How to Tell a Writing Client Their Ideas Suck

Sometimes, 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.

Photo via stock.xchng user windchime

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19 comments on “How to Tell a Writing Client Their Ideas Suck
  1. perry rose says:

    How’s the flu?

    Fellin’ betta? 🙂

  2. perry rose says:

    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.

  3. Sarah says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

      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 says:

        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.

  4. Judy Cullins says:

    Carol– great piece for free lancers. I always learn from your spunky posts. My business clients want to write engaging non-fiction and how to’s for their short books, and so for each coaching session, I prepare them and get their chapter files to brainstorm solutions on the call.

    First, I give them the chapter blueprint to study ahead of the coaching call to hopefully follow, so they make their book easy to read. They don’t pay attention right away, so then, comes the first sesson on a chapter, I see these mistakes that make their writing slow and uninspiring.
    –the usual long paragraphs that go on and on with no headlines to help guide, engage, and motivate the readers to finish, and then recommend their books.
    -too many “I’s” when they need to use a variety of examples in their stories.
    -too many passive verbs that slow the reader down,and don’t show action.
    -too long of sentences to keep the reader’s attention (15-17 words are standard)

    For each book or eBook coaching client, I use the oreo-cookie method for feedback.

    1. Compliment on the good work, thoughts, and message at the beginning of the session.
    2. Suggest possible changes for something not quite right in tone, message, style, or grammar
    and get their participation to work on it right on the coaching call. Together, brainstorm until just right, so only a few edits are needed.
    3. Compliment on ahas and changes that worked for them.

    At the end of each session, I ask what “ahas” the client got, which means they got value and are happy with the coaching, and have learned something they didn’t know before.

    Sure hope this tip helps a few here!

  5. Love it! I’ve never had a copywriting client change my writing quite that badly. Good for you for standing up for your writing and helping the client avoid a disaster of an article.

  6. Wendy Scott says:

    I recently had to deal with a similar issue. I was working on a piece for a health care client advertising a medical seminar. I wrote the copy they requested and thought everything was good until I saw the finished design. Most of the brochure looked great except for the middle panel which had copy that was previously approved by their legal department. It was dreadful. There were long, convoluted and run-on sentences that are so bad I had to read a few of them twice just to understand what the heck they were saying. I expressed my concerns but since they were under deadline and already had it designed and approved, it was too late. I probably wasn’t direct enough so thanks for the push in a more assertive direction. As long as things are framed so that it’s clear your comments are constructive and meant for the benefit of the client, I think most clients would appreciate the honesty.

    Wendy at WordDazzle.com

  7. Annie Alley says:

    Hi Carol —

    As a writer, editor and public relations counselor for a variety of clients, there have been many opportunities to “push back” on changes made by legal teams. In my work for the pharmaceutical industry, changes from regulatory consultants can completely overwhelm and decimate tone, message and journalistic style.

    However, as you point out, most clients appreciate it when a writer diplomatically raises her hand to point out issues. In fact, I consider it a duty to do so — a significant portion of the value we offer involves experience and prospective as professional communicators. Clients rely on our recommendations to ensure the end product achieves stated goals. Frankly, if the writer’s opinion and input do not matter, then the client should save their money and let the attorneys write the whole piece.

    I would also offer that, in addition to diplomacy, providing specific, actionable recommendations for improving the piece are key. If you can demonstrate that there are ways to meet the legal team’s requests while maintaining the integrity of the written piece, you’ll go far in making things easier on your client, who is often caught in the middle.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. I have to tell my clients this all the time. I write for some very technical companies where the “marketing” people are all engineers. These are very smart people, but occasionally very touchy, so I have to handle this carefully.

    My standard line is, “Well, we could do it that way, but I probably wouldn’t, and here’s why…” I always say it in a way that sounds like I’m talking out loud so it doesn’t come across as me thinking “you’re stuff is so bad it should be obvious to everyone.” And, at the end of the day, I make sure they understand it’s their call. BTW, none of the material I write is by-lined.

    This works really well for me. The only downside is when the client wants to rewrite my email campaigns into their style, and I know the metrics are going to suck. It’s even more difficult to say “I told you so” to one of these guys.

  9. I’ve recently had two clients that I felt needed to change their course. The first was pretty desperate when he showed up at my doorstep (not literally, mind you) because he knew he couldn’t write. We worked together on his bio, which was initially a stinky piece, and it turned out beautifully. I challenged him on several points, but also respected the tone he wanted to keep. Result – he was happy, I’m happy and he has a great bio for his new blog.

    Second was telling a top salesperson her blog stunk. I don’t know who’s been writing for her (or if she does it herself), but the tone was so dry it was a turn off. She welcomed my ideas and realized the blog needed a huge shake up. 😉

    I think if you handle these situations as Carol describes, you’ll be in a better position to address your client’s needs, and create a working partnership. After all, we’re hired to do a job, and in my opinion, that means going the extra mile and telling the truth. My clients love the extra touch, and really appreciate the consultation! It’s a touchy area, because some clients are very hands-on but at the end of the day, they hire us because we are the professionals.

    Ya’ll have a great week, and thanks for the excellent article, Carol!

  10. Rebecca Y says:

    Great post. I actually picked up a monthly newsletter gig by kindly suggesting (by email) my mechanic’s Constant Contact newsletters needed some TLC and it seemed like they might be too busy to spend the time necessary to give it a cleaner layout. Three days later they called me to talk, and it’s been seven months now. Thanks for sharing your courage in communicating honestly with your client and maintaining your integrity.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for sharing a great strategy for getting clients!

      I’m on ‘vacation’ today…and have a flu.

      Thanks to all for your comments…see I’m not the only one who’s dealt with this issue !

  11. Carol! I just love the way you use your real-life experiences to teach others ‘how-to’ get it right. (or should I say ‘write’!) This article should have broad appeal, because it is always tricky to ‘reject’ a clients ideas – articles or otherwise.

    I think the most important point here though is thinking about how you would feel if your byline was on the article in question. I once had a piece edited in such a way that the final version made me cringe. I made the mistake of letting it slide early on in my career and now, every time the article pops up with my byline, it still bums me out.

    If you are not comfortable putting your name on an article, don’t. Period.

    While it’s important to keep clients happy and make money, it’s more important, in the long run, to make sure work with your name on it is truly indicative of the kind of work you do!

    Amy Parmenter
    The ParmFarm

  12. John Soares says:

    Carol, good for you for speaking your truth. There’s been a few times I’ve told clients they had a mediocre idea and I had ways to make it better, and that usually went well, but they didn’t always take my suggestions.

    Diplomacy is definitely the key in these situations, along with a clear explanation of why the idea, um, sucks.

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