Been There, Done That: For God’s Sake, Write a Damn Brief


I suppose this is more for people who hire artists or writers, but it’s good information for everyone to know, really. Do not start a job without a clear brief from the person who wants to use your services. This will save you a lot of frustration and anger down the line. Comprehensive briefs are like extra period pads: they may seem like overkill in your bag but when you end up needing them, you will be so glad that you have them.

A good, basic brief provides the following:


A SHORT introduction explaining who the client is and what they represent

This introduction should have only the relevant details, like what the client’s brand stands for, its vision/mission, any important achievements or products that they want to focus on, and an abbreviated history. This will give the person doing the project an idea of how the client wants their message communicated, which is important if you want to get shit right.

There is absolutely no need to get into useless details. I got commissioned to write a commencement speech for a university chancellor, and I got sent a 10,000-word biography that had no bearing on what I needed to write. I didn’t need to know his favourite colour is yellow to write a commencement speech, for God’s sake.

A clear explanation of what the project is

I am currently dealing with a client who wants me to work on some “written materials” for a production. When I asked her to send me a brief, she instead sent me a Dropbox folder stuffed with a bunch of documents from previous productions and told me to use them as a reference. Okay, fine, but…references for what? SHE NEVER TOLD ME WHAT EXACTLY SHE WANTED ME TO WRITE. It took six e-mails to get an answer, and the documents turned out to be useless.

State the project as clearly as possible: a watercolour of C-beams near the Tannhäuser Gate or a profile of the CEO to cover his ass after he’s been found doing something shady with the company stock.

A clear timeline and/or deadline

This goes without saying, of course. If you can’t provide a concrete deadline, then you must have a timeline set down with concrete steps and goals, with boundaries set in place. I worked as a ghostwriter on a book before, and the brief included a limit to the number of revisions. That was what saved me and my writing partner’s asses when the client’s boyfriend suddenly interjected his incredibly useless comments and wanted to change direction. We hit him with the revision agreement and he backed down rather than incur more costs.

A clear set of guidelines

Guidelines are basically the “who, what, where, why, when, how” of briefs. You can’t start a project without guidelines, and nothing is more frustrating when a client doesn’t understand it. That same client who sent me the Dropbox folder told me my guidelines were “come up with activities using cheap materials.” What activities? Was I supposed to write an activity sheet? Activities for whom? How long were the activities supposed to be? I ended up having to teach her what guidelines were, BUT I would caution you to be careful if you need to do this because you’re dealing with a client who has no idea what they’re doing. If this chick comes back with a crap set of guidelines, I’m gone.

Guidelines should include (if applicable):

Project goals

Target audience


Style, language, tone/voice

References or resources available

Restrictions (including banned words or images)

And of course, the amount to be paid and when

If they ask you for a quote, ask them for a Goddamn brief. Don’t quote before you see it.


In summation: ask for a brief. If they don’t know how to write one, show them this post. If they still can’t come up with a good one, don’t take them on as clients. They will be more trouble than they’ll be worth.

If you want to hire someone to work on a project, write a brief. It will protect you too so that you not only get what you want, you’ll avoid the heavy karmic load of someone cursing your name over and over as they agonize over what you actually want.



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