How to tell a copywriter you’re not quite happy yet.

I posted a comment on an anguished post in a copywriting group a few weeks ago. 

The OP seemed frustrated and confused over how to respond to a client who had complained that she “didn’t like” the copy she’d received.

It turned out that a lot of other copywriters found this familiar and had found it equally difficult to respond to.

Now the basic requirement for any piece of copy is that it should be capable of doing the job set out in a brief provided by a client.

That brief should define, as a bare minimum:

  • the message that needs to be delivered;
  • the audience it needs to be delivered to;
  • the channel or medium through which it should be delivered.

The writer’s job is to decide how best to do this… and then do it. (From time to time, a brief may leave the channel or medium open, to be proposed as part of the creative solution, but one way or another this still has to be defined before the execution can begin, so let’s not worry about that possibility for now.)

Providing the brief sets out those three basics, the writer’s job is simply to deliver that message to that audience via that medium in a way that is appropriate to the situation or purpose. 

So how should a client assess copy? 

The professional way to judge copy on receipt of the draft is to do so against the criteria in the brief. If the copy were published via the specified medium to the intended audience, how effectively would deliver the required message?

Ideally, this is judged in two parts: firstly, by the client setting aside their own likes and dislikes and assessing, to the best of their ability, how well they feel the copy does the job. Then secondly by subjecting it to some kind of testing against a representative sample of the actual audience.

That’s how it should work. But of course not every task for which copy is commissioned commands the time or budget needed for pretesting. In an age in which most copy can be modified easily in response to target response once it’s actually live, the testing stage very often goes by the board, which means that the client simply ‘judges’ it.

But how easy is it for a client to judge copy? 

It can be hard for a client to be dispassionate about copy, especially if the immediate success of their job or their business to some extent hangs on it. Yet this provides all the more reason to focus hard on whether the copy does the job it is required to do. Not “Do I like it?” but “Will it do what I need done?” 

Of course, it’s nice for everyone concerned if a client is not only satisfied that a piece of copy looks as if it will do the job, but also likes it. But what if you’re a client and you don’t like the copy you’re presented with? 

Well, that’s fine, so long as your assessment has been objective, and you’re able to hold up the brief against the work and say, “I’m unhappy with this copy because I believe it fails to deliver against this or that part of the brief.” 

The key word here, however, is ‘because’. If you are able to say why you are not happy, then the copywriter has the opportunity to listen to your point, accept it, debate the point if they disagree, and then agree with you on precisely what will or will not be revised.

So what’s the right way to feedback that you’re dissatisfied with a piece of copy?

The first thing to do is to be certain that there is something specific and communicable that you’re unhappy with. 

“I don’t like it” is not helpful or actionable feedback on its own. If this is the only response you plan to offer, without anything more specific, think hard about whether you really mean, “This is isn’t the way I’d have done it myself/the way my last copywriter would have done it/exactly the way I’d imagined it would turn out.” 

Why should you think hard about this? Because it’s not a copywriter’s job to deliver against any of those objections. It’s their job to deliver copy that answers your brief in the way they, as the professional you have commissioned, believe best.

How to feedback if you know exactly what you’re unhappy about.

If you do indeed know why you’re unhappy with copy, you need only answer one or two simple questions to be able to feedback ‘like a boss’, and make it easy for your copywriter to address your concerns.

1) Is the problem overall, or is it specifics?

OVERALL – Sometimes a concern will apply to an entire piece of writing. In the majority of cases, issues of this kind relate to style: “it’s too jokey”; “it’s too wordy”; “it doesn’t feel serious enough”; “we never capitalise our sector name” etc. 

‘Overall’ points don’t relate to individual words or lines or paragraphs, though it can be useful to illustrate an overall objection with one or two specific quotes from the draft that make it easier for the writer to understand what you’re getting at.

