Getting good directions
January 24, 2011 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Freelancers: help me help my clients with communication.

I’m a freelance writer and editor. I’ve got a new client in a field I know nothing about. They are aware of this deficiency, but I’m one of the very few freelancers in the area, and we’re glad to have found each other. The problem is in understanding what these nice people want me to write for their newsletters. I’m given a list of topics … and that’s it.

When I was in newspapers, I would chat with my reporters about what the story was about, some of the primary sources to talk to, what kind of length I wanted, and all that good stuff. I’ve seen a form used in some newsrooms to ensure that the editor and the reporter have the same understanding of the assignment.

Without giving my client this sort of paperwork to fill out, and without coming across as someone who has to have his hand held, how can I help them to understand that I need a great deal more direction than what I’m being given? What do you do to get a complete picture of the job?

Thanks for your help.
posted by bryon to Work & Money (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd just say that I don't know enough and need a bit more information. When I've been in this position in the past, people tend to perfectly fine with me saying this. I suppose, I might say "Could you give me a more detailed brief" (by which I mean a couple of paras) if I wanted it to sound professional.

Also explain it's your first issue and you don't know what they're after. You could also ask for suggested interviewees etc. You could ask to see previous issues of the newsletter. And you could perhaps write a couple of short pieces quickly to see if you were both talking about the same thing.
posted by rhymer at 2:17 PM on January 24, 2011

I think asking your client what their main goals and intentions are, what do they most want their readers to come away thinking, are reasonable questions. If it is a fairly esoteric field, you could also reasonably ask if they have a bibliography of suggested reading, that would make your articles have more substance.
posted by grizzled at 2:50 PM on January 24, 2011

Do they have previous issues you can look at?
Do they know of a peer/competitor organization that has the kind of newsletter they want, and do they have a copy of that?

Another tactic would be to give them a list of say, 5 or 10 possibilities and see which ones are more in line with what they're envisioning - do they want peppy and quirky and personal (stories about a staff member's side hobby of fostering chihuahuas)? Do they want serious and formal (who has taken extra professional certification courses this quarter; who was the sales leader; what issues are coming up for the company in the next quarter)? Do they want articles about corporate philanthropy and community involvement (we sponsored the local kids' softball team and they came in second, kids learned lessons about sportsmanship)?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:18 PM on January 24, 2011

Try a different venue. If your communication so far has been through email, schedule a voice call. If it's been by phone, try a face to face. When there's miscommunication with a client you can easily spend days trying to sort out in email what could've been taken care of with a thirty second phone call, I've found.

As for the "without coming across as someone who needs his hand held" part -- which, yes, I hear where you're coming from on that for sure -- stress that you're trying to meet their needs, and that's why you need more details. If you're all "I dunno whatcha want me to write" it can read as incompetence; but if it's "I want to make sure what I produce matches your editorial voice and has the tone you're aiming for" you come across as extra-accommodating and professional, even though you're asking for the same thing in both cases.
posted by ook at 4:07 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not sure we have enough info to make intelligent suggestions.

But sounds as if they'd tell you clearly what they need if they knew, and so it's up to you to bring your best news judgment to bear on the problem. If you've seen their previous product--newsletters, whatever--and you should have, of course--then you surely know how you can do that, and presumably do it better. You may have to interview them and their colleagues until you have a clear picture of where the ideas lie. That would be a good first step--familiarize yourself with them and their business. Do that, and if you're capable, you'll have plenty to write about.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 4:53 PM on January 24, 2011

Lots of newsletter experience, here, so I'll concur that more info is probably needed by us to help you get more info. Having said that, be prepared for them not knowing and looking to you for your expertise! And that, of course, is the best of all cases, because you get the freedom to make them something great that they didn't even know they wanted! Start brushing up on other publications in similar industries. Are you talking about print? If so, I guess the first thing I'd do is try to sell them on an electronic version. Feel free to memail me directly if you want to be more specific.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:01 PM on January 24, 2011

Re: what fivesavagepalms said and a message from stoneweaver, the company I'm working for is in the agricultural fertilizer business. They're extremely nice, Christian folks in the Midwest, and they're smart as all get out about what they're doing. I, OTOH, have avoided learning about plants as though my sanity depended on it. This despite (or because of) living in a farm state with farming background on both sides of my family. So I'm trying to make up for a lifelong deficit and learn what all the farmers know and terms such as foliar and topdress.

Which leads me to a side issue: how to write for people who know about all this stuff, provide useful information and avoid talking to them like they're in kindergarten (because, in a sense, I am in kindergarten). First things first, though: I need to be able to get the direction I need from my client without pestering them. I'm a good writer and editor, but I haven't figured out how to prove that yet.
posted by bryon at 8:38 PM on January 25, 2011

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