How to deal with copywriting feedback

by Tom Albrighton 8 April 2015 Copywriting, Freelancing

I think every copywriter, maybe every creative, must have felt like Steven Toast in this clip at some point.

You receive what is, on the face of it, a simple brief. You respond to it in the way that seems right – the way that seems obvious, even. But the client sees things very differently, and duly asks for changes. Then they ask for a few more. And then some more again.

Before you know it, a job that seemed straightforward has descended into a labyrinth of uncertainty. To find the way out, you’ll need an effective way to deal with feedback, move forward and complete the job.

Prepare for the feedback

In 10 years as a freelancer, one thing I’ve learned is that clients’ views are very much their own. For every time I’ve called their reaction correctly, there’s been another when I got it completely wrong. I’ve swaggeringly tossed out drafts I thought were smoking hot, only for them to get a decidedly cool reception. And I’ve meekly submitted also-rans that romped home in first place.

So if you can’t predict the feedback, how should you prepare for it? You could expect the worst every time, but that means constantly telling yourself your work is crap, which is a bit bruising psychologically. So I would say the right mindset is positive but realistic.

Thinking positively, you have the ability to do what’s needed – and the client wouldn’t have chosen you if they didn’t believe that too. But realistically, you’re not going to hit the target every time, so you have to expect the odd detour en route to the goal.

Own the feedback

The email is here. You open the attachment with bated breath. Your precious copy looks like a thousand monkeys have been let loose on it with Track Changes on. But before you even start picking over the wreckage, take a minute to remind yourself that you’re in control.

It’s your move. You can now take as long as you want, within reason, to work through the feedback, and you don’t have to respond before you’re ready. You can try out different solutions, and put forward more than one, if you want to. And no-one has to see anything you try out. In short, this stage of the project is yours.

Frame the feedback

From the time your teacher wrote ‘see me’ on your homework to the dreaded annual appraisal at work, life teaches us to fear feedback. Unless you’re absolutely sure that feedback will be 100% positive – which is unlikely – you’re basically preparing yourself for at least some ‘bad’ news.

Negativity bias makes us give far more weight to bad news than we do to good. That’s why one little bit of criticism, no matter how slight or casually expressed, has the power to blot out every kind word you’ve ever heard – at least for a while.

Time always brings perspective, but there are also three useful ways to frame feedback in a more positive way.

  • This feedback is on your work, not you. Yes, you put yourself into your writing, in a sense. But your copy flows just as much from what you were told (or not told) in the brief, and whatever you’re writing about. So for this stage at least, put a little bit of distance between yourself as a person and your work. It’s the problem, not you, that’s under attack – and you and the client are on the same side, working together for a solution.
  • This feedback will help you move forward. It’s not a hurdle; it’s just another lap en route to the finish line. If you’re a freelancer, it’s taking you one step nearer the happy day when you can invoice. In this sense, feedback is always good news, because it always means some sort of progress.
  • You can deal with this feedback. However frustrating or impossible-sounding the client’s demands may seem, you will find an answer if you spend long enough with the problem. You might have to compromise or rework your ideas, but you’ll get there.

Respect the feedback

There’s no doubt that feedback can be frustrating. Prompted by your draft, the client may send you source information they could have revealed much earlier. Or they might make a request that, to you, seems to constitute a complete change in direction. Or it might seem that they just don’t understand what you’re trying to do.

Eye-rolling websites like Clients from Hell paint clients as obtuse, unfathomable and downright perverse. That attitude may be OK for a private laugh with your fellow writers, as a way to let off steam. But on real projects, if you can’t meet the client where they are, you’ll never move forward together. Respect what they say – and remember that you may not be as good at hiding your derision as you think.

For starters, put yourself in the client’s shoes. Acknowledge that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Assuming they’re acting in good faith, they don’t gain anything from deliberately messing you about, apart from delay.

