It is a truism to say that no writer can write clearly with impact and persuasiveness if he does not know what he is talking about.
In other words, my writing can only be as good as the information and understanding I have on the subject-matter concerned.
I call finding out everything I need to know to execute a writing project the discovery process.
The discovery process
In my experience the best way to go about the discovery process is to get the client to fill in a detailed questionnaire.
Each questionnaire I send out is purpose-written and tailored for the individual client and the particular writing project.
The amount of detail in the questionnaire will depend on my existing relationship with the client and any work I have undertaken for him in the past.
With a new client the questionnaire will be more detailed than it would for be in the case of a client for whom I have worked previously, as I would already know quite a lot about the client company.
My questionnaire will have several sections as necessary.
These will be designed to gather information on the:
- Audience for the written work
- Objective or purpose of the assignment
- Product(s) or service(s)
- Client company
The first thing I have to determine is the audience, ie who will be reading the copy I will write. The amount of detail I need about the audience will vary depending on what I am writing.
For example, if I am writing an annual report, the audience will be a company’s shareholders and other stakeholders, such as financiers, bankers and so on. There will also be a need to ensure compliance with legal requirements. But I would not need any more detail than that about the audience.
However if the copy is sales literature of some sort, the amount of detail I will need will be much greater.
Whether the client is selling a product or service… I would need to know about the market, the motives of the buyers and their main concerns with regards to price, delivery, performance, reliability, maintenance, etc.
The questionnaire would be expanded accordingly.
One of the main purposes of the questionnaire would be to determine the exact purpose of the copy… to transmit information about a product or service, or generate or answer enquiries, make sales, build brand recognition, and so on?
Every piece of corporate writing for public consumption will contain a call-to-action (CTA) that, if it is not plainly explicit, is implicit.
I would need to know the CTA, ie what the client wants the reader to do after reading the copy.
As examples, the CTA could be a call to… buy now… send for technical specifications… ask for a proposal or quotation… or sign up to a mailing list. There are many more possible CTAs.
Knowing the purpose of the copy enables me to focus on what the copy is supposed to achieve while I am writing it. Of course, copy may have more than one objective.
Product or service
Once the questions about who I am writing to and the why are out of the way, the questionnaire would then focus on finding out as much as possible about the product or service concerned.
These questions would cover the features and benefits (in detail)… the competition and how the product or service compares with the competition… the technologies involved… the problems the product or service can solve… its positioning in the market… etc etc
This third section would mean asking the client for all the firm’s literature on the product or service. These would include brochures, catalogues, copies of advertising (online and offline), technical papers… anything that helps me to get a clear idea of the product or service.
To write the best copy that I can, I need reliable background information on the company. In other words, I need to understand in a general way why it exists and what makes it tick.
When dealing with a customer for whom I have worked previously, I would probably have most of this information to hand.
Where I am entering into a relationship with a new client I would need to posit detailed questions on the company, its values, markets, ambitions etc. I would probably need to peruse its mission statement and its most recent annual report.
I find that, once I have the information I need, the writing process is easy. It’s the research or discovery process that is the most onerous part of the job.
As the writer I am dependent on the client for the information I need to write the copy… but it is my responsibility to guide the client so that I end up with that information.
This means that the client has two main duties:
- provide all the information I ask for, making sure that it is as accurate as possible, and
- reading and commenting on the draft copy in a timely manner and being very specific about any changes required
As the writer, my responsibilities cover:
- making sure I articulate clearly all the questions to which I need answers
- making sure I get all the answers
- writing the best copy possible
- revising the copy as requested
- keeping the client’s project confidential
- tendering unbiased advice as necessary
As I said before, the writing is the easy part