When Clients Care to Give Writers the Very Best: Feedback

Talk_Feedback. Image courtesy of stock.xchng®Now that I know how this story ends, I can share the lessons I’ve collected over the last 12 days. The process wasn’t easy and it’s entirely possible my growing pains are showing.

The situation: I’m in the thick of writing creative copy for a one of the biggest projects my client has ever done. In addition to tight timelines, we’re all working with lots of firsts, including relationships within the creative team.

The nutshell: Hours after turning in my first draft, I was one the receiving end of a conference call. “Your copy missed the mark completely.”

Ouch. I pride myself delivering fresh, well-written work. It’s rare to be perfect with a first draft, but I’m usually pretty close. And I can handle raw, unfiltered feedback – it can result in stellar new ideas.

But, that phone call really threw me. I had chosen my words so meticulously and was sure I’d produced a solid first draft. Fortunately for me, the client asked me how we could turn around the work instead of dismissing me.

The final result: My client’s end customer was very happy with the copy.

So how did I get from mortification to celebration? Here are tips for handling feedback – especially when you’ve made a mistake.

  • Talk Red and Yellow. Image courtesy of stock.xchng®Apologize. Immediately. I kept it simple, saying that I was very sorry I was off track and that I was willing to do whatever it took to get this right. My words – and tone – quickly re-set the tone of the conversation. It was clear to my client that I was not defensive, which helped everyone relax.
  • Breathe. By staying calm, I sounded professional. It also helped me listen, instead of getting caught up in “how could this happen?” thoughts.
  • Take notes. Writing down specific feedback is key to remembering it later. In my case, it was late and I knew we’d all be better off if I produced new copy in the morning. I also kept my client informed, saying, “If I’m quiet, it just means I’m taking detailed notes.”
  • Reiterate and repeat. I made sure to restate key points to demonstrate that I understood the direction I needed to take. It showed I was listening and even helped elicit a few additional – and very helpful – details.
  • Take risks. It can be extremely hard to be creative in stressful situations. But it can also be the perfect opportunity to test an idea before you start working on it. As we were discussing how one idea could be more creative, I lobbed a headline with, “so if I were to write something like [idea here], how would that grab you?” The client loved it – and it gave me the confidence to know I could turn this situation around.
  • Follow up. Fast. When my client asked when she could see revisions, I told her that I could produce them that night, but we might be better served with me delivering the new draft in the morning. Her light tone told me that she appreciated my responsiveness and then she said the next day would be fine.

I gave up my weekend and didn’t get much sleep for more than a week. But things turned around. I saved an important relationship and learned in the process.

How do you handle feedback? How do you work with your clients when you’ve made a mistake?

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11 thoughts on “When Clients Care to Give Writers the Very Best: Feedback

  1. Jesaka:

    Something like this happened to me earlier this year: I had a feature story assignment from an editor I’d worked with several times before but due to a miscommunication on both our parts my first draft wasn’t at all on the aspect of the topic she was expecting. I was floored – I’ve never missed the mark so completely either. But we talked and – using a lot of the techniques that you outlined – worked through exactly what she wanted. I was able to turn in a rewrite that met all of her expectations and then some, and even gave her a killer headline (that they used). I’ve done other work for the magazine since so all was well that ended well. Goes to show that it plays to handle things like a pro, even mistakes.

    Michelle Rafter

  2. Hi Sue ~ Thanks for sharing your recent experience here, too. It sounds like you handled it with grace, but you must have been so frustrated! I understand clients are busy–but, it’s like you said. If he’d given you 10 minutes upfront, everyone would have save time in the long run. Good luck with the revisions!

  3. Jesaka, I just had a similar thing happen. In my case, the ultimate client was a VP who did not have time to talk to me to provide his perspective on an article I was writing. He suggested I just base the article on a memo he had sent out, and he and his communications person would add in “quotes.” I am now rewriting because he did not like the first draft. It’s funny that one of the things he didn’t like was that I didn’t include something only he could have told me! The communicator (who liked version 1) and I agreed that the rewrite could have been avoided if he had only taken 10 minutes to talk with me. We both figure that the introduction is the main problem, and we have kicked around ideas to fix it.

  4. Thank you all for your amazing comments and for sharing your own experiences.

    Donna ~ your advice to record the call is great. I let myself get caught off-guard and didn’t even think to ask about capturing the conversation with audio.

    Allena ~ You are right about it “risk” relating to being off the mark! Only, in this case, it was the opposite. I had not taken enough risk or pushed the creativity as much as the client wanted. They wanted snap and snazzy – I thought they wanted short and straight-forward.

    Steph ~ You nailed it with “it’s key to hone the ability to ask the right questions of your clients…the ones that will allow them to clearly express their vision so that the both of you end up happy.” That was *exactly* what I should have done! Good luck with your client–it can be so frustrating to revise without specifics.

  5. Thanks for this post, Jesaka! I’m actually experiencing something very similar for an ongoing client. The only problem? He doesn’t know what he wants and, thus far, has not been able to give specific feedback! I think it’s key to hone the ability to ask the right questions of your clients…the ones that will allow them to clearly express their vision so that the both of you end up happy.

  6. wow, Jesaka, great story. As far as “taking a risk”– I’m wondering perhaps if that’s why the first draft missed the mark? You know how some clients are not interested in anything out of the box…! Glad it turned out good. I feel for you. Definite ouch!

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