How to Ask the Right Questions at the Start of an Assignment

By Rudri Patel August 11th, 2022

I try to build strong relationships with my clients, and this means delivering copy that meets their expectations. But in order to do that, I first need to have an idea about what, exactly, those expectations entail—ideally, they’re outlined in the brief.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, clients provide cryptic briefs or, worse yet, no brief at all—just a couple of sentences in an email about the content they’re looking to create. In situations where a brief is ambiguous or nonexistent, I don’t leave the instructions open to interpretation. I reach out and ask.

This clarity serves both freelancers and clients, but sometimes, it’s up to the freelancer to steer the conversation in the right direction. I spoke with a few freelance creatives to get their take on how to help clients write clear, effective briefs that set both parties up for success.

Ask for details—the more, the better

Poornima Apte, a freelancer who writes research reports, whitepapers, landing page copy, case studies, and blog posts for B2B clients, said that her “ideal” brief explains the angle the client wants covered while allowing her the freedom to tackle it as she sees fit. Other helpful details—especially for new clients—include a link to a style guide, an approximate word count, any helpful links or background resources, and a list of relevant SEO keywords.

Unfortunately, not all briefs fit this description. “I see briefs that are all over the place,” Apte said.

“I see briefs that are all over the place.”

Since an article can have many different approaches, Apte said it’s important for clients to explain the specific angle they want to take. Freelance technology writer Gary Wollenhaupt agreed. “I’ve spent a lot of time sweating over lists,” he said. “If the client wants a list of seven things to consider for XYZ or five mistakes to avoid, [they should provide some direction].”

When receiving an unclear brief, Wollenhaupt suggested freelancers ask for elaboration—does the client has something specific or proprietary in mind, or are they looking for something more conceptual? What is their larger goal—do they want to raise brand awareness, generate leads, or publish thought leadership content? Knowing this direction from day one can save valuable time down the road.

Develop a template of go-to questions for new projects

Danna Lorch, a freelancer who writes higher education content, finds that most of her clients don’t provide a creative brief. So, she typically takes the lead. “I’ve created a template—I basically incorporate it as a kind of questionnaire in my kickoff call for new projects,” she said. While the initial legwork for this process is time-consuming, it ultimately expedites the project and strengthens the client relationship.

“It gets really fast when it’s the second or third project with the same client or team—and my clients appreciate the clarity,” Lorch noted.

“My clients appreciate the clarity.”

As a part of her process, Lorch asks clients to identify their ideal tone and target audience—and to be as specific as possible. She warned that terms like “accessible” or “authoritative” can mean different things to different brands, so it’s important to understand what your client really means by these descriptors.

Lorch also asks clients if there will be any visuals accompanying her text before she starts writing. “I want to know if infographics will be included,” she said. “This helps me visualize the finished piece. Sometimes, we even brainstorm about layout, side bars, or how we want to link these things.”

When a client can’t offer a clear vision for a project or article, Lorch has no problem declining the assignment. “It’s better for someone to come to me knowing what voice works best for them,” she said.

Figure out who will be responsible for fact-checking

In journalistic outlets, there are often company-employed fact-checkers who will look over copy before it’s published in print or online. No matter what the project entails—whether it’s a blog post, article, or whitepaper—clients should let freelancers know how their company’s fact-checking process works. If they don’t, freelancers should be prepared to inquire about this step early on.

When I suspect a project will involve intensive fact-checking, for instance, I usually ask about it at the start. This way, I know if I’ll need to provide a separate list of sources along with the draft, which helps avoid unnecessary delays during edits.

In some cases, clients may also want recordings of your interviews or footnotes indicating where you sourced a particular fact or quote. Knowing if this is necessary ahead of time is important, as it’s cumbersome to dig up this data retroactively.

Discuss the revision and payment process ASAP

Project timeline, expectations for revisions, and a payment schedule are other important details that freelancers need to sort out before they sign on the dotted line of a new contract.

In any creative project, revisions are likely part of the process. Once a freelancer files copy, ideally, the client will get back to them in a timely manner. But this isn’t always spelled out in a brief. “For busy writers, not knowing when edits are coming can be frustrating,” Apte said.

“Not knowing when edits are coming can be frustrating.”

To get ahead of a runaway revision process, Lorch specifies the number of edits included in her fees—and she also notes the rate per additional revision. “I also like to include in my contract or estimate the possibility of a cap. ‘You have seven days to return comments,’ [for example]” she said.

Lastly, to avoid payment disputes, freelancers need to know the terms of the engagement, including when the client plans to pay, how the funds will be delivered, and if there’s an opportunity for a kill fee should the project not be published. Whenever possible, Lorch pushes to invoice with the submission of a first draft.

Ultimately, a collaborative process to set expectations will lessen headaches not only for you, but also for your clients.

Image by mushakesa