A friend of mine who transitioned from journalism to content marketing recently told me her biggest challenge was learning to drop the voice she had spent years cultivating for feature writing and instead find ways to inhabit the voice of her client. It’s something I struggle with as well, even after 15 years in the field. I’m lucky in that many of my clients are finance brands, so cut-and-dry is often the name of the game. But other companies, especially those trying to attract a younger, hipper customer, are adamant about adding personality to my writing—the brand’s personality, that is.
It’s one of many ways I’ve had to learn to accept client feedback, to address criticism without spiraling, and to let go of the precious feelings I have for my own words. Since writing is a creative and emotional process—even when it’s for a brand—I’ve had to relearn this lesson over and over. Seasoned veteran or freelancing newbie, if you want to move your career forward, you’ll need to do the same.
Here are some common criticisms writers hear from brands, what they really mean, and how to respond.
1. “This is too sophisticated/not sophisticated enough for our audience.”
What it means: After years in journalism, you’ve gotten into a groove with your audience. You understand their defining characteristics, level of education, and familiarity with the subject matter.
Brand writing is, in many ways, much more slippery. Clients may provide you with their target personas, but chances are their customers are much more varied than the readers who specifically sought out your magazine story. The client’s definition of entry-level content may also be very different from yours. A lot of brand writing is educational, which means you may have to replace what interests you about a topic with what information your audience needs.
Solution: Rather than relying on your clients to pinpoint the expertise of their target audience, find examples of content that speak to different knowledge levels for your topic. Then review them with your client or editor to find the one that most aligns with their vision. It can be as simple as using a personal finance blog to anchor one end of the expertise spectrum and The Wall Street Journal or a trade publication at the other. Ask the client where they think the audience falls, and try to stay within 10 percent on either side.
2. “You’re not writing in our voice.”
What it means: Like subject matter expertise, voice is something you’ve spent years honing. It’s your trademark, your calling card, and now you have a client asking you to abandon it for the sake of the brand. The audacity! The ignorance!
Got that out of your system? Good. Now change your voice. Your value to the client is not tied up in acerbic wit or wistful metaphors. At least, not wholly. They might appreciate your writerly turns, but what they need—and pay you for—is your ability to speak in other voices. I’ve seen novice and veteran writers alike make the mistake of holding on to their own style regardless of client need or audience type. I’ve seen them get passed over for work or criticized for being inflexible. If you’re going to serve your clients, then serve your clients.
Solution: Freelance writers who demonstrate flexibility will get rehired. Spend time with your client’s brand guidelines, read the publications they aspire to be like (ask them for those if they haven’t already provided), and practice, practice, practice. Try the following writing exercise: Pick a product, any product. Then choose three to five profiles (young moms, entrepreneurs, octogenarian chefs, whatever) and craft an introduction to that product for each profile, including the specific problems that it solves for them.
3. “We don’t use the serial comma (or capitalize internet or…)”
What it means: There’s no subtext to this one. Brands are competing for readers, credibility, and content dominance. And they’re doing it with few resources, which means they rely on you to follow their style guide. Because deadlines are not necessarily in their hands, you can’t count on multiple revisions. Where there’s an editor in place, you may have some reprieve, but often, your self-editing what stands between an embarrassing typo or a missing piece of metadata and an angry marketing VP.
Solution: Pay attention and turn in clean copy that adheres to the style guide. Just as important, be receptive to their corrections, especially when a third party like the legal team gets involved. Make note of all feedback, and don’t get it wrong the next time.
These kinds of communication skills take time to learn, but some simple behavioral adjustments can make all the difference between getting hired for a one-time gig and building a career.