How Smart Freelance Writers
Handle Their #1 Hassle

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The life of a freelance writer is pretty sweet.

It’s interesting, challenging work. You meet great people. You have a lot of freedom to organize your work life the way you want it. The pay can be excellent, and you get to make a living doing something you love.

But there are aspects of the profession that aren’t much fun.

As a freelance copywriter, you need to get professional about how you deal with the parts of freelancing that aren’t unicorns and rainbows. Today, I’m going to talk about how to handle one of the more irritating hassles in the life of a writer: Requests for rewrites.

Rewrites are inevitable in any writer’s life. No matter how brilliant you are, no matter how strongly you wield your pen, eventually someone somewhere is going to absolutely hate that first draft you sent in.

And they’re going to ask that you rewrite it.

Rewrites are not revisions

First, let me clarify one distinction.

A rewrite is not the same thing as revising what you wrote or tweaking the copy to be just right. Most freelance writers offer a certain number of revisions per project for free — usually one or two at most. And those rounds are based on an assumption: the client likes the first draft, but wants to tweak a few things.

Even if your client loves that first draft sideways, they’ll wind up asking for a few minor changes:

I actually prefer to be called a coach, not a consultant. Could you fix that?

I’m not sure I like the way you describe me in the About page. Could you take out these adjectives and put in other ones?

I love what you’re saying, but I think this technical point needs to be clearer. Here’s how it really works — could you change that paragraph?

You’ll notice something about most of those tweaks. They’re things you couldn’t possibly have known. No matter how thorough your initial information-gathering phase might have been, some little details slip through the cracks.

Often they’re details that the client never realized were important — until he saw them in his copy.

Revisions are easy fixes. You can usually knock them out and send back a perfect final version before you finish your first cup of coffee.

Rewrites are a whole ‘nother animal

A major rewrite can really mess with your confidence. They can be terrifying, because you have absolutely nothing to go on. When the client asks for a rewrite, it’s usually because he wants you to scrap everything you’ve written and start over.

The problem with that is that you can’t actually scrap everything. For one thing, he’s still presumably in the same line of work. If he was a corporate lawyer before, he’s still a corporate lawyer. If she was a large-business marketing consultant, she’s still a marketing consultant.

The way they wanted to be presented probably hasn’t really changed either. They still want their customers to think of them as a professional with years of experience who knows the ins and outs of the trade. Or they still want to be presented as a caring, nurturing type who can make all the woes of life go away.

The facts have not altered.

It’s the way you present those facts that needs to go.

You’re going to need to start from scratch. And that’s hard for a few reasons:

One: You already thought you had a good grasp of what the client wanted, or you wouldn’t have written the copy that way. Clearing your mind and starting over with a whole new perception is going to be tough.

Two: You’re probably feeling hurt or stung. Rejection sucks, and being told your writing wasn’t even close to right is painful. You’re not exactly in the mood to try to please this client again.

So how do you deal with someone who wants a complete rewrite?

I usually send a hit man. Solves the problem and it’s no work for me.

Oh, no, wait, that’s in my dreams.

Actually, usually the best thing to do is take a break. Take deep breaths. Try to remember that the client is just as disappointed as you are and that they deserve the copy they were hoping for.

Try to remember it isn’t personal. It’s useful to look at it as a misunderstanding. The client thought they communicated what they wanted. You thought you understood it.

You were both wrong.

So, go back to the computer and write a nice, calm, apologetic email. Ask them to clarify a couple of points for you so you can write a draft that is more to their liking. Use the feedback they gave you — even if it’s couched in angry terms — to get the questions.

You said this copy ‘doesn’t sound like a lawyer.’ Could you explain what gave you that impression so I can avoid that mistake in your next draft?

Be calm. Be apologetic. After all, you’re half to blame for the miscommunication. If you’re understanding and sympathetic, that client isn’t going to be upset at you for long. In fact, he’ll get over it as soon as you give him the rewrite.

The rewrite that’s so kick-ass the client can’t believe it, because you made doubly sure this time that you understood just what he was going for.

What if you can’t please him no matter what you do?

Politely refer him to another writer that you think might suit him better.

At a certain point, this person isn’t going to be happy even if you hand him the Gettysburg Address of website copy. He might have better luck elsewhere, and sending him to a good alternative may be the best thing you can do for him.

And for you.

About the Author: For more freelance writing advice that helps you succeed, check out James Chartrand’s blog at Men with Pens. It’s chock full of advice to help you be one of those no-rewrite-required writers.

