Sunday, December 16, 2007

When Your Client Hates Your Work

I first started freelancing several years ago, moonlighting while holding down a full-time job. During my first few months, I got a call from a local ad agency that was in a bind. Their in-house writer just quit, and they needed brochure copy written pronto. I was absolutely thrilled to land work with a real ad agency.

Anyway, I talked with the creative director, who had a little trouble telling me what they wanted. "We want this one to be edgy, really edgy," he said. "But not, like, obnoxiously edgy. More like smoothly edgy. Like Tina Turner meets Frank Sinatra, and they have a love child, and that love child is...this brochure. That kind of edgy." I was having a hard time picturing that, so I tried to pin him down with a bunch of questions about their audience and their product. After a while, I felt I knew enough to knock out a first draft.

It turned out I didn't. I sent the first draft over, and within a few hours they called me back. "This is totally not what we wanted," the creative director said. "I hate it. I showed it to my boss and he hates it too. We're cancelling the project. Just send us the bill for what you've done so far."

This affected my confidence for a long time. For a while, I actually questioned whether or not I was a capable writer. But other projects started coming in, other clients loved my work, and slowly I began to put things in perspective. Still, even now I still get a little nervous sometimes when I send in a first draft. Here's what this experience taught me:

This happens to everyone. Even pro copywriters. Writing, like visual arts, theatre, and a host of other careers, is a creative job. And when it comes to creative work, there's always an element of subjectivity. Some people will love your work. If you're good, a lot of people will. But there will always be a few who won't. And when you work with a lot of clients, you're likely to run into those people every so often. Don't let it make you think you're not suited to the job.

It doesn't mean you stink. Okay, if this happened every single time you handed in a first draft, it might mean you stink. But there are any number of reasons your client might not like your draft that have little to do with your actual skill as a writer. The more of a creative risk you took, the more likely it is that you'll get a negative response. The client may not have communicated with you clearly enough, or you may not have asked the right questions.

Keep questioning until you're sure. Looking back, I realize now that one of the reasons I didn't get this one right was because the client didn't know how to tell me what he wanted--and I didn't know how to ask. His description of the tone he wanted was always vague, and I couldn't get him to paint me a sharper picture. Tone is always subjective; one person's "edgy and fun" can be another person's "obnoxious." Now I know I could have asked him to send me examples of other writing in the tone they're looking for, or to show me his previous copy and tell me exactly what he liked and didn't like about it.

Use it as a learning experience. Sometimes a single crash and burn can teach you more than you'd learn from twenty perfect projects. This one taught me to refine my questioning process, and not to hesitate to ask for more material if the client is vague about what he's looking for. The experience was unpleasant, but it taught me to be better at what I do.

Get back on the horse. If negative feedback affects your confidence, don't let it hold you back from looking for more work. Nothing will make you feel better like praise from a few new clients. The sooner you get back in the game, the easier it will be to move forward and put things in perspective.

Don't completely write the client off. The first draft may not have gone over as planned. But that doesn't mean you can't become this client's favorite writer, if they're willing to keep working with you. As long as they've treated you fairly--they paid you for your time and they didn't expect you to change the scope entirely without extra payment--you could still salvage your working relationship. You both might face a steeper learning curve than usual: them with learning to communicate more clearly, and you with getting used to their tastes and expectations. But do your best with revisions and stay in front of them, and they could become an easy client once you understand each other better.

Negative feedback is part of doing business as a writer. It's important to learn from the experience, and then move forward with what you've learned. Negative feedback is not much fun, but it can help you become better at what you do.


Michele said...

You've done a great job of encouraging writers to learn from their "mistakes." With writing we must keep persevering if we're ever going to succeed. I'm glad you learned the valuable lesson from that experience! Thanks for sharing it :-)


Unknown said...

Amen to what Michele says.

I had more than one client like this. Oddly, the complaints were in my comfort zone - an industry I know inside out. One client was expecting so much crammed into a 750-word article that there was no way I could do anything but fail. The PR rep on the job called me and said, "I want you to know it's not you. They've gone through four writers already. And I'm not doing it because they didn't like my work, either." It made me feel better, but it still stung.

We all get shot down. The trick is to get up and keep going.

chinmoy said...
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Jennifer Williamson said...

Sometimes the problem is that the client has unrealistic expectations. Once again, not the writer's fault--although I don't know about you, but I can be a bit thin-skinned sometimes. And I think that if it doesn't happen often, it bothers you more when it does. But you're right, Lori--it's all about getting up one more time than you get knocked down.