SPECIFICS – These are comments that apply to specific sections of the copy. They may be stylistic (“this part is too formal”, “this bit is not in line with out tone of voice” etc), but they are more likely to relate to content: “This fact is incorrect”, “Can we also mention xyz at this point?” etc

Comprehensive feedback will often include both overall and specific points. If you’re clear in your own head on which you’re making, it’s easy to be clear in communicating this.

2) Is the problem one of style, or one of content?

STYLE – If the thing with which you are unhappy is a matter of style, then be clear on that and separate it from content. It’s fine to say to a writer, “You’ve covered everything we want to say and the copy is well structured. I just feel it’s a bit too wordy/too pompous/too technical etc.” 

Common areas of feedback on style include:

  • the tone of voice doesn’t feel right;
  • the copy doesn’t feel arresting/engaging enough;
  • the copy doesn’t sound suitably professional for our subject matter. 

To revise for style objections, the writer does not generally need to rethink or rebuild the factual basis or organisational structure of the copy. They will simply need to rework the same material in a modified tone of voice.

CONTENT – It’s the other way around with content issues. Again, it’s fine to say to a writer, “The copy sounds great. I like the tone of voice and the way you’ve gone about this, but there are things about what it actually says that I’m not happy with.” 

Common areas of feedback on content include:

  • the copy seems off strategy in some way;
  • the structure doesn’t seem to work as well as it should;
  • the copy doesn’t communicate our story clearly enough;
  • the copy is technically incorrect in some way;
  • the copy is missing some important part of the story.

Some or all.

In well presented feedback, these comments can occur in any combination. You may wish to make:

  • overall comments about style (“I find the whole piece too informal.”)
  • overall comments about content (“It’s short on statistics, quotes and other facts to backup the assertions we make.”)

Equally, you may wish to make: 

  • specifics comments about style; (“This sentence seems to go on too long to be easily understood.”)
  • specifics comments about content. (“The example you’ve used here isn’t the best one we have for this purpose.”)

All or any of these are fine. The only thing that matters is to be clear in communicating what you’re asking for.

Be nice and get the revisions you want.

To you, the copy you are reviewing may seem no different to a day to day document within your business. 

It is fundamentally different, however, as it will be read over and over by an important and possibly very large audience. Also, to your copywriter it’s a piece of creative work into which time and commitment were invested, over carefully considered decisions were taken, and in the creation of which multiple drafts and revisions were made before the version you received was completed.

It’s polite and productive to start a request for revisions with some positives and a bit of encouragement. Mention some things that are good and that you like before launching into your list of things you want revised.

Even if you hate every word of the copy for legitimate reasons, it’s still good to open your feedback with, “I can see that a lot of work has gone into this, but…” or even just “I loved the samples you shared with me of work you’ve done in the past, but on this… “

I’ve had grumpy feedback from clients requesting what was actually minor revision to 1% of a piece of copy, without any mention whatsoever of the other 99% of the work with which they were actually completely happy.

Rewriting sections of the copy yourself.

Sometimes copy needs a technical detail correcting, and that can be done best and quickest by you simply making that change. If that’s the case, go ahead and make it. 

On other occasions, you might spot a typo in the draft. Correct it. It’s not a big deal. It was going to get picked up at some point, and if this is that point then fix it.

If the changes required are anything other than these, however, try to explain to your copywriter what the problem is and then leave them to address it, rather than rewriting yourself. Your job is to say what’s wrong: their’s is to fix it.

If you do choose to rewrite sections yourself, then there’s little point in sending your rewritten draft back to the copywriter to look at what you’ve done. If you’ve already made it say what you want it to say, then it’s very hard for the copywriter to know what further they are meant to do to it (other than possibly double checking your changes for style or good English).

Collaboration gets you the copy you need.

I tell clients that they bring to the table their expertise in their sector and knowledge of their own business, I bring my expertise in planning and writing marketing communications, we put the two together… and Boom! Powerful copy that communicates their message clearly and effectively.

It’s a collaboration… and requesting and completing revisions professionally is a key part of it.