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Comments

  1. Wow, seems like doing freelance is not as easy as I thought. Thanks for the info.

  2. Great points… but you need to flip the single quote before “nother” in the second subhead :-)

  3. Hey Jamesy,
    Nice to hear from you (again!)

    It’s so true, rewrite hit hard the ego – as if they are telling us that all that we know and learned about copy writing is useless.

    Thanks for advice, I’d try meditation and yoga…. dang! forgot about the deadline. Copywriters are damned, arn’t we?

  4. I really needed to read this today! I am a new writer with my first freelance assignment, which is going well, but was asked to scrap one section where I missed the mark. I didnt take it personally, and was actually relieved that the client was so cool about it and complimentary of my writing in the other areas, but it still felt like a strike. Thanks for offering such a clear course of action for when this happens.

  5. Excellent as always! Freelance can easily turn to regular repeat clients when things are handled well. I appreciate how you take a ‘both sides’ approach so everyone ends up winning. Your approach to business really inspires me! I think however you should offer the ‘hit man’ approach if all else fails. Maybe on an affiliate arrangement? Freelancers could ‘rent a hit man’ when needed? Brian Clark to the rescue? ;)

  6. The advice about NOT hiring the hitman AND staying calm and apologetic is, well, unfortunately accurate, but mentally unhelpful. Still and all, I suppose we do live in the real world. Good tips.

  7. This is so true…

    I run into this every day. The trick is not falling in love with the words you write and understand changes are inevitable.
    Dave Hale

  8. Fortunately I’ve never had a client ask for a rewrite (hope I don’t jinx myself by typing that).

    It helps to make an extra huge effort to really listen to the client and make sure you know 100% what they’re looking for. If my writing needs to sound as if my client wrote it (such as in a sales page), I read my client’s own writing (blog posts, emails, etc) to get a feel for their voice and style.

    Having to rewrite sucks, but the effort to make sure we’ve done everything humanly possible to make our clients happy is worthwhile.

  9. @ Beki – Actually, it is mentally helpful, because hard as that may be at first, the more you can train yourself to take a break and react calmly later on to any stressful situation, the better person you become. Mentally healthy!

  10. Another suggestion – build ONE rewrite/round of revisions into your quote.

    I’ve found that if the client doesn’t have to “pay” in some way, there’s no reason for them to give you good direction from the start, and there’s no pain involved in their changing their mind.

    Rewrites hurt a lot less if you’re getting paid for them. ;)

  11. War story. A CEO engaged me to write a book about his business. He wanted a business best seller. 75% through the first draft, the client decided to change the audience and this necessitated a re-write. I felt burned, he felt burned, but we were committed to seeing the project to completion. He was using the book as part of an IPO or sale of the business.

    To avoid another re-write, we inserted a “satisfaction clause” in the contract to protect him from another “false start” in exchange for upside bonus participation in the form of company stock. No cash out for him, but value to me.

    He used the manuscript for a year to market and sell the business for $130 million. My “stock” was worth $130,000 except for that “satisfaction clause”. A day after the closing I got a letter from the client’s lawyer saying the client was dissatisfied and I hadn’t earned the stock. What a kick in the stomach.

    What was meant to protect the client was used as a weapon on me. I had equipped him to harm me.

    Moral of the story: Re-writes are dangerous times in the client relationship. Avoid subjective “satisfaction clauses.”

    Be On-Purpose!
    Kevin

  12. Good stuff as always, James … one suggestion that I’d offer for all freelance/micropreneur marketing writers – make your client complete a creative brief or project outline.

    This document details all the critical points of the product/service and the promotion. Review the completed brief with the client before writing word one. Make sure you understand what the client wants and that the client understands what you’re going to deliver.

    A good foundation means tweaks only. :)

  13. I think that anytime you submit a draft before submitting an outline, you’re asking for the kind of trouble James describes. If you take the time to build a decent outline based on your initial understanding, you lower your risk of handing off a draft that misses the mark. You also figure out where the potholes are much sooner in the process.

    Only once have I had a client who couldn’t deal with an outline, and that was one of the first warning signs in an engagement that ended up not going well. Most clients are happy to go through an outline, help you buff it out, and point out things you’ve misunderstood.

