Top tips for briefing freelance writers

As any seasoned commissioner will know, getting the right content from freelancers can be a bumpy process

For a freelancer, there’s nothing better than getting to grips with some lovely tight briefs. Writing commissions, however, presents a whole new range of challenges. We’ve marshalled some of the best content commissioners in the business to explain how (and how not) to be the chief of your brief.

Importance of detail

Ensuring adequate detail in a commission is the first step to briefing success. Helen Saunders, commissioning editor for Natwest and RBS suggests the rules differ according to the type of content.

When clients make a “prescriptive” request, for example, such requests must be specifically laid out in the briefs.

“For the more complex, in-depth features that require specialist changes”, however, “my brief may be more concise but I will assign the feature to a writer with expert knowledge who I trust will use their initiative and insight” (more on this below).

Above all, commissioners “really can’t be too specific with freelancers” according to Tina Nielsen, deputy editor of FCSI’s quarterly magazine Foodservice Consultant.

But Richard Young, consulting editor for KPMG offers a sage warning about the dangers of going too far. At a past publication, he “went crazy” with briefs thousands of words long to ensure exacting results from freelancers.

“I’m not sure any of the freelancers ever actually read them”, he concludes, noting that succinctness in a brief is as important as detail.

TIP #1: Detail is the cornerstone of a good brief…

…but a structured and adaptable approach ensures this doesn’t come at the expense of crispness.

Astute commissioners will be aware that, whatever a brief looks like, what the freelancer produces has a lot to do with their personal outlook on a topic.

Tina Nielsen points out that “you can only do so much to vet a freelancer”, as they may well “have different ideas of what works or how a feature should look”.

This, however, needn’t be a bad thing. “Play to their strengths”, advises Richard Young, “and plan in time and effort to refine their work with the bits you’re better able to supply yourself”.

TIP #2: Make your expectations known early on…

…but make the most of what you get back from freelancers to combine your specialities with theirs.

Mustering all of your commissioning tactics may be necessary to avoid the “dog ate my homework” situation, which, according to Helen Saunders, is all too common among some unnamed sections of the journalistic community.

She recommends making the deadline pressures known as early as possible to avoid the embarrassment of a late filing – using false deadlines if necessary.

Yet there’s still a place for leniency in the ruthless world of content commissioning.

Chris Evans, commissioning editor for Yachting Partners International publication 360° points out that this is important if a writer is “trying to juggle several features at the same time and it affects the quality of their work”.

TIP #3: Combine the stick of deadlines with the carrot of sensitivity…

… to ensure you’re getting the best content in on time.

Helen Saunders points out the merits of a flexible approach to coax out the best content. Someone like Peter Wilson, for example, “often writes a much more readable feature than a writer with lots of business-writing experience”.

On the other hand, “go-to writers” for certain topics are equally essential for cultivating the best content.

Even then, caution is needed. Chris Evans notes that having a core group of writers you know and trust is one thing but “being realistic about whether they can tackle the particular subject and in the right style needed” is another.

For instance, Richard Young recalls commissioning an article on franchising from his go-to man on the subject at another magazine, only to receive “off-the-cuff speculation and waffle with little or no narrative arc or point”.

TIP #4: Detail and deadlines are important…

…but it’s crucial that the right brief gets to the right people.

Commissioners are content jugglers, working furiously to keep the balls of client demands, freelance capabilities and quality control in motion.

As tricky as this can be, striking the right balance in briefing detail, expectation control, copy chasing and people management can ease the process along.

As Richard Young’s “meta-lesson” goes, the key point is to “take nothing for granted”. Articulate what you need, and giving briefs can be a breeze.

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