5 Ways to Navigate the Writing Client’s First Draft

I’m out of the office this week — at least I hope I am. As I write this post Thursday afternoon, I’m certain I didn’t go anywhere on Friday. My car decided it wasn’t done bleeding money out of me. A day after I paid $850 for new struts and an alignment, the brake hydraulics (an additional $550) decided to break. Luckily, it was a noise I had checked out immediately. Imagine driving 500 miles one way with brakes that may go from automatic to manual without warning.

I’m about to start working with three new clients in the next two weeks. I’m usually fine with the meet-and-greet call and the marching orders for the initial draft.

But then the client has to look that over. That’s when the sweaty palms, heart palpitations, and the agita begin for me.

Over time, I’ve become accustomed to the first draft being the one they rip to shreds. Still, some clients (as in all new clients) have to be reminded that a first draft is just that — a draft.

So how to navigate that first draft with your new client?

Explain the process. Not every client has worked with a contractor before, so I make sure I tell them what to expect. I say something like “What I’ll do from here is write the first draft. I’ll send it over to you, probably by XXX. From there, you can review it and make changes either in the document or jot down notes in email. We continue this a few rounds just so I can make sure I’m representing your thoughts and ideas in the best way, especially since it’s our first time working together.”

And explain again. I like to remind people both over the phone and in email that the document they’re about to get is a first draft. It isn’t supposed to be perfect. It’s supposed to be a way for me to find out what works/doesn’t work for the client.

Expect shock and horror. Some clients just react badly. Don’t back away apologizing, and don’t offer refunds when your client hasn’t given you a chance to get it right. The best way I’ve found to handle a client who isn’t happy is by asking questions. “What specifically did you not like?” “Where is the main disconnect you’re seeing?” I’ll also ask clients to walk through it with me and point out, line by line if necessary, what works, what doesn’t, what they’d rather see instead. Sometimes, the reaction is strong, but the edits are minor.

Stand your ground where it matters. Let’s talk about those major reactions for a minute. I’ve had clients come back with “There are numerous errors” types of statements, but when I walked them through it or reread it myself, there was maybe one typo. A lot of times, the client is wrong about what he/she thinks is a grammatical error. Here’s what you do — copy-and-paste the Chicago/AP guide section covering that particular area, and say something like “You had me wondering too, so I looked it up. Here’s what Chicago Manual says about that…”  In the end, if the client wants it his/her way and it’s not totally incorrect, that’s what you go with.

Issue no refunds. Unless you really, truly screwed up, don’t you dare cave in and give that fussy client a refund. You still did the work, and if the client isn’t willing to let you fix what they think is wrong, that’s not fair to you. Even when I had a client last year who said I just didn’t get his business (not a surprise — in an hour of trying, he couldn’t explain what he did), I still got paid for the work I’d done. It wasn’t the full fee as we hadn’t gotten beyond that first draft, but it was what I’d put into it.

Writers, how do you prepare your new client for that first draft?
What’s the worst reaction you’ve ever had to an initial draft?

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  • KeriLynn Engel August 10, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Yep, I've had two clients who reacted really badly to the first draft, but then refused to tell me what was wrong or what they didn't like about it. Both in the same month last year. I did get an upfront payment in both cases, so at least I got reimbursed for my work.

    One of them actually approached me a few months ago to inquire about hiring me again, but I told them my schedule was completely full. I won't work with someone like that twice.

    Other clients have requested edits, sure, but politely. I refuse to work with rude people. I admire other writers who can, but it just pisses me off and stresses me out too much. I want to enjoy my work, and the people I work with! šŸ™‚

  • Cathy Miller August 10, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    I lost a new client over this very issue. I clearly explained the whole draft thing and had even said that because they