How to Brief a Freelance Writer in 9 Essential Steps
Content Marketing

How to Brief a Freelance Writer in 9 Essential Steps

26th June 2019

You’ve completed your content marketing or organic search strategy and are overflowing with excitement to get started on content creation. You know what the client or your manager wants, what they need (which may, of course, be different) and how to get there.

All that stands between you and completing your objectives is some awesome article writing. But when you don’t have the skills or capacity to complete the job yourself, how do you ensure that all your knowledge and enthusiasm is transferred to your writer?

The answer: a stellar brief.

Below are nine key points you should include in every article brief to a freelance writer, why the information is essential and what freelance writers themselves have to say.

Website Writing

Why is a brief important?

Many of you will already be sold on the concept of a brief, but for those of you used to offering only minimum guidance to your freelance writers, here’s the elevator pitch on comprehensive briefing.

Freelancer Celina Bledowski, who has 10 years of writing experience, says:

“Frequently, some commissioning editors think that it’s enough to give their writers the keywords and copy length. That’s never enough. You, as a writer, have to know where the piece is going to be posted to understand the tone of voice, the readership and also what the article is supposed to achieve. There’s a world of difference between a snappy, amusing blog post and a more in depth informative piece.”

The purpose of creating a brief is to ensure that your freelancer has the level of understanding and knowledge required to complete the work that you need.

Some editors make the mistake of thinking that a brief is an instruction – “Write an 800-word article for a small business blog”, for example – and a list of keywords. The danger in this simplistic view is that you’re leaving a lot to chance. You’re asking the writer to make a lot of assumptions about what you’re looking for in your article.

If they make choices that don’t align with your needs, you’ll be the one stuck in multiple rounds of tedious feedback or else rewriting the article yourself. Alternatively, you’ll be inviting email-thread hell as your writer asks question after question to clarify the details as they go. Either way, you may find yourself asking the question, could I just have done this myself?

Your brief should be detailed enough that your writer knows exactly what they need to do while still providing the freedom for them to use their creative expertise. Think of your brief as leading by example: if you want quality as an output, you must put quality in.

Be clear about your requirements and you will start to see working with your freelancer as a collaboration.

1. Objective

Tell your freelancer what you are hoping to achieve with the article. For example, is it an article based on a keyword that you believe you or your client could rank for? Will the article be used by the CEO on LinkedIn to show thought-leadership within their industry? Or is it content that you’ll outreach to secure links on third-party sites?

“The most important part of the brief for me are the details relating to the specific client. What is the purpose of the article, what’s the audience, and, how much detail is required.

If I understand what a client is really looking for, then I can write accordingly – then the commissioning editor is happy and the client will also be happy.”

– Celina Bledowski

Your writer’s approach will differ depending on how the content will be used. For example, a writer will know to keep the tone of a thought-leadership article fairly formal, with industry-relevant sources. For outreach articles, the focus might be on finding the most compelling angle to grab the attention of the web editor.

2. Target audience

You should define the target audience, even if you think it is implicit in the title, and be as specific as possible. Before you get to the stage of commissioning an article, you have probably already analysed your target market. If not, now is a great opportunity.

Simon Pickerhill, experienced writer and freelancing newbie (with just six months under his belt), says:

“What I look for in a project brief is how the content is intended to connect to its readers. Who’s the audience and what drives them? What problem does the content solve, and how is the content meant to make the reader feel?”

Let’s say you want commission the article: “Having cats as pets: everything you need to know”. Your writer comes back with an in-depth look at everything involved with adopting and caring for a cat. It’s a great article, but you forgot to say it was for a lettings agent and that the target audience are people who are renting. While some information is completely valid, there are essential aspects that haven’t been considered such as:

  • How to approach your landlord or landlady about getting a cat
  • The consequences of getting a cat without seeking prior permission
  • How your deposit may be affected.

Cat

To rectify the article you either need to rewrite it yourself or ask the freelancer to do it. The latter may mean an extra fee (after all, you didn’t specify upfront) and both options involve precious time that could be spent on other tasks stemming from your genius site strategy.

3. Tone of voice

When you work closely with a client or are writing for your own site, you probably don’t think much about tone of voice – you live and breathe it! But for a freelance writer working on a variety of clients every day or week, defining tone of voice is incredibly useful.

“Tone of voice seems to be the most common thing that editors forget to mention. Is the tone formal, excited, playful? This is one aspect of copy that can really make it shine, but sadly often gets neglected in the planning process.”

– Simon Pickerhill

Some companies will have a tone of voice document, sometimes as a section in their brand guidelines. You could send this across to your freelancer, but just as important is distilling this into a few lines that the writer can quickly and easily reference.

Is it formal? And if so, is it friendly or strictly professional? If it’s informal, are colloquialisms and idioms ok to use? Should it be light and entertaining? Educational? Emotionally stirring? Taking a few minutes to think about this can be the difference between a two-second tweak and a two-hour rewrite when it comes to the final content.

“Having an idea of the required tone is essential. Should it have humour or focus more on information. Will the audience want a lighter touch or a more serious vibe. Sometimes the theme of the piece dictates this, but not always, so it’s great to know from the outset.”

– Lucy Toseland-Bolton, editor and writer with eight years of freelancing experience

4. Title and synopsis

Provide a title for the article. Explain whether the freelance writer can come up with a new titles or if the one provided includes a target keyword that must be adhered to. If you are trying to match a specific search intent (eg. “How to”) or content format, say so.

“The article title is a great source of information in terms of the angle I should approach the topic from, as well as guiding my writing style. For example, a listicle would be very different in tone to a serious opinion piece.”

