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While many people thing they are good writers, few actually are.

I'm often given content in a word document—often consisting entirely of a bulleted list (and often with sub-lists nested within bullets)—and given a task such as "make this into a brochure" or "make this look pretty" or "put this on the website".

Content like this is often the result of writing-by-committee, where text has already gone through higher-ups (and may have been written by said powers that be), so making changes can be tricky. Often the change requested (especially for short content) is basically a re-write using the old content as an outline, but there might not be one person that was responsible for the content to spearhead revisions. There is also the risk of offending someone or having them dig-in on the current text.

In situations like this, what are some effective strategies for getting better text? What are some "good writing" guidelines that can be given to a client to produce better text without making them feel like I'm telling them they are a bad writer.

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    I disagree with Billy :) Graphic Design is as much about copy as it is art. – Scott Feb 13 '18 at 16:04
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    While I generally agree.. a writer will always do the best job. The reality is, for some clients and some projects, hiring a writer isn't always possible, even it is the best course of action. – Scott Feb 13 '18 at 16:18
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    @BillyKerr, i think this is relevant. Wouldn't you try to prevent the use of bad images or try to improve them? I think the text should have the same treatment. I have often promised a customer to make them a nice flyer/book/poster/etc. but when I receive their text, it's impossible to keep my promise. The text doesn't "match" the product or it's simply messy and non-logical. Then I'm in a dilemma because if I don't do anything, I will look like a bad designer, but if I do, I risk embarrassing the client. The psychology behind this is a big part of my job, and I would like to be better at it. – Wolff Feb 13 '18 at 16:35
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    @BillyKerr, I've had similar experiences - in my case it was the niece! For me it's a very tricky balancing act. I want to do good work for interesting clients (skilled, challenging, famous, rich etc.) so I can improve my reputation and get even more interesting clients (= have fun making money). But you have to live right now also, so you are often forced into pleasing very unprofessional and demanding clients - because you need the money. How to keep your own standard without offending less skilled/ambitious clients? – Wolff Feb 13 '18 at 16:54
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They have copy...

They get what they pay for. It's not my job to write their copy or to even edit what they have provided. Yes, I may read the copy and laugh, cringe, or be disgusted by it. But I am not responsible for what they provide me nor for their "business message" they wish to convey.

If they have a 17 year old, third cousin, of their mother's uncle's sister's nephew write copy that is horribly grammatically incorrect and littered with typos, that's what they've chosen to do. Not your problem. Most business are aware that they need someone to write content. Who they choose is up to them. Like any aspect of running their business, I feel it's a bit out of place for me to tell them they need a different writer if they've already chosen one.

If copy is truly horrible, I may say something like "I know a few professional writers. I'm sure they may be able to provide some copy suggestions if you are interested. Would you like me to pass along their contact information?" But beyond that....

I use what they provide.

Caveats:

  • I tell the client to "please proofread everything closely. I'm not responsible for content or typographical errors once the design is approved." If they still want to use horrible copy.. I cringe and move on.
  • I will correct clear typographical errors if I see them, but it's not really my "job" to do so if changes aren't requested.
  • I will mention to the client that "X sounds a bit odd to me, is it just how I'm reading it?" if I see something out of place. Again if I see it. I'm not specifically looking for such items.

See here:

They need copy....

If I'm asked about writing, I state that I'm not a writer but I know several and would be happy to provide some referrals.

If they are adamant that they just "want me" to write the copy... well.... I, personally, never take on clients that need me to write their content. That's not what I do and not where I specialize. My time is much better served by sticking to what I know and do well.

It makes no business sense for me to venture into an area I either don't work in or perhaps don't want to work in for a single client. Clients come and go, why would I bother stressing myself out by performing duties I don't normally perform? Another client with good copy will come along shortly. I wouldn't attempt to take on the client's customer fulfillment responsibilities merely because they ask me to and they want to save money. That's not my job. And whether or not they can afford someone to do something they need done is of no concern to me.

But, well, I guess if you really want to be a writer as well.... First... the fee for services goes up, way up.

Copy writing is a profession. So earnings should rise accordingly. The client may be of the mindset that they can "save money" if you write copy.... but you taking on additional work doesn't mean you need to give the client some huge financial break. Remember you are a business too and most, if not all, business won't take on additional work without additional fees. Perhaps fees not as high as they would be for one dedicated to the tertiary profession but they should be higher than the base rate for the primary profession.


Be aware....

Often the mark of a "bad" or "less-than-ideal" client is the client that keeps wanting you to do everything under the sun for the same rate or to "cut them a break" because they are giving you "so much work" even if that work is not in your chosen field. It can be an attempt to overwhelm you, throw you off balance, use you as much as possible then move on, either paying as little as possible or not paying at all.


In short, it's not your job to save the client money. That is not to say you need to gouge or take advantage of anyone. You don't and shouldn't. But you absolutely should be compensated if you are performing tasks above and beyond what is normally expected. For me, personally, my hourly rates would double, if not triple, if I were to take on such a project.

So, will it save the client money? meh.. that's arguable. A professional writer has a better chance of creating copy that results in a higher Return on Investment (ROI) and while they client may save a little by asking you to do the writing, it's highly probably the ROI on your copy will be lower meaning they client is spending less but also earning less by asking you to do the writing. As the old adage goes.. You have to spend money to make money.

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If the writing is a problem then ask them if it's "locked in stone", if they're attached to it or if they would like to see revisions.

The communication can be achieved up front, open and professionally with a touch of designery haughtiness.

The justification: as a multimedia professional I take personal responsibility for all work that lands on my desk. Correct writing is just as important as correct visual design. I found the copy here to not be the most effective for your intended communication.

  • It's not worded powerfully
  • It sounds too casual
  • Sounds weird
  • Sounds wrong
  • Too technical
  • not technical enough
  • too eager
  • too obtuse
  • too confusing
  • It is not a professional tone
  • etc.

If you, the designer, are not a writer then encourage your client to get a rewrite or suggest a writer. Have a discussion about the brand, message and tone appropriate for this piece. Have them read their sentences aloud to see how it sounds. Besides that teaching writing is not in scope.

If you are a writer than take ownership of all content and reassure your client that the writing can be improved.

In degrees:

  1. No changes, but I will make notes of typos and grammatical errors for you to decide what to do with, fix them if you want.

  2. I will rewrite this minimally, to correct typos and grammar.

  3. This needs to be re-written. Here is my version. Let me know if any part of it needs more work or revision.

If they are a touchy and difficult committee than you should be firm in your resolve. Deal with only 1 person. Get their change suggestions in writing and enact them.

If I receive a bullet list and am told to make it a brochure than a lot of creative decisions are called on, including writing a brochure based on the bullets.

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