The Freelance Creative

Story Brief Basics: What to Look For and How to Respond

illustration for story brief basics

I recently received an email from a potential new client that gave me pause: “We’re looking for an article about home mortgages for millennials. We’re open to suggestions on formatting. What’s your rate?”

After seven years of freelancing, I’ve learned the hard way that an assignment that comes in the form of a three-sentence email is often a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A simple primer on home loans sounds easy enough. But this vague direction leaves a lot of open questions: How many words is the client expecting? Are source interviews required? Does the client want specific products mentioned? Without these details outlined from the get-go, the potential for endless rounds of revisions skyrockets.

That said, there’s such a thing as too much detail in a project brief. I don’t need to know a brand’s entire origin story to write a 500-word article. Really, I’m looking for a Goldilocks situation—a length and level of depth that’s juuuust right.

As a writer, knowing what to look (and ask!) for at the start of a project can keep you from getting burned later on. Here’s a quick primer on story brief basics you should know as a contributor on Contently.

Story brief basics with Contently

As a platform that pairs top-tier brands with skilled freelance creatives, Contently eliminates a lot of ambiguity by design. Often, by the time a story is ready to go to a writer, the assigning editor will have already hammered out the basics—angle, word count, and tone of voice, for instance. In other words, those half-baked, three-sentence-style “briefs” are pretty rare.

As soon as you hit “accept” on a story assigned to you in Contently, you’ll get access to the brief. It will likely look something like this:

Contently’s story briefs have a few different functions. First and foremost, they provide a blueprint for the project’s direction, including the length and key points to hit. Briefs are also where you’ll find any relevant background links, sourcing material, and assets you may need. Finally, briefs serve as an informal contract, ensuring all parties know exactly what’s expected in terms of deliverables, details, and deadlines.

Anatomy of a successful story brief

Here’s a breakdown of the sections to scrutinize before you begin working on a project.


This is where you’ll find clearly outlined expectations for the project. Each ME treats this section a little differently, so you’ll probably notice some variation from client to client.

Some MEs break up the assignment details into sections or bullets, while others may write out instructions in a more thorough, paragraph-style format. When I create brief templates as an ME, I usually include the following:

Project format and logistics

Underneath the “requirements” text, you’ll find a gray box with some quick-hitter details including:

Additional materials

Directly below the project logistics box, you’ll find “additional materials.” If the assignment involves any external documents, PDFs, slide decks, style guides, or other reference material, this is where you’ll find it. Simply click the links to download or view the assets. Occasionally, editors may also use the “assets” tab—the button with the paperclip icon—on the righthand sidebar—to upload documents or images. Be sure to check both sections if you’re hunting for something like a style guide.

Audience and pillar

At the very bottom of the brief, you’ll find the target audience—the cohort you’re trying to reach or talk to—as well as the “pillar,” which is the strategic bucket that this project falls under. Hit the “read more” links to find full descriptions of these items.

You can also view the client’s overarching content strategy by clicking the button at the bottom of this box. It’s a good idea to take a peek at this, particularly if it’s your first time working with the client. Reading through their strategy can give you a sense of how this particular project fits into larger marketing goals or initiatives.

How to read and follow story briefs

Sometimes—particularly when a project is a rush job—editors may not have a chance to drill down into all of these details before they send a brief your way. In these cases, it’s important to ask for clarifications on any gray areas before you begin work.

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to read briefs analytically, as well as a few important questions to ask.

1) “Accept” the story and read through the brief as soon as it’s assigned—even if it’s not due for days or weeks. This way, you know you have everything you need to avoid a last-minute scramble on deadline day.

2) Ask yourself the following questions:

3) Ask your ME for clarification about anything that’s unclear or missing from the checklist above.

4) Cross-reference the brief while writing to stay on track. Personally, I like to copy the brief into the text editor and delete relevant sections as I address them. This way, I know I’m hitting all the core components.

5) Read through the brief one final time before hitting “submit” on your project. Being thorough at this stage will help cut down on revisions.

With a “just right” brief in hand, you’ll be in a better place to craft stories that meet client expectations and avoid revision purgatory. Putting in a little upfront time to hit that sweet spot is often well worth the effort.

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