– Charlotte Addicott, tech writer with 2.5 years of freelancing experience

Keep the synopsis short – a few sentences that briefly explains the objective, target audience and topic. It should be a quick reference guide for the freelancer to keep them on track.

“An informational article about car tax aimed at families relocating to the UK from outside Europe. It explains what it is, how to pay and how much it will cost.”

“My instinct is to say that the word count and deadline are the most important parts of the brief, because they immediately indicate the size and length of the job, but actually the synopsis itself is the most crucial, as it informs all of the research to come – and essentially forms the backbone of the narrative.”

– Louise Hoffman, writer and editor of 10 years

Planning Page
If you don’t know what the article should include, don’t expect your freelance writer to guess

5. What to include

Some editors may see this as part of the synopsis – it doesn’t matter, as long as it is in the brief somewhere. Setting out a rough structure for your freelancer can have several benefits: you know that sections essential for organic search will be included and can shape the direction that you want the content to take.

“Although you never want reams of information, it’s great to have as much as possible. I’ve had briefs that are very scant and it makes it hard to know exactly what the client is asking.”

– Lucy Toseland-Bolton

Being specific about what it is you want doesn’t mean that you’re controlling – writing creatively, with flair and passion, can be easier with some guidance. It simply means you want the writer to focus on what they do best without worrying about misinterpreting what you’re after.

“I think one of the most challenging aspects of feature briefs – for both parties – comes when an editor has a very specific vision of what he or she wants. In these cases the skill comes in clearly conveying this through the brief, and in the writer’s ability to accurately interpret the brief – and adhere to it.”

– Louise Hoffman, experienced writer with 3.5 years of freelance experience

6. Keywords

If you’re hoping that the article your commissioning will rank, including keywords are incredibly useful. But do your homework first. It can be hard for any writer to fit certain keywords naturally into the text and as such, you should offer your freelance writer guidance on what keywords to use and where.

Unhelpful Keywords
Unordered, unfiltered keywords are unhelpful to a writer

Sending an Excel spreadsheet with hundreds of keywords may seem like a quick win to you, but remember that your freelance writer specialises in just that: writing. If you bombard them with keywords, even the most SEO-savvy of writers can get distracted from what matters most in SEO: creating natural, quality content that matches the searcher’s intent.

Instead, prioritise keywords into those that are essential – that competitors use and rank for – and those that are semantically similar, and note where they should ideally fall in the article.

7. Word count

Giving a word count allows your freelance writer to estimate the time they will spend on your article and the fee they will charge. A 600-800 word article is much less intensive than one that’s 2,000 words – less research, less review time.

“There can sometimes be a tendency to underestimate the size of the subject matter, or to request more angles or interviewees than the word count really allows. If it’s quite a meaty, controversial or wide topic, or if several people need to be given a voice, a low word count will result in a feature that never really gets to the core of the matter or explores ideas fully, but simply sweeps across the surface.”

– Louise Hoffman

If you’re not sure how long the article should be, review articles on competitor sites (particularly if you’re targeting a keyword) and aspirational sites (for thought-leadership, for example) to get an idea. At the briefing stage, however, word count will always be a ‘best guess’ scenario. Until the writer dives into the topic, neither they nor you will grasp how many words will be right to meet the criteria set out above. As such, clarify how closely the word count should be adhered to or give a minimum and a maximum range.

8. Useful articles

For articles where you’re trying to rank for a certain term, include the competitor pages you are trying to better. For other content, for example thought-leadership or report for PR, you should share some useful links. This could be to relevant research, similar articles or interviews.

Use this section of your brief to guide the writer on the type of sources they should be using. If you want to be an authority and build trust, suggest credible sources of information to your writer. For example, if you commission an article on mental health and provide links to the World Health Organisation and Mind, you’re setting a precedent in regard to the level of credibility you expect. Send a link to a review of the latest distasteful horror flick about a Victorian asylum and you’ll get something quite different in return.

9. Deadline

It’s likely that deadline is something that you’ve already discussed with your freelancer to ensure they can deliver what you need. However, it’s always a good idea to reiterate this in the formal brief to be clear on expectations.

If you are briefing multiple articles at once, include whether you want all of the documents in one go or as and when they are complete. And of course, it won’t always be possible, but make sure the writer prioritises quality over deadline. Always give as much lead time as possible – after all, it will save you subbing time if your freelancer has plenty of time to review and refine their work before sending it over.

 

I don’t have time to do all this for every brief. What do I do?

Creating a brief can be time-consuming, but the details above are the basics that a writer needs to create a relevant, quality article on a given topic.

For sections like objective, target audience and keywords, you’ll likely already have these elsewhere – in a strategy document, for example. Copy across what you can, and adapt if necessary.

For other sections, there is nothing to say that you have to do everything yourself. Remember to think of your freelance writer as a collaborator. If your time is scarce, you could ask your writer to create the synopsis, structure and sample source sites from the objective and target audience you have provided. You can then put in a review step to ensure that the full brief – created in partnership with your writer – matches your needs and requirements before they start writing.

Summary

Creating an unambiguous brief allows your writer to focus on what they do best: crafting the words that will best engage the audience in the chosen topic. To do this, your writer should have complete understanding of what you’re trying to achieve.

“Having a clear brief from a company makes it so much easier when it comes to approaching a project and knowing what to research and what to write.”

– Lucy Toseland-Bolton

Be clear and detailed in your brief by using the above nine aspects as guidance. Doing so will not only save you time in the long-term by reducing amends and feedback, it also means you can get the best quality content for the fee you’re paying.

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Written By
Helen Brooks is a content marketer at Further Digital Marketing in Norwich. She has an aptitude for strategic planning and a passion for all things creative. She specialises in content marketing, social media, PR and production management.
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