How to Tell a Writing Client Their Ideas Suck

Carol Tice

How to Tell a Freelance Writing Client Their Ideas Suck. Makealivingwriting.comSometimes, you find a copywriting client, and it’s like a dream. They love you! You love them!

You create awesome copy together…until one day, it all goes wrong.

This happened to me recently. I found myself in a situation where I needed to tell a client — a big, Fortune 500-type client — that their ideas for an article sucked.

I was writing for a newsletter the company sends to millions of customers. We had set a very conversational, friendly, first-person tone in previous articles for this newsletter. Then we wrote another one that for some reason got passed over to the legal department for a final check.

Weeks later, I was sent the piece back for another look.

It was a disaster.

The legal department clearly had no idea what we were trying to achieve in terms of tone. They had turned it into the equivalent of a corporate memo. There were dozens of sentences that had were now laced with Official Company Phrases — written just like that, with initial capitals everywhere.

It was ghastly. Really, it was about unreadable.

I decided I had to do something.

I wrote my contact an email. This is what it said, word for word:

“I want to point out that the addition of these many capitalized terms greatly changes the tone of this piece. It is now clearly an advertorial, and no longer has the feel of an article. No reported piece in a magazine or newspaper would repeatedly capitalize these terms — they likely wouldn’t even capital them once. So the repeating capitalization really distracts the reader and pulls your eye out of the narrative.

If that’s where we want to go, then great — but people working on this product should be aware that we aren’t where we started anymore in terms of the premise in creating this piece.

I don’t know why we can’t define these official terms once and then refer to them colloquially through the rest of the piece…but obviously that’s [the company’s] call to make. Just my two cents about it.”

After I sent this, I thought, “I hope I haven’t screwed this relationship up by opening my big mouth about this.” But I didn’t really have regrets.

I felt like I needed to say something about what had happened to the piece. I was going to feel embarrassed by having my byline on it if they went with it as is, so I had to give it a shot.

It’s hard to stand up for your little old freelance-writing self against a great, big corporation that could give you tons of freelance work in future. But if what we did turned all to mush, that probably wasn’t going to happen anyway.

So I hit send. Bit a few nails.

The next day I got an email: “Would you be available to talk about this piece?”

We set up a call, which had a whole team of people from the company on it. I took a deep breath.

And here’s what I heard: “We looked at this article again, and we agree with you — it’s lost the friendly tone we wanted. Can you help us figure out how to rewrite it?”

So that’s what we did. Somebody wrestled the legal people into a corner, and the fun, friendly article was reborn.

That’s my story about how you tell a copywriting client their content sucks.

How do you tell a client their ideas suck?

Very, very diplomatically and respectfully.

If you take the right tone, you just might get your way. You’ll also respect yourself in the morning for being true to your standards — and often, so will the client.

Have you told a client their ideas suck? If so, how’d that go? Leave a comment and let us know.

19 Comments

  1. perry rose

    How’s the flu?

    Fellin’ betta? 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Mostly better except for the hacking lungs now…thanks.

  2. perry rose

    Although this isn’t on article writing, I can relate.

    I have found most businesses do welcome crits. In fact, many times this is in part on how I get jobs writing sales letters and ads.

    I see so many sales letters (junk mail) in my inbox and mail box that are so “buy right now” typical.

    It does not have that friend-talking-to-a-friend touch.

    It’s all BUY! BUY! BUY! RENEW! RENEW! RENEW! SIGN UP! SIGN UP SIGN UP!

    For many businesses, (not all of them), if they would just talk to their audience as if they are talking to one person, and that person is a friend telling another friend about a product, sales would go up.

    A friend doesn’t sell, he talks about it.

    Put the selling on the back burner.

    How I gently tell them that their copy has the wrong tone is pretty much the same way you do it, Carol.

    Along with that, I give them a couple of rewritten samples for them to “just think about.”

    That’s all you can do.

    Oh, and cross your fingers.

    Thanks for another great piece, Carol.

    • Carol Tice

      I love your idea of sending them a sample of how you would redo it — great suggestion Perry!

  3. Sarah

    Does anyone else struggle with the reverse happening? You open up and are honest about your opinion in hopes of improving the final product, but in the end, all your ideas are shot down. I know tact has a lot to do with it, but not all companies are open to hearing different points of view. Any more communication tips on dealing with difficult people/situations would be most welcome.

    • Carol Tice

      Oh sure…I just went through that with a new client. Obviously, it’s not always a win when you point out ways it could be done better, topics that would be more interesting…guess my point is it’s worth trying. I think most clients respect you for having the courage of your convictions with this kind of stuff.

    • Sondi

      I’ve had several experiences where I voiced my opinion and my ideas were then rejected. It was a struggle for me to deal with at first, but I came to realize that certain clients like things done a certain way and there’s not much you can do about it. As Carol said, it’s worth trying, and at least I know I’ve given it my best, said my piece and done all I could do to improve the copy.

    • Carol Tice

      Right on. Also sometimes those other ideas you put out ferment in their heads for six months and then they finally decide to try them.

      But in any case, I think having this kind of dialogue positions you as a confident expert rather than a terrified copywriter who’s afraid to offer any guidance or ideas on how things could be made better.

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