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How to Handle Copywriting Revisions Like a Pro  

How many versions does it take to satisfy a client? Umm…


copywriting revisions

Copywriting is often an iterative process, which means doing revisions is a big part of most projects.

When you work in a creative service field like copywriting, revisions are a predictable part of the job. Rare is the project that gets an A+ from a client on the first draft.

No matter how much research you do, how talented you are or how closely you listen to your client’s requirements, you’re unlikely to hit the nail on the head every time. After all, you’re a copywriter, not a mind reader. And, of course, your client has probably spent years learning about his industry and building his business, giving him insights that an outsider couldn’t possibly have.

When I received the following email from a copywriter who is relatively new to the business, I knew she posed questions about revisions that many other writers probably had as well. So I’ve decided to share both her questions and my responses. I hope you find them helpful.

Susan Greene

Freelance Copywriter

Orlando, Florida

Hi Susan,

I have a new client who is asking me about edits and whether they are included in my work.

I’m new to the field and haven’t dealt with this before. I’d like to say that a first round of edits is included in my project price but any additional edits are done at my hourly rate.

I’m not sure if this is the right way to go. I know that people can be very picky and that edits can take a lot of time. How do you handle the issue or edits and revisions?

Candace

Hi Candace,

Writing is subjective. One client may love every word you write while another might want to try on a dozen alternatives like dresses at Bloomingdale’s before selecting the one that feels right.

I know some copywriters put a limit on how many edits they’ll do. I don’t.  I want my client to be completely satisfied.

Sometimes my liberal revisions policy results in extra work for me, but editing isn’t nearly as painful as writing from scratch, so I suck it up and get it done.  Plus, if I’m doing my job right, each successive edit should be easier to the point where we’re just changing a word or two here and there.

Your plan to include first round edits and charge for additional rounds is a reasonable approach. It makes a lot of sense and may be something for me to consider if I find revisions are eating up my days. For now, it’s not an issue. I usually come close on the first draft and most clients only require minor revisions, which I’m happy to do in the interest of unmitigated client happiness.

One more thing to consider.  Some clients are nervous about hiring a copywriter.  Perhaps it’s their first time doing so. Or maybe they’ve previously had a bad experience. By offering a liberal revision policy, you can help allay their fears and close the sale.

Now here are a few additional thoughts on the subject of copywriting revisions.

State Your Revision Policy

When you begin discussing the project with your client, explain how you’ll handle revisions. You can say that you include a set number of revision drafts in your price or that you’ll do however many drafts are necessary to fully satisfy the client with the finished product.

Whatever policy you decide to set, stating it up front and putting it into writing on your proposal will help avoid disagreements later.

Ask Lots of Questions

Clear communication at the beginning of a project can help you avoid multiple rounds of revisions.  Do your homework.  That means research the subject matter thoroughly.

Ask your client lots of questions. You may even need to speak with multiple people from your client’s business to be able to fully comprehend the topic. And don’t forget to check out the client’s competition. That will give you additional insights into the industry as a whole and you’ll be able to determine what selling points are most relevant.

The more upfront learning you do, the less revising you’ll have to do to your copy later.  And the more impressed your client will be with your fast grasp of the subject matter.

Choose Your Key Selling Points

Part of your job as a copywriter is to determine what selling points are most important for your clients. What makes their business special and different from competitors? Is their product or service superior? Is their price the lowest? Are they focused on providing the best customer service?

By asking lots of questions and researching the industry, you should be able to identify what angle will best help your client to succeed.  With that information, you have the initial framework for your copy.

Difficult Clients Are a Curse

Just as there are difficult people in this world, so too do difficult clients exist.  Anyone who’s been in business for more than a few months has probably run into them in some form. They’re the folks who have unrealistic expectations or are simply impossible to please.

I remember one client who had a large, successful coin shop selling rare coins to collectors both in his local area and nationally online. He hired me to write a series of press releases about some newly acquired rare coin collection from the 1800s. When he reviewed my write-ups, he harshly criticized me for not knowing some of the most obscure facts about the coins, things only a true collector would even know to ask about.