  14. Sometimes bad copy is our fault. In my experience, most hair-pulling projects start with a faulty brief or miscommunication about what’s required. Sometimes this is the client’s fault but really, we’re the writing experts, so if we don’t force our client to think the issues through to begin with we’re not so expert after all, are we? I wrote about some of the reasons why good writers occasionally produce bad copy on my blog: http://www.badlanguage.net/why-good-writers-occasionally-produce-bad-copy. Also, an article on how to get better briefs for writers: http://www.badlanguage.net/better-briefs-for-writers. I hope this helps.

  15. Thank you, James. Your timing was perfect. I faced a rewrite this weekend, and it crushed me for half a day.
    Fortunately, I turned to breath, meditation and education to pull out of the funk and do right by my client.
    It’s good to know that I’m not alone, neither in my challenges nor my methods.
    Keep it comin’.

  16. Any freelancer who takes rejection badly or personally doesn’t have much experience. I remember my first contract where I was ripped to shreds by an overly critical guy on a daily basis. You just keep slogging it out until the job is done.

    It comes down to your communication with your client to establish what they want. But it’s true that some people just can’t be appeased.

  17. Being asked for a complete rewrite has happened to me only once, with a client no one could have pleased. I’ve made sure ever since that I write a memorandum of understanding of what’s expected by both parties — and have it signed before I begin.

    One question: How do you handle billing for a complete rewrite in the unhappy event you have to do one?

  18. and what would you suggest the average cost be for a “revision?”

  19. @Jean – Personally, like a few people here have suggested, our revision policy covers the potential of having to do a full rewrite. I would much rather offer protection to the client that leaves him or her feeling happy, and also protect us from that possibility, than have to say, “Sure, but it’s gonna cost you.”

  20. I find that rewrites happen most often when the client isn’t really sure what he or she wants. I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell that from our first discussions. In those cases, I don’t spend quite as much time on crafting the perfect 1st draft as I know the client is probably going to do a 180 and send me off in another direction as soon as they see their ideas in writing.

    Melissa
    @melissapaulik

  21. ‘You said this copy ‘doesn’t sound like a lawyer.’ ‘

    Why on earth would you want copy to sound like a lawyer? That’s what we’re here for. To NOT sound like lawyers. Lawyers talk gibberish. They have their own language. That’s why they can charge so much – to translate the gobbledy-gook. We’re supposed to write plain English.

    Instead of saying ‘Could you explain what gave you that impression so I can avoid that mistake in your next draft?’, shouldn’t you have said ‘Could you explain what gave you the impression that it was a good thing to sound like a lawyer?’

    Look at me on my high horse. Can you tell I’ve never had a lawyer as a client?

  22. Perhaps this is kind of a nutty technique, but I try to soften the blow of a complete rewrite with the introduction of my first draft with a new client. In it I tell the client that I absolutely *expect* to have to rewrite or at least revise. I let them know that this is my first take, and we will both learn something from their reaction to it. If they absolutely hate it, I say, that is wonderful… we have therefore eliminated one angle and are closer to finding the right approach. The more feedback the better, I write. I even use the words, “Rip ‘er up!” I assure them that it’s my job to communicate their vision, and if their vision is not there, then we have to try again.

    I learned to take an absolute failure of the first draft as a true step forward when I was an intern for Southern Progress Corp (Southern Living magazine). My boss would take my first draft and hole up, rewriting the entire thing at least 30% of the time. But she kept saying, “I loved what you wrote. It showed me exactly what I didn’t want.” We’d easily move forward with the next drafts once we had the direction nailed.

    I’m lucky that I have pretty much hit the mark on most projects the first time out, save for one horrible experience early on. I submitted a first draft, and after she pointed out the problems, I knew I had blown it 100%. I was absolutely sick to my stomach. I offered a complete rewrite free of charge, and she was quite happy. She never hired me again for other writing projects, but there was no ill will.

  23. Hi James, when you explain it in this way, rewrites do sound like a frustrating experience. It reminds me of like spending hours on an essay, and then starting over from scratch. I’m currently a part of Demand Studios freelancing and I don’t think they’ve ever asked me to rewrite the whole thing; just tweaking a couple of things, and that takes about 1 hour max. Anyway, great tips here. I like how you were you able to handle this kind of situation by being calm, patient, and apologetic.

  24. Very level-headed and helpful suggestions for handling a terribly difficult situation.

    Like Roberta and Matthew, I use a creative brief–I call mine an Assignment Sheet–to limit project misunderstandings.

