Writers are from Mars, Clients are from Venus

iStock_000009145624XSmall Freelance writing is the Stockholm syndrome erected into a profession. The terrorist holds a gun to our head and we love them for it. (Or more as a friend of mine said ‘we’re the battered wives of the media business.’)

Why do relationships between writers and clients go wrong?

  • Over-promising
  • Too-high expectations
  • Bad briefs
  • Writers don’t understand pressures on clients
  • Not enough feedback
  • Under- or late payment
  • Editing by committee (AKA death by redlining)
  • Editing by lawyer
  • I surrender. Just tell me what to write.

What can we do about it? Often, writers just eat bitter weeds and tolerate the intolerable. Sometimes, we throw our toys out of the pram and quit. Between these two extremes, there are other options.

But remember, relationships don’t fail because we write badly. We have to work at the the other stuff too.

See also: Why good writers (occasionally) produce bad copy

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17 Responses to Writers are from Mars, Clients are from Venus

  1. Clare Lynch November 17, 2009 at 11:33 am #

    I agree with all of the above. I would also add “Get off to the right start”. We have one client who’s repeatedly late delivering the materials we need and who brought in a “consultant” early on (while what you might call a “subject matter expert”, they have questionable editorial judgement and, indeed, literacy . . .)

    Really wish we’d set our boundaries earlier on in the relationship, as it’s much harder down the line to say, “hang on a minute, this process/approach isn’t working!”

    • Matthew Stibbe November 17, 2009 at 11:42 am #

      Absolutely. If you’re confident and clear about what you want from a client, it’s easier to get them to stay within boundaries. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! :)

  2. Clare Lynch November 17, 2009 at 11:36 am #

    I guess my comment comes under your point about “early warning signs” – it’s a real-life example for you!

  3. Julia R November 17, 2009 at 7:53 pm #

    Hi Matthew — how would you adapt any of these for dealing with internal clients, such as when you work full-time for a marketing or public affairs team?

    • Matthew Stibbe November 18, 2009 at 6:37 am #

      @Julia. Internal clients are from Venus too. They just think they conquered Mars with their flying saucers and can tell you what to do because they own you. Or something! :) Extended metaphor alert. I’ve done a few jobs where I have had to be part of an in-house team but my experience in this area is limited. However, I would say that in-house writers need to be even more careful about getting the brief right and ensuring that they have a consensus before they start because their ‘client’ does not have a financial constraint on their ability to piss around. In other words, if they change their mind or ask for more work, it doesn’t cost them any more. Perhaps the schedule is something they care about and that’s the way to exert leverage.

      But what do you think, Julia? Any tips? It would help me to know what the ‘client relations’ issues are with an in-house team.

  4. sebastian aduriz November 17, 2009 at 9:21 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more with both lists. Everything’s true, but I like the “walkin away without anger” advice. When you do, -because you find your client is indeed a battering one or because you fail to communicate with him,- you can move away peacefully and go on with work.

    • Matthew Stibbe November 18, 2009 at 6:41 am #

      @Sebastian, thanks for the comment. Your website is beautiful and your team look like the coolest copywriting company in the world. I wish I read Spanish so I could follow your blog. Anyhow, the ‘walk away without anger’ thing is super-important. It means that you keep your self-respect. I’ve walked away from a couple of clients in my time and the only regrets I have is when I did in the heat of the moment. It also means that you have to be very rational about your decision-making and separate emotions from business logic. Finally, it forces you to be professional and respectful to your soon-to-be-ex-client which, hopefully, preserves some goodwill if you ever go back or need a reference or something.

  5. sebastian aduriz November 18, 2009 at 9:06 pm #

    Hey, thanks! Fortunately, I can read yours and I do enjoy it a lot. (And I lerarn a few things as well). It’s good to know some problems are much alike in London or Buenos Aires.

  6. Einat Adar December 5, 2009 at 9:21 am #

    I’ve been working with internal clients, and sad to say, but it’s usually a question of politics. If you have a good standing in the company, than you will be respected, but if management do not value your professional opinion, than it would be very difficult to get the brief right or edudcate clients.

    Emphasizing schedules does not help, because you get the “we’re short on time, so just accept my changes and finish this” answer.

    What you can do is educate your boss and their boss as much as much as possible. Another thing that helps is to speak in management’s terms. This is true for external clients as well – explain how what you write ties in with their marketing and business needs.

    One last tip is to recruit the people using your materials in your favour. Sales people, partners, and users appreciate good writing, and are usually willing to support it.

    Wonderful post.

    • Matthew Stibbe December 5, 2009 at 9:39 am #

      @Einat – good tips and feedback. Thanks. Matthew

  7. Mr Leet March 30, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    “Why do relationships between writers and clients go wrong?”
    I feel that all of the reasons that have been pointed out should be handled by the writer. Being a CIS major I have taken a few classes on software engineering and UML which talk a lot about the development phase. The same reasons relationships between writers and clients go wrong is the same with programmers. I’ve always been taught that unrealistic goals should be pointed out to the client.
    .-= Mr Leet´s last blog ..Custom css for author comments on wordpress =-.

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