How I Learned to Ask All the Right Questions Before Writing For Others, After I Didn’t at My Peril 

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Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA 

Before you write anything for clients or employers, ask what style or tone they want – formal, informal, polite, provocative? Whatever terms work for you. They may not know, but it’s better to inquire. And if they don’t know, you’ll likely have greater license to share your expertise. 

Ask, as well, the intent and what must be covered and emphasized, what not, who the audiences are, what’s critical for them to understand? Look at materials the clients or employers have published. Get a fix on their preferences, so you don’t write something alien to their tastes or purposes.  

Also, if they request a certain kind of document, say a brochure, and you don’t already have agreed-upon specifics, ask them the questions above, plus what the desired size is. Maybe bring printed samples to help them focus. Size can be critical as the following story illustrates. 

When I tried my hand at freelance writing as a young man in Santa Monica, California, after working for a few years in New York City, a neighbor asked if I could write a brochure for his friend, the marketing director of a mid-size manufacturing company. He needed a capabilities’ brochure. I would be paid a lot of money. 

The crunch? This was Thursday evening. He needed the text by Monday, and I knew nothing about his company. I phoned him at the number I was given and arranged to meet in his office at 8:30 in the morning. He hired me after a few minutes of conversation. He really had no other choice under the circumstances.

He said he could only meet with me for about 20 minutes because he was leaving at 9:00 sharp for a weekend golf outing and would be out of touch except for his family. He would prepare a package of product sheets, trade press articles, and sales and marketing memos as background.

Next day, I jumped on the Santa Monica Freeway before drive-time madness took hold and drove my zippy VW Karman Ghia stick-shift to Pomona on the outskirts of Los Angeles. I was hustled into the man’s office by an assistant and over coffee asked him all the questions I could muster in the time allotted. Just before 9:00, he handed me a bulky padded envelope of documents, excused himself, and back I went to my apartment to read and write.  

The brochure was intended as a profile of the company’s history, products, and success. I was happy with what I had written by late Sunday afternoon. It was an engagingly sub-headed text that could be turned into a graphically enticing 8- to 12-page layout, which the client’s designer and printer would handle. 

Monday morning, back in the client’s office, I proudly shared what I had done. He read quietly, then hesitated, then looked up, suddenly and visibly upset. “The text seems fine,” he said, “but why is it so long? Why so many words?” I told him I wrote the text for what I assumed would be a showcase image piece. “Your idea is way off base,” he added, turning his palms up and sighing sharply.  

Taken aback, I turned an embarrassed shade of red and waited for the you’re-fired-hammer to fall. What did I do, I asked myself? He said the text was fine, but the text and concept go together. What am I missing? Then the client explained, somewhat calmer but still visibly annoyed. 

He only needed text for a three-panel, slim-jim brochure he could quickly edit and have retyped neatly in his office that very day, then photocopied on 8.5×11 colored paper, no graphics, no bleed, neatly folded. Something he could slip into his vest pocket and hand to people at an industry conference he was attending the next day.  

I stammered, he stammered, but fortunately he allowed me to rework the text in his office to get what he required. The result was what I could have written in a few hours at home — had I asked another question when we first met, instead of assuming in the absence of an answer. Lamely, I hadn’t inquired about the brochure’s size. Yes, one might conclude the oversight was his, but as the writer I was obligated to ask in case he didn’t explain. 

In the end, we worked things out, but not without upsetting my day and his. Not without shaking my youthful confidence and excitement. Not without him thinking twice before hiring me again. 

Not a good way for anyone to do business at any age, especially when starting out. I’ve never made the same mistake again and my client relationships improved accordingly as I delivered more satisfying results. 

Takeaway: If you’re a writer, freelance or full-time, and your client doesn’t tell you what you need to know, you had better ask. Help them and help yourself. Otherwise, guess whose rear-end is on the line if you fail to deliver what is expected as opposed to what you foolishly presumed?  


About the Author: Don Bates teaches graduate PR writing and management courses at New York University. He also teaches writing workshops worldwide, and is senior counselor for Gould+Partners, New York City-based PR agency M&A consultants. For over 40 years, he has handled public relations for corporations, associations, and nonprofit organizations.