    I take time to draft a document that includes my understanding of project format, audience, conversion goals, scope, word-count, etc.

    I ask my client to read it carefully, mark it up and change it as much as he likes. But once he’s signed off, I write to Assignment Sheet specs. I include 2 rounds of revisions–providing they’re returned within two weeks of copy delivery and don’t veer from the Assignment Sheet.

    If clients want further revisions, I happily provide them–billed at an hourly rate.

  25. Oh so true, so true… all of it. And getting my ego out of the way can be soooo hard to do!

    I have two writer friends I can winge and whine with – and they with me. We know to just listen and sympathize. We agree that the client is awful, dumb and other stuff. That kind of blowing off steam really helps me remember who I am so I can either start over or find another writer for the client or let them go completely.

    Thanks!

  26. Even with a written document for clients to express their preferences and help us understand their industries, things can still go badly.

    I remember one client from a Fortune 500 company. Apparently they weren’t too committed to this project (30+ SEO landing pages), because though we reminded our contact, it took him months to even open the document. When we finally got back his answers to our standard questionnaire, the entire thing was written in indecipherable jargon without any explanations.

    Rather than spending several more months trying to get him to clarify (since we were 2/3s of the way through the contract term and had nothing to show for it), I had to spend weeks trying to understand the products and write the 30+ pages. We submitted them for the company’s approval, and our contact spent months reviewing them. Finally, he said that not a single page even approached satisfactory.

    I asked that a different copywriter at our company take over the project, but as far as I know, the contact never told us what he actually wanted. I’m not sure the pages were ever rewritten or if the contract just lapsed.

    It was cases like these that made us (the copywriters) believe we needed some sort of client cooperation clause in the contract.

  27. When I was writing radio copy, I was often in direct contact with the client. After about three re-writes on a series of radio spots. I knew we were either going to lose the client and I was going to take the fall…or I’d better get it right. I visited with the salesperson in charge of the account and we couldn’t come up with a reason we were so far apart. The client was 20 miles away, but I made an appointment and went to see him. We spent an hour together, and went over the copy. I couldn’t pin down on what he liked and didn’t like. Finally, I got up and assured him we would come up with something. I went back to the radio stations and asked someone in accounting to take a crack at it. They were perfect! My lesson learned was that I was trying too hard and going for a masterpiece on each spot. Turns out he just wanted a dry, unimaginative series of spots that were filled with old cliches, like “for all your hardware needs”. He just wanted the old fashioned spots he was used to, even though I thought they were dull and lifeless.
    Different strokes, I guess…as he had been doing things the same way for 32 years and didn’t want to change. You’ve got to get inside your clients head and see the world from their perspective. I had been trying to move him in a direction that I thought made more sense and would get better results. He was paying the freight and didn’t want to go there. This begs the questions: When the client is not moving in the direction the writer thinks he should, does the writer have the duty to inform the client that the articles won’t be as effective as they could be. We’ll leave that for another time, as rule #1 is the client is always right…and rule #2… when you think he/she is wrong, refer back to rule #1.

    Steve

  28. Mary E. Ulrich :

    Love the examples.

    Trying to imagine what the Gettysburg Address of website copy would look like.

  29. An earlier comment by Melissa Paulik has been exactly my experience: Most rewrites take place when the client themselves don’t know what they want.

    When a client comes to me with exact requests, I usually send them a near-to-complete full first draft. But when a client comes to me with “uhhh, I think I might need something along these lines” then I set up a more iterative process with multiple drafts and clear instructions.

  30. Wow, I’d never thought of it that way. When the copy is off the mark, it usually is the responsibility of both the writer and the client. Although each side probably wants to blame the other, it takes two to have a good, old-fashioned miscommunication. Maybe a wise approach is to start expecting rewrites more often than not — because as we all know, miscommunicaitons happen all the time and in places we never expect them.

  31. I like @Aaron’s approach, expect rewrites when the client themselves have no idea what they’re looking for, and price accordingly.

  32. To tell the truth, the people that – in my experience – ask for full rewrites are…

    um…

    … the clients who claim to be writers themselves. Red flags are, “I used to write on the side…” “I do some writing in my spare time…” “I wrote my own copy…”

    Yeahhh trouble ahead.

    In fact, the clients who don’t know what they want are usually the ones that cheer and say we nailed it on the first shot.

  33. Hey James,

    Great article. Are there any warning signs that you can observe that might warn you if the client is going to be One of Those?

