Freelancers: How to Obtain the Perfect Brief

Woolly or constantly changing briefs are one of the biggest bugbears for freelancers, but since they’re devised by the client, it’s easy to assume there’s nothing that you, the freelancer, can do about them. Right?

Wrong. Your response to a client’s initial enquiry can make all the difference when it comes to ensuring that the brief you eventually get has all the hows, whys, whens and wheres you need.

Ask the Right Questions

Sometimes, an initial enquiry may contain many of the details you’ll need to complete the job on time, on budget and per specification. At other times, it will be lacking nearly all of the useful details. ‘There’s a book I’d like you to edit,’ said one email I received. ‘How much would it cost?’

When we receive one of these pitifully-poor-excuses-for-a-brief, multiple questions spring to mind. In this case, I wondered:

  • who the enquirer was
  • whether they’d written the book themselves
  • whether it was fiction or non-fiction (and if it was non-fiction, whether it was on a topic that I knew nothing about)
  • how long it was, i.e. word count (never tell a freelance editor your book is ’25 pages long,’ because that means nothing; you may have printed out something in the style of my son’s homework when he was little – size 20 font and lots of white space!)
  • what they meant by ‘edit’ (as people’s expectations and misinterpretations of that word can mean they want anything from a light proofread to an entire rewrite)
  • when they would want the edit completed
  • if they wanted it sent to them chapter by chapter
  • what format the book was in and how they wanted edits and revisions marked

… and so on. Some of the questions that spring into your mind when you get a bad brief will depend of the industry you work in, while some of them – such as those about predicted deadlines – will be universal. But whatever your questions are, take the time to think about them. What do you need to know now, before you agree to take on the job?

When you respond to their enquiry, do so with a list of clearly written questions by your side that are designed to extract the information you want. Alternatively, you may want to try this…

Designing a Template for the Perfect Brief

Some freelancers have turned their enquiry/contact form on their website into a template for a brief, and while this may not suit you, you could consider designing one to send to clients in response to their initial query, with a friendly covering note explaining that this is your standard practice to ensure you have all the details you need.

Again, the exact format and question content of the form will vary depending on your area of expertise, but vital information that any brief requires includes:

  • A Detailed Task Description
    Ask the right questions here to ensure that you understand exactly what they want from you and exactly what they expect from the finished product. You need to know what you’re taking responsibility for and how much will be down to your initiative; do they trust you to take the work in the direction you think best, or do they want to retain tight control? What format will the work be in and how do they want it delivered?
  • A Clear Timeline and Firm Deadline
    Are there certain stages that need to be completed by specific dates? When is the proper, real, genuine, really-must-be-done-by deadline? I emphasise this because in my experience, it’s more often clients rather than freelancers who redefine deadlines and let them drift about!
  • Contact Details and Communication Schedule
    Who should you contact about the work and how should you contact them? How often do they want to hear about your progress? Some clients like to be updated regularly; others only want to hear from you once it’s all done and dusted, unless you have a query in the meantime.

You may also want to include:

  • Payment Points and Final Fee
    While the client may be looking to you for a quote, it can be useful to establish if they envisage paying you at certain stages of the project and what their total budget might be. Asking for a ballpark figure or range upfront can save a lot of time; it’s pointless wasting your time preparing a detailed quote that arrives at over £1000 if the potential client has a budget of around £200.

 By asking the right questions you can put yourself more in control of the situation and avoid misunderstandings later, making satisfied clients and pleasingly-plump paycheques more likely.

No, it shouldn’t be this hard. Yes, it is amazing that clients can’t put themselves, just for a moment, in the head of someone receiving their vague emails – and realise that nobody could quote for or complete a job based on something woollier than a sheep six months overdue for a shear. But where would we be without clients and their briefs?

Oh yes. Out of work…

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