Content Strategy

How to Write a Brief and Get the Most Out of Your Writers

By Lauren McMenemy on September 22, 2017

You need content, you've found a writer, and everything is going swimmingly. Then they ask the dreaded question: Have you got a brief template? And your heart sinks. You have no idea how to write a brief. Isn't the discussion you just had enough to get them started?

No, it's not.

In my post-newspaper life, which now (scarily) covers more than a decade of working in-house and in agencies, one thing has remained a constant: The brief is the single most important thing for any new project, yet it's the main thing that becomes a sticking point at the outset. It's what a lot of people push back on-just another useless form to fill in, a step that's process gone mad. If I had a dollar for the number of times that I was told when in-house to "just get on with it, I don't have time to fill in a form . . ."

Yet a good brief is the secret formula to a harmonious creative–client relationship; it's the way to get you better content in the first iteration, and a way to mitigate the risk of endless (and expensive) back and forth. It's also the way to ensure you get what you actually want.

And I'm not just talking about briefing an agency or a freelancer here; many in-house creative departments, such as the communications or marketing team, need briefs to be able to fulfill your needs and meet your expectations. The brief becomes the point of reference for evaluating the project success and for ensuring everyone is on the same page-even more important if you're working in a complex, technical, or controversial field.

"You can't tell an agency or an internal client that they haven't met your expectations or that it's not what you want if you haven't been clear in the first place. It covers your backside as much as the third party," says Kate Martin, associate director of communications at investment administrator Ocorian. She has been extolling the virtues of proper briefing for more than twenty years. "The brief gives you something against which you measure, assess, and quantify success. And if the brief is not clear, then you can't say whether the resulting creative is right or wrong."

Martin is known among colleagues old and new for one catchphrase: "Don't make your lack of planning my problem." Wise words indeed for anyone involved in creative. You can stay on her-and everyone's-good side by ensuring a full and complete brief is given for every piece of commissioned content.

How to Write a Brief

But what is a brief, really? Depending on who you speak with, you'll get a different answer. Everyone has their own way to do it. The important thing is that a brief is a written document that you can go back to and reference throughout the project; it's your guiding star as things develop, and what you use to make sure you're heading in the right direction.

"Why is the article brief such an essential tool?" asks Andrew Rogerson of Grist. "Because it leaves no room for doubt and only as much room for interpretation as you see fit. As a marketer, you may have a very clear idea of what you want the final feature, blog post, or infographic to look like but don't assume the writer will share that idea without a written brief. The more time spent up front defining what you want, the less will be spent fixing it to match what you need."

He continues: "The other benefit of completing a detailed article brief is that it forces you and your team to think hard about all aspects of the concept. The article brief acts as an early warning system for ideas that may be contested, potential inconsistencies in the firm's approach, or research data needed to validate those ideas. It may even inspire other ways of approaching the same ideas, providing yet more marketing value."

How to Write a Brief and Get the Most Out of Your Writers

Image attribution: Joseph Pearson

Brief Templates Make Happy Relationships

So think about your content; you're not just creating it for no reason. (If you are, we need to talk about content strategy before we talk about briefing.) You want to achieve something through this content, be it more leads, a better informed audience, or sign-ups to an event. You have an idea of what information should be included, and you'll have strategies, business cases, old collateral-anything that you've read to lead you to this conclusion and this commission. All of that is important for your creative to know, as it will help them understand where you're coming from.

Try to think the way your writer thinks. Every story needs to cover the Who, What, Why, When, Where, and How, so cover those in your brief:

  • Who are you writing for? Who is the audience?
  • What do they need to know? What's going on?
  • Why do they need to know this? Why should they hear it from you?
  • When do they need to know this? What is the deadline or point of reference?
  • Where is this happening? Give some context.
  • How will it impact the audience? How should they behave? How should they react after reading the content?

In marketing speak, that means you need to cover the personas, the objectives, the pitch, the call to action, and the deadline. You should give as much detail as possible-one line or a couple of words under each heading does not make a detailed brief. And importantly, says Martin, include the "why should I care" factor-why does the audience need to hear this information from you, and why should they care about it?

You don't need to follow a set template, but you should try to stick to the same method each time you brief to ensure overall consistency. Developing your own brief template can help you ensure every commission begins from the same point of reference; software such as Skyword's platform is designed specifically to streamline process by enabling better briefing and better tracking of progress.

And by setting some ground rules when you first commission your content, you'll find the whole process a lot smoother and easier to manage-and you'll find your creative much easier to work with. We're not mind readers; a little early steer can help avoid tears later.

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Featured image attribution: Green Chameleon


Lauren McMenemy

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.