  34. James,

    That’s so true when you said:

    “In fact, the clients who don’t know what they want are usually the ones that cheer and say we nailed it on the first shot.”

    I absolutely love when I get those clients!

  35. Hi James — thanks for this, it made my day… of course there is the ever-present “editing by committee” when a whole table-load of folks each have their own opinion about what makes good writing.

  36. In my experience as a freelancer, the rewrite copy is about 50% miscommunication and 50% clients not actually knowing what they want (or how to articulate it).

    Since I absolutely hate doing rewrites (even if they’re factored into the quote), I’ve come up with a pretty simple way to get everyone on the same page before I write the first draft — this almost always limits changes to simple revisions.

    1. I always make sure I have a creative brief. Several of the agencies I worked for never asked clients for them which always amounted to major headaches further down the line. So, I made my own template. Now I get the clients to fill this out before I start.

    2. After reviewing the creative brief, I mark it up with questions, opinions and other basic talking points and then mock up a very brief outline for the copy.

    3. Then I either email or call the client directly and run my questions and comments by them while they’re looking at the same brief. That way we can work out any problems ahead of time, AND I can offer some gently-phrased guidance about what we know works and what doesn’t.

    I’ve only had one actual rewrite since implementing this plan and that really was just a problem client.

  37. One simple technique that can be useful is to do a portion of the job and get sign-off on the approach, tone, etc. So maybe it’s two pages of the white paper, or one message in the autoresponder sequence, or one page for the web site.

    I’ll typically get sign-off on some portion of the job, make sure we’re all comfortable, then finish things up. Getting sign-off on an outline is also tremendously useful.

    And of course, get a deposit up front! If the client turns out to be a total head case, at least you’ve got something for your time.

  38. James, I totally agree with you on the last point about walking away from a client. It’s important to let go of the clients that are not really the ones that you want, rather than clinging on simply because you want some money. Actually, you’re better off serving the clients that you could work well with. The 80/20 rule says 80% of the money you earn comes from the best 20% of your client base.

    You also mentioned a great point that it isn’t personal. Communication is key for sure, but I also think it could be something else. Your work could be awesome and perfect for someone but could be totally worthless to another person. It’s just about finding that balance so that you know your client will love what you write. After all, freelancing is really a relationship business.

    Go, Man with Pen! (made it singular especially for you)

  39. You guys might be interested in this post I wrote from the editorial perspective:

    http://www.surefirewriting.com/writingprocess/the-rewrite-from-hell

    One of the challenges in magazine writing is when the assigning editor and big-cheese editor aren’t the same person…and guess which one gave you the assignment, and guess who doesn’t like the way you wrote it? Even though you executed it the way you were supposed to. What do you do? My post explains.

  40. Rewrites can be so heartbreaking :(

  41. Great post! I tried to avoid this hassle by extracting as much info as I can from the client..it helps…

  42. we want them to be happy not only to pay us for something they don’t like. We need to keep that in mind every second.

    nice article

  43. I’m shocked that the entire world of freelance copywriting isn’t unicorns and rainbows! =)
    An unsatisfied client can be difficult. It’s often tempting to write “Screw you!” in an email, send it off and shut down your computer for the day.
    Of course, that’s not the solution.
    You’re right about considering it a misunderstanding and trying to work through it and even more right about moving on if the two of you can’t work something out.

  44. My only true rewrites have been requested by clients who were completely unable to articulate their vision. “We want something that…. you know…. Something that’s good. Better than good. Just do your best.” What??

    I think we’ve all labored through truly tedious discussions with clients who act as if it’s our job to be telepaths. Other times it can be fun to get a client to open up and think strategically – and often it’s invigorating for them as well.

  45. Sonia,

    Bly and/or Slaunwhite recommend the same thing. I think that’s the better practice.

  46. Hi guys

    i love the idea of the hitman – can i hire you to be my hit man (lol)

    kind regards

    sam
    X

  47. Editing might be a painful process and it is worse if you need to rewrite. There so many “rewriter wanted” type of ads posted and frankly I rarely ever apply to those. Because frankly, for me there is something worse than rewriting my own stuff and that’s rewriting someone else’s piece.

    I am so grateful for blogs, where we get to be the writer and the editor. Always feels refreshing- well, if it is your own blog, that is.

  48. Great post! Revisions happen, but rewrites are to be expected if you’re writing for a publication. You may not agree with the editor, but you’ll rewrite the piece if you like writing for the publication.