Writing For Money

The Internet Newsletter That Shows You How To Make Money And Live A Great Life As A Freelance Writer


Business Tactics


Why Clients Rewrite Copy … and How to Handle It


BY ROBERT W. BLY | Recently the head of a large public relations agency said to me, “Boy, I don’t envy you being a freelance copywriter. That’s got to be a tough job, writing copy and then having clients make all those changes and revisions.”


To a degree, he’s right. H.G. Wells once observed there is no greater human urge than the desire to rewrite someone else’s copy. And certainly, if you’ve been in this business for any length of time, you know for many writing projects, the most tedious part is routing the drafts, making changes, generating revisions, and getting approvals.


Why is there so much revising and rewriting of copy by clients and editors? Aside from the possibility that the copy being submitted is simply bad copy, I think there are two major reasons.


The first is that writing is one of the few activities in the business world where there is no RFP (request for proposal) — no predefined and agreed-upon specification to which the work must conform.


If I order a computer system, part of the vendor’s selling process is to precisely define my needs and requirements. In their proposal to me, the vendor will spell out exactly what is to be delivered — down to the dimensions of the computer screen, the size of the hard drive, even the brand and type of modem. As a result, it’s rather simple to determine whether the vendor has fulfilled my requirements.


But in the writing business, it’s different. It would be absurd for the client to request, in advance, an article with so many subheads, so many commas, so many sentences beginning with the words and or the, so many paragraphs of such and such length.


And here’s the root of the problem: If we cannot define a specification or requirement for the work before it is ordered, how can the professional writer be absolutely sure he or she is precisely meeting the client’s preferences and expectations? We can’t, of course — hence, the tendency to edit and rewrite any piece of submitted copy.


The second reason why copy is rewritten is best summed up by an ad agency executive from the television show thirty-something, who, when asked to defend a campaign, replied, “Nobody knows anything.”


To some degree, he is right. There is no formula that guarantees a successful ad or best-selling novel. All creative efforts are educated guesses; all published materials are tests which determine the validity of our approach to the market.

Because writing is an art or a craft, and not an exact science, the professional writer’s opinion is always subject to question and debate, in part because she cannot with certainly say she is right.


Few people constantly and boldly challenge the opinions of their neurosurgeons, accountants, attorneys, mechanics, or electricians, because these professions are viewed as scientific, and the practitioners are seen as technical experts with arcane knowledge beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals.


But, in fields where decisions are more subjective — copywriting, graphic design, interior decorating, landscape architecture — clients frequently question the practitioner, because the client believes his opinion to be equally valid. As writer Hugo Williams observes, “The tricky thing about the writing industry is the more or less accepted notion that everyone’s opinion, even on matters of grammar, carries equal weight.” Even if the client gives the professional carte blanche at the beginning of the project, the instant he sees something that is not exactly the way he would have done it, a revision or change is demanded.


Can anything be done to correct this situation and enable professional writers to make their clients happier faster? Writers and their clients may want to establish a set of specifications or guidelines for certain projects. Should product sheets be promotional or technical? Benefit or feature oriented? Deciding in advance can prevent disagreements later on.


Think about presenting your ideas in memo or outline form before you go to first draft. Get your client to comment on and approve the proposed direction before proceeding.


Writers should also pay closer attention to the tone, style, and length of the client’s existing published materials. If your style and theirs mesh, fine. If not, ask if they’re looking to create more of the same, or if they want new materials done with your special flair and touch.


For instance, if I observe that all the sample pieces a new copywriting client has sent me are done in certain style, I may ask, “Are you open to a different approach, or do you basically want another ad along these lines?” If they are inflexible, and if I don’t like their approach or cannot duplicate it, I walk away from the job.


As for me, I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of this article in Writing for Money — mainly to see how much my client, Don Nicholas, edited it.


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BOB BLY is the author of 40 books including the just-published Secrets of a Freelance Writer: Revised Second Edition (Henry Hold & Co.). For a free catalog of Bob’s books, tapes, and reports for writers, contact: Bob Bly, 22 E. Quackenbush Avenue, Dumont, NJ 07628, phone 201-385-1220, fax 201-385-1138, email: Rwbly@aol.com.