructions for a writer … or a graphics designer. They’re used throughout the creative world. If you want to tell your writer what you need written and how … then a brief is typically how you do it.
Briefs are typically documents, but definitions being fluid it makes sense to adopt a liberal definition of what constitutes a brief. Briefs could be conveyed verbally through a phone call or even through a series of WhatsApp messages.
That being said, it’s always best to 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. So convey it in some format that can be retained.
Written briefs are therefore always good. Those delivered verbally should ideally be recorded.
What should be included? Here’s a non-exhaustive list.
What A Writer’s Brief Should Contain
What should you include in the brief? Here’s my personal essentials list culled from my experience to date (this post may be updated as my ‘must have’ list changes!).
✅ 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 or at least set down a general direction for it.
Tell your writer what you’re going with so that the body content will flow logically from the title.
✅ 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.
Note: the agreed word count should reflect what’s been agreed in the contract between you and the writer. Ie, if you’ve agreed a rate for 1,000 word blog posts then you naturally shouldn’t request 2,000 words without first agreeing a revised fee.
The article length is 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 on paper.
If that’s the case, 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 very difficult for writers to author great content for clients if they don’t understand why it’s being produced. 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 but you should list them out and be transparent about what the target(s) for this piece of writing are. A few words are sufficient, but sometimes more are helpful.
Short example (this style is common among agencies): 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. We’d also like to make this topic more approachable.
✅ 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 still half-asleep, what would be the message that you would want to jump out at them? What’s your point? What are you, above all else, hoping to get across here?
Example: 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? Shorter pieces (800 word blogs) might only have room for one main storyline. Longer pieces (in the 3,000 word territory) might contain ample space for more elaboration.
In the corporate environment, particularly among large organizations, messaging is often very tightly coordinated. Providing this information might involve sharing a formal strategy document. Have a PR strategy document you can share with this year’s agreed messaging? Share that if you can.
✅ 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.
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.
If possible, source submission requirements and provide these to writer. It’s impossible to write for several tentative publication opportunities if you don’t have buy-in yet. So reserve this for when you’ve definitely secured a placement opportunity.
Example: 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.
Example: This piece is going to be targeted at people that have never heard of a VPN before and need basic education as to what this technology does and why it might be useful to them.
✅ Stylistic considerations
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)?
Example: We’d like this piece to be as lightweight and friendly as possible. We’ve already established authority on this topic with the preceding piece. The goal here is to provide a friendlier explanation piece suitable for those that aren’t familiar with this technology vertical.
✅ Controlled terminology
Here’s another one that I like to have in the mix.
As writers, we sometimes get miscellaneous instructions conveyed after receiving the main brief. Things 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. You don’t provide explanations but you should provide the instructions.
Example: A, B, and C are competitors. Don’t mention them. Also don’t source any statistics from Y.com.
✅ Competitor list
One of the easiest mistakes to make when working with a new client is to accidentally cite something a competitor wrote.
Freelance writers aren’t able to magically decipher who your competitors are if you don’t tell them.
Of course, you shouldn’t have to do this every time. It’s generally sufficient to do this once.
Examples: A, B, C are competitors. Also, please don’t cite findings from A.com in these articles.
✅ 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.
Target keywords are ‘home IoT network’ and ‘DIY IoT network’. Try to include each keyword at least once if possible.
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. But they won’t disclose that information unless asked.
Share that with the writer so that they know what you’re aiming for and what type of content personally resonates with you.
✅ 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!”
Some guidance is useful but too much can be a bit stifling.
Feel free to set down the general direction you think the piece should take although many writers, including me, appreciate having a bit of leeway.
Intro: Discuss what IoT is. One paragraph.
✅ 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.
✅ English variant
Your write will need to know what variant of English you’re expected to write to. You may also have a company brand voice style guide. Send this on too if you have one available.
When do you need this piece back? Because many freelance writers juggle multiple accounts, you should coordinate this with the writer prior to asserting it.
✅ Readability score
Some clients demand that writers write content that passes some readability algorithm score. 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. Personally, unless the project is for a lengthy white paper, I don’t think this high of a word count: background reading ratio makes sense.
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, excluding supporting materials. 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. The vast majority of briefs I receive come in around that length.
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 told clients that they’re sending both too much and too little information. Better briefs align expectations and reduce frustration and required revisions.
My advice to clients is to 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.