Remember, they may never have had anything written, designed or developed before. If they’re starting a business, you’re writing about their dream, their precious baby, and they might be paying you with their own savings that took years to build up. How would you feel? Little edgy maybe?

Regardless of the client’s level of experience, insights always emerge during a rigorous creative process. You’ve taken a brief that might have been loose, rambling or simply nonexistent and turned it into a cogent piece of writing. That often raises issues, and they have to be addressed.

One response to a sketchy brief is to make a few assumptions, do what seems right and gauge the reaction. (The longer you’ve been copywriting, the better you get at doing this.) If your first draft was a shot from the hip intended to provoke discussion, the client may be anxiously wondering if you’ve understood the brief – or even whether you’re capable of understanding it. So if you did put up a straw man, make sure the client knows that you will definitely be turning him into a real one before this job’s over.

Building creative rapport with a stranger isn’t easy, particularly if you’ve never even met. But as the ‘senior partner’ in terms of that process, it’s up to you to take the lead. One way or another, you’ve got to find a way forward that suits you both. If you can’t, the game’s up.

Understand the feedback

It’s very easy to jump to the wrong conclusions about feedback, particularly if you’re expecting the worst. So take some time to really understand what’s being said, and separate the content of the feedback from your emotional reaction to it (defensiveness, irritation, despair).

As a minimum, read the email or comments twice. If you can, digest the feedback and then sleep on it before you even try to respond. Your unconscious mind will process it in the background, so you can respond much more effectively when you’re back at your desk. If useful ideas come to mind straight away, just jot them down rather than trying to put them into practice.

Don’t read feedback in a situation where you’ll never be able process it properly, like on your phone between meetings. If it’s negative, you’ll just end up with misperceptions and emotions rattling around in your head while you’re trying to do something else.

Recording phone calls is an excellent way to get detailed, honest feedback with an objective record you can come back to later. Having said that, the call itself can be tough. Having your work critiqued ‘live’ gives you nowhere to hide, no time to think, and you have to say something, however upset or angry you feel. So say as little as you can to get through the call (you’re supposed to be listening, after all) and come back to the recording when you’ve got your head together. There is absolutely no shame in saying you need to go away and think about something – and it takes time to reconcile yourself to giving up an idea you felt was strong.

If you’re working through an intermediary such an agency (or if you’re employed by one), you’ll probably want to get a sense of their position. Do the creative director and account manager agree with the client, or are they more sympathetic to you? Do they agree with each other? Some people will take either side as a matter of principle, or professionalism, while others are more pragmatic and work case by case. Whatever the situation, it helps to know who will back you up.

Work through the feedback

Once you’ve got a sense of the overall direction of the feedback, work through it step by step, focusing on each change in isolation. I find printing out the email (if there is one) and crossing out the points as I go is very encouraging. Knocking off tracked changes one by one gives the same positive sense of progress. If you can sort out one amend, you can sort out 20 – it’s grunt work, just a matter of time.

‘Save as’ is your friend. If you’re hesitating to take a new direction, make a new document as a sandbox and try it out there. If that becomes the next version, great – if not, you can easily retrace your steps.

If you’re having trouble pinning down what the client actually wants, consider asking for examples. This is one way to skirt the trap of ‘I’ll know it when I see it’, which is not a useful direction for a writer. Make sure you ascertain exactly what they like about the example(s) they cite, or you could end up in another blind alley.

If you get more than one example, and they’re wildly incompatible with each other, at least you’ve learnt that the client is not really sure about what they want. That’s your cue to talk to them and tease out what you should really be doing – or, if you feel they’re asking for the moon on a stick, manage expectations of what you can actually achieve.

Accept or reject the feedback

Accepting that feedback is right can be hard. You put a lot of work into that draft, and now it’s being ripped to shreds. Ideas you thought were gold now won’t see the light of day (until you recycle them for another client). However, once you do accept the feedback – assuming it’s sufficiently constructive and clear – the way forward is relatively simple.