In the end, he apologized for having not told me these details during our earlier conversations, but his unrealistic expectations and mean-spirited criticisms were enough to make me refuse any future work from him. I only wish I’d correctly assessed him as a client in the beginning, as the sleepless nights he cost me weren’t worth the fee I’d quoted for the copy.

Where Exactly Is the Problem?

When a client requests excessive revisions, I try to step back and ask myself where the problem lies:

  • Have I written poor copy?
  • Is the client changing his mind from what he originally wanted?
  • Is the client not clearly communicating what he wants?
  • Am I struggling to understand the subject matter?
  • Is the client a control freak who feels compelled to micro-manage?
  • Is the client someone who over-analyzes everything to avoid making a final decision?
  • Are these revisions coming from multiple parties, such as a committee or a spouse?
  • Is the client one of those impossible-to-please types?

The answers to these questions help me determine how best to proceed. Having said that, when I have a client who makes an excessive amount of edits, I get the job done but decline all future work from them. Those clients are time burners and they make my job much less enjoyable.  I can handle it for one project, but I won’t put myself in that position a second time.

Some Clients Just Want Their Money’s Worth

Not all clients want to be satisfied with the first draft.  Some want to feel like they had a part in the copywriting and editing. The revisions they make, no matter how minor, give them pride of ownership, as though they wrote the copy themselves.

Sometimes clients just want to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth. If they approve your first draft, then has the copywriter invested enough time to justify her fee?

I once had a client approve every word of a large website I wrote for her.  She was thrilled with the copy but instead of being appreciative of my talent and hard work that enabled me to create perfect copy, she posed this shocker of a question, “Since you only had to write a first draft and didn’t spend any time doing revisions, can you reduce your fee accordingly?” Um, no!

Watch for Red Flags

One time, I remember having had a particularly difficult client. In our initial conversation, I saw many red flags but decided to ignore them and take on the project. Big mistake.

The red flags were comments like, “You’re the third copywriter I’ve been to.” And, “I just fired my web designer because he couldn’t follow directions.” And, “I’m actually a very good writer myself, but my time is too limited for me to do this project.”

I must have been feeling fairly confident that day thinking that I could please her.  Instead, we soon found ourselves at odds and the project dragged on for months before the client finally felt the copy was “good enough.”

She never did make her final payment, thus again demonstrating that she was unsatisfied with the finished product despite my best efforts and multiple rewrites.  Lesson learned.

The Client Knows Best?  Or Does He?

Another issue I occasionally run into is the client who requests revisions that make the copy sound worse, not better. For example, I had one client who felt compelled to include lots of big words and flowery prose like “Our integrated technological solutions help to foster synergy…” even though the same thoughts could be communicated with much simpler and more interesting language.

Another client insisted on using the analogy of an elephant – yes, an elephant – when describing his financial services business in a brochure.  He wanted me to weave elephant references into almost every paragraph.  I thought it was ridiculous, but after doing my best to dissuade him, finally acquiesced. The client was ultimately happy. Me, not so much.  Needless to say, that brochure didn’t make it into my portfolio.

Finally, another client wanted to delete my clear, straightforward wording and replace it with wordy clichés. For some reason, saying things like “first and foremost” and “Expect the highest quality at the lowest price,” felt more right to her than original wording.

So how do you handle a client who thinks she knows best? I attempt to find a compromise that falls in between what she wants and what I think is right. But if I sense that she is committed to her way of saying things and my suggestions are not welcome, I back off. I do what she wants. She who pays the bills gets the most votes. But I’ll certainly think twice before accepting another project from that client.

Rewrites Are Not Revisions

If you’ve already written a draft of copy based on your client’s requirements, other than minor revisions, you’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain.

But what if the client now wants to change the parameters? Instead of the original approach, she has something entirely different in mind. Scrap the old and start with a clean sheet of paper. Sorry, but that’s a rewrite, not a revision, and it calls for a separate quote.

Don’t Create Alternate Versions

Sometimes clients want to see multiple copy drafts and pick the one they like best.  What they’re really doing is putting off having to make a decision.

