Understanding what needs to be said is as important as saying it.

-Hisham Wyne

You'd think that as a content creator for corporate brands, all you'd have to do is actually write good copy. Wrong. Client communication is actually more important than the words themselves.

As a freelance writer, my work kicks off long before a single word is penned. Long before the computer is booted up and the coffee maker put on red alert.

Every single assignment starts not with the written word, but with the talking. Getting the communication right is as important as writing well. In fact, there’s no way to write well without communicating well. Here’s the thing:

For me personally, every single project that has become complicated or gone a little off the rails – taken up too much time, consumed too much headspace, or got stuck in a loop of tinkering and changes – has started with bad communication.

In fact, if my client communication is going well, there’s a very high chance our project is going well.

Now, there is some irony here. Some of us have might been drawn to freelance writing careers because we’re solitary creatures who don’t want to be chatting and networking all day. And then we realise that people interaction is actually one of the most important skills in being a professional copywriter and content consultant.

Such is the writing life. Now, this doesn’t mean we have to become public speakers or late night comedy hosts to succeed at our job – though that actually helps – trust me! We just need a checklist to ensure our expectations are managed from the get-go, and everyone understands what the project is about.

So let’s kick off with a few suggestions.

Always establish scope: This sounds like management jargon. But really, the scope of the project is a social (and written) contract between you and the client. It sets out what you’ll do, what you’re expecting to be paid, the time you’ll put in, and what help you’ll need from the client in terms of time and access to resources. Get the scope wrong, and one party will suffer. Either the client will feel short changed, or you’ll wind up working free hours and doing extra work.

Establishing scope at the outset is the trickiest bit of the project because everyone’s in a hurry to get moving. And this is the step in the project lifecycle where you (and quite possibly the client) have the least knowledge about how the work’s going to develop.

But it’s very definitely worth it to have a few chats with the client, understand what they want, why they want it, and come up with a clear stance on what you’ll do – and what you won’t. And then communicate it not just verbally but also in writing. Make sure that email is acknowledged, too. Effective client communication starts with establishing boundaries. And sometimes you have to push back.

Speak the client’s language: Here’s the thing – writers sometimes have to be mind readers and great interviewers too. No pressure!

And that’s because your client has a pain point – something they wish were otherwise, something they need your help addressing.

Basically, there is a desirable outcome in their head that is to do with their business. And if we can get to that, we can do a better job of suggesting ideas and the right words

I always ask clients what they want a project’s final outcome to be. Not just in terms of words written, and deliverables me. No, I mean the final outcome that the client wants for their business. Is it, “I want more conversions on my web copy?” Or, “I want compelling text that makes my brand look good?” Or perhaps, “I need my customers to better understand what it is I do?”

Once we get inside the client’s head and start speaking their language, the conversation becomes easier.

Never have all the answers: Important client, first meeting. You walk in there to impress, and spend a lot of time talking. The meeting’s over and you’re given the go ahead to start. And that is the point where you realise that you’re still a bit fuzzy on the client’s perspective. It’s happened to me.

As a professional writer, it’s tempting to have all the answers. After all, you’re hustling for business and want to impress. But it’s the clients who are experts in their field, and in their business. Our first task is to understand their ideas, and help them express them.

For the longest time, my elevator pitch has been, “I help brands communicate effectively through words.” Not “I write words.” But that I take what people want to say and make it simple and accessible. It reminds me that what clients want to say is important, and it’s my job to help them discover their stories and tell them effectively.

Troubadours pen verses. Authors write bestsellers. But freelance copywriters are tasked with something far less glamorous: helping clients better understand their own ideas, and expressing them effectively. And for that, we need to be good communicators.