At other times, you may consider the feedback very carefully, but decide that you really shouldn’t act on it. If so, your response to the client will probably rest on one or more of these arguments:

Some mistakes are OK

Some mistakes are OK

  • It’s technically wrong. If clients ask for changes that would introduce errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation or consistency (and they are not justified creatively or aesthetically), it’s your duty to point that out. It’s usually easy to find a third-party authority to back you up, although some points of editorial consistency in a longer draft may need some explaining.
  • It’s inappropriate. In other words, the writing will be made worse if you carry out the feedback. Or, to put it another way again, you’re right and the client’s wrong – but you should never express it like that. Rather, keep the focus on the work, and what is right for the work, and maybe some of the points that follow.
  • It won’t work. Rather than simply saying the writing will be worse, you could argue that the changes would make it less effective, less persuasive or less likely to convert. This shows you have the client’s priorities at heart, but you might need to explain or justify your opinion to bring them round.
  • It’s unoriginal. Maybe the client has asked for an approach that, based on your wider experience, you know has been used many times before. If so, you could argue that the message won’t cut through the noise or stand out from the crowd.
  • It’s unorthodox. On the other hand, you may feel that the client is being more radical than they should. For instance, there is a pretty standard way of structuring B2B websites that lets visitors find what they want quickly and easily. If you depart from that template, I’d suggest you should have a good reason for doing so.
  • It’s overcomplicated. Once you’ve read copy through a few times and got familiar with it, the temptation often arises to add more detail. If your client is leaning towards this, encourage them to put themselves in the position of someone reading the text for the first time. Less is more – specifically, the less stuff there is, the more likely it will all be understood and remembered.
  • It’s unpoetic. It’s probably good discipline to be able to justify every word in your draft. But there are times when you have to fall back on aesthetics: it just sounds right, it’s le mot juste. You should always explain your reasoning if you possibly can, but it’s still valid even if you can’t. Because you’re the writer.

How far you take the argument depends on your own temperament, your position in the market and your (cough) personal brand. If you put yourself forward as a creative, your brand is arguably tarnished if you roll over too easily. If you’re more of a fixer, like me, then it probably helps your brand to show willing. Personally, I will make the case against amends I disagree with once or twice, then accept the change if the client insists.

If you do argue, stay frosty. Watch out for escalation of commitment – digging your heels in and putting increasing effort into defending a position that, rationally, isn’t really worth it. Keep asking yourself: what am I trying to achieve? If the answer is ‘save face’ or ‘prove the client wrong’, it’s time for a rethink.

Finally, if you’re a freelancer, remember you can always walk away, without asking for payment if necessary. Obviously, you don’t want to be unprofessional, but just knowing the option is there can give you some valuable psychological breathing space, at every stage of the process. It may not feel like it, but everything you do is not an obligation, but a choice. Here’s how Toast handles it…

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  • Andrew Nattan

    Great post. It’s one of the hardest things you learn to do, detaching yourself from your draft. When I started out, I used to take feedback personally, now, a client can ride roughshod over a first draft as much as they like, as long as it gets us closer to something that they’re happy with and that works. When it comes to that escalation of commitment you mention, I have a simple mantra that helps me through it. “This ain’t my hill to die on.”

    What I don’t like, and it only happens very, very rarely, is when clients make it personal.

    As you mention, sometimes you’re stuck with a light brief and you have to throw something out there. 99 times out of 100, it starts a dialogue that leads to better work. But that one time in 100, you get an embarrassed client who knows that he asked for the wrong thing in the wrong way, deciding to shift the blame by insulting your intelligence.

    I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the temperament to cooly detach myself in situations like that…

    (on a tangentially-related note, I’ve just posted about the other end of this process over on my new site – the brief)

  • Natalie Smithson

    Fantastic post. I did read the advice, but these videos are utter gems. Thanks for sharing!

  • Thank you. Great post.