Explain to the client that buying copy isn’t like buying ice cream at Baskin Robbins. You don’t get to review the entire product line and sample the flavors you’re considering. Tell the client you can write multiple versions but only if he is willing to pay for them – two drafts equal twice the fee.  That usually ends the discussion.

I once had to work with a marketing director who was terrified of his boss, the owner of the business. We were working on a lengthy brochure.  I submitted my first draft, which had taken me many hours to complete.

The marketing director said it was fine but he wanted another draft with a completely different creative approach so that he could give his boss a choice. He figured if he presented two drafts, he doubled his chances of getting an approval and looking like a hero. I refused, as the price I’d quoted did not include doing the work twice.

I insisted that the marketing director show the first draft to his boss, and if his boss didn’t like it, I would create a second draft but only on the condition his boss provided specific feedback as to what he wanted changed. I’d already put my best creative thinking into the first draft. I was not going to create alternatives so the marketing director could play the CMA (Cover My Ass) game.

In the end, the boss approved the first draft with a few minor revisions, but I chose to never again do business with that company, as it was clear the marketing director and I had different working styles.

Copywriter Tips of the Trade

If you’re dealing with difficult subject matter or difficult clients, you’ll want to proceed with caution to ensure their satisfaction. Consider trying these techniques:

  • Involve clients in the process – Instead of producing a first draft for them to review, create an outline. List the salient points you plan to make and the order in which you plan to present them.  Then get some client feedback before tackling that first draft.
  • Ensure they have realistic expectations – Before you begin writing, explain to your clients what they can expect in a first draft. Tell them it won’t be perfect. It will be a step in the right direction. Let them know you’ll likely have to make some assumptions about their business and leave some blanks in the copy.  The first draft becomes a tool for determining what additional information is needed.
  • Show the copy in place – If you know you have a difficult client or someone new to marketing who may not be able to visualize the finished product, consider collaborating with the graphic designers or web designers on the project. If they can place your first draft into the actual design, whether it’s a website or brochure, your clients will get a much better idea of how the copy complements the visuals. Also clients who review something that is published and polished tend to ask for fewer revisions, as the presentation gives the visual impression you’ve already passed the revisions stage.
  • Get specific – If a client says, “I don’t like the copy,” it’s your job to probe further. Ask specifically what he doesn’t like and why.  If necessary, go through the copy with your client word for word.  If you don’t gain an understanding of what your client wants written differently, your second draft won’t be any more like to win his approval than the first draft.  I once had a client for whom I’d written a 10-page website.   I’d invested considerable time and effort in understanding her business and was confident my first draft was on target.  You can imagine how surprised I was to receive a short email from the client that read, “I don’t like the copy. Please try again.”  Try again??? Instead, I insisted on setting up a phone meeting and we went through the text line by line.  As the client read through it, she realized it wasn’t as off-base as she thought.  In fact, it included all the correct points; she just had an aversion to certain words.  Once we changed them to what she called “the right industry terms,” she happily approved the second draft.  Phew!

Don’t Take It Personally

I’ve been a copywriter for many years.  We’re talking 20+. I think I’ve run into pretty much all types of clients. Some have been wonderful and have even become good friends. Others were a nightmare, and I couldn’t wait to finish their project and bid them adios.

So here’s my best advice to copywriters new and experienced. Don’t take client criticisms personally.  You can’t survive in this business if you let a negative word or a request for revisions upset you.

Often, what you have is a misunderstanding. Whether the client didn’t do a good job explaining what he wanted or you didn’t do a good job of listening, the result is the same – an unhappy client.

You’re a professional. Fix whatever is wrong best that you can, even if that means the project isn’t profitable, and then move on.  Don’t let it shake your confidence. Don’t replay the situation in your mind over and over.  And don’t let it define you as a copywriter.

Make client satisfaction a priority but not at the expense of your sanity.  The money you spend on doctor visits for an ulcer aren’t worth nearly what your client is paying you. Seek out good clients and part ways with those who are impossible to please.  That’s how you build a successful and personally rewarding business.

Susan Greene

Freelance Copywriter

Orlando, Florida

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Do you need a website or brochure for your business?  Get great copy at a fair price. And that includes revisions! Contact Susan Greene today!

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