How to brief a writer: a guide for marketers

Briefing a writer is an essential skill for any marketer - B2B or B2C. Make sure you get it right.

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You’ve commissioned a freelance writer but the content hasn’t quite hit the mark. Unfortunately, your brief is probably to blame.


Brands of all shapes, sizes and sectors are realising the value of content – whether that’s for driving new business, customer retention or building trust in the industry at large.


But as the volume of content explodes, it’s become impossible for brands to fill the demand by themselves. Outsourcing has become the norm as freelancing in general is on the rise.


When it comes to content an expert freelance writer can offer valuable insight and creative flair. But problems can often arise when it comes to communicating exactly what needs to be done.


We’ve all been there.


There’s a tight deadline to meet on a topic you don’t know much about. So you turn to a freelance writer who comes recommended. You sent them the topic and you thought you had explained what you needed, but what’s come back has missed the mark.


But was it really all their fault? Did you actually tell them you needed a guide rather than an opinion piece? Did you outline the audience? Did you make sure they knew to include that amazing quote from your CEO?


In short, did you brief them properly?


At Progressive Content we’ve talked about commissioning writers before and we even run our own freelancer platform. So we’ve distilled this experience from across the agency into this definitive guide to creating effective briefs. Enjoy.


Before you start


Obviously, if you’re at the briefing stage we hope you’ve already thought about what you want to achieve and how it fits in your overall strategy. But even if you think you’ve got everything sorted it’s probably still worth taking a step back.


Ask yourself:


What is the goal of this piece?

Where will it appear?

Who is the audience?


These three questions are going to define what you’re asking your writer to deliver.


A 500-word blog is obviously very different to a 10,000-word white paper. But a guide is also very different to an editorial piece. Make sure you know what you want otherwise you have no hope of explaining it to your writer.


With this in mind it’s also essential to figure out what sort of writer you’re working with. A subject matter expert or a brilliant wordsmith.


Subject matter expert Brilliant wordsmith
  • Knows the topic
  • Will bring their own insights
  • Has contacts in the industry
  • Might not be a great writer
  • Knows how to write
  • Will bring their own style
  • Can adapt to their audience
  • Might need more contextual information


Of course you might have found the rarest of things: the subject matter expert who is also a brilliant wordsmith and, most importantly, is available to work on your project. But, you can’t assume that’s the case.


Having a sense of who they are and what they’re capable of will help you tailor the brief you’re about to write



The Brief part 1: getting started


This is where your planning pays off. You know what you want. You know what you’re trying to do. And you know who you’re targeting. It’s time to write your brief.


Briefs come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the project and the people involved.


Whatever you put in, these three tips are probably worth bearing in mind.


1 – Don’t assume the freelancer thinks the same way you do

Just because you think articles work best with lots of quotes, it doesn’t mean they do. You’re hiring someone to be creative, so don’t be surprised if they do something a little unexpected. If you want something written in a particular style or from a particular angle, then you’d better make sure your writer knows.


2 – Don’t assume that they’ll know what you mean

Even if they are wordsmiths, that doesn’t mean they immediately know what you are trying to communicate. Be explicit and focus on clarity. Re-read your brief to remove ambiguity and, if possible, have someone who is not involved in the project give you feedback.


3 – Don’t go overboard on the detail

Though this might seem contradictory at first, it’s actually essential to achieving points one and two. If you write a 1,500-word brief, even the most dedicated freelancer is likely to skim read it. Ask yourself ‘what does the writer need to know to complete the project?’ then only include that. Don’t let your excellent instruction get buried in the War and Peace of briefs.



The Brief part 2: crucial ingredients


While no two briefs look alike, broadly they break into three areas:


  • Key details
  • Context
  • Need-to-haves


Key details


These are all the basics of the project.



Give the writer a brief summary of the topic you want them to cover and a little context – you’ll be going into more detail later.


Contact details

Let your freelancer know who their point of contact will be on the project and how to get in touch with them. This helps keep channels open and means they’re more likely to write something that fits your brief.



Tell them when they need to get this back to you.



Usually this will be in terms of words, but use a measure that is relevant to the project. You can use this useful guide to optimum content length by Buffer to help.

You should also let them know whether this is a hard limit, a minimum or range.



What you need from the writer. Be explicit in what you want them to send you and in what format.

If you need a top ten list, let them know. If you also need them to write supporting tweets for the blog, let them know. And if you need it supplied in a particular document type, let them know.



Where it’s going to end up. Writing for an external newsletter is very different to writing for an internal one. And writing a blog for LinkedIn isn’t the same as writing one for a company website.

This will help the writer adapt their tone and structure to fit the channel or channels it is going to be hosted on.



What are you trying to achieve with this piece of content. Is there a call to action? Do you want readers to download an article or convince them of a particular idea?




This is your chance to set the scene for your writer and help guide them to success.



Tell the writer explicitly who you or your client are. Give them some basic information about the brand and where they fit in the industry.



Tell your writer who your target audience is. You don’t need deep demographic data, but some basic information of their industry, seniority and understanding of the topic will really help set the tone for what’s needed.


Existing content

Is there any existing content you have already created around the topic? Flagging this up will help establish the approach and ensure they don’t contradict your existing statements.


Similar content

Have you seen any similar content – either in tone or topic – that you think would give your writer some context or content to use. Don’t give them thousands of pages of reading though.




This is your chance to highlight any essential elements that need to be included. If it needs to be in your piece then it needs to be in this section.



If you are trying to promote a particular statistic in a report or a quote from one of your leaders then let your writer know.



If you have individuals in mind to interview, list them and give their contact details. If they’ll need to source their own, tell them roughly how many and what their profile should be.



Often you’ll want to drive traffic to other articles or encourage people to download a particular report or asset. Let the writer know what this is and give them links so that they can have a look and include it in a natural way.



The SEO gods will often dictate that you include some specific words or phrases to help the right people find your content.

Don’t expect your writer to stumble over these by accident – list them out and let your freelancer know if they need to be put into any particular place (e.g. first paragraph or sub headings)



Many brands have a specific tone of voice as part of their brand. If this is the case and it is particularly strict then it’s advisable to share the whole branding document. Otherwise you can just give a general guide on tone.



After you’ve briefed


Of course the briefing process doesn’t end when you’ve hit send on that email.


Your writer is more than likely to have questions, both when they start and as they work on the piece. Make sure you also keep them updated of any changes over the period they are writing.


You might even want to check in occasionally to see how they’re getting along so that the lines of communication are kept open and the writer will have no qualms about clarifying any queries they have.


If you have holiday planned make sure they know about it and who they can talk to while you’re away. And if anything changes on the brief, let them know immediately so that they don’t waste time working on something that is no longer needed.


Even after the project is over, you shouldn’t just abandon all contact with your freelancer. If they’re good, keep in touch and let them know how the project has gone, this might just give you the edge next time you come to them with a last minute request.


You might have a trusted pair of hands that you always turn to for certain pieces – or someone who’s come highly recommended. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to bother with a comprehensive and detailed brief.


Ask any writer: a clear, concise, tight brief makes for better copy.