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ASK US WEDNESDAY: “My editor writes briefs that are longer than the commissioned story!”

by Leo Wiles
06 March 2019

How do I deal with an editor who writes briefs that are longer than the actual story they want me to write? I really like working with this editor, but the essay-like briefs take almost as long to decipher as the story takes to write. What’s your advice? Paul

Ahem. I confess I have been one of those editors, guilty of those lengthy two-page briefs. And I know, I know, it may have seemed like overkill to my writers at the time, but in my defence, I was briefing ‘at home’ stories, the templates were mainly made up of bullet points, and I had to clearly state things like the date, time, address, contact details of the PR, the photographer, writer etc. Plus of course, word count, deadline and any mandatory information that had to be included.

And (still with my editor’s hat firmly stuck on my head), the very definition of a brief is a set of instructions summarising what is to be done. This is crucial in creative industries such as ours to make sure that everybody is on the same page and understands the required outcome, in this way staving off stakeholder disappointment and subsequent rewrites.

If you do find yourself faced with a brief that is longer than the commissioned story, here’s what to do.

1. Take a step back and breathe… (very important).

The length of their briefing may be telling you more about their personality than the actual job. Perhaps yes, they are (as one freelancer pal suggested to me over a Chardonnay) power-crazed neurotics whose briefs include the interview questions, or maybe they’re just new, untested and indecisively trying to plug ALL the gaps.

2. Print it out and mark it up.

You’re not the editor’s therapist and your job is to get through this commission unscathed and paid. So the first thing you do is print out the brief and mark up all the key points with a highlighter. (In fact, this is something you should do with any brief, no matter how long, so you’re sure not to miss anything your editor wants included in the story.)

3. Email the ed back to clarify.

It never hurts to jot down and send back a tighter, more concise version to clarify exactly what your editor meant. Re-creating the brief along the lines of a pitch is especially important if you feel that the brief is just a brain fart of their sub-conscious – or that what they’re asking will take too long or simply won’t deliver the results they seem to want. And any decent editor won’t have a problem with you clarifying a brief, particularly before you start researching / writing.

Finally, be glad there is a brief, because the real horror stories about briefs generally revolve around those that are non-existent, vague or under 10 words.

Care to share your briefing horror stories? We all have them…

Leo Wiles

Leo Wiles has worked as an editor, journalist and PR for over 20 years before recently retraining as a photographer. These days, she spends her time behind a lens, juggling her own clients with her work at Rachel's List, and her three gorgeous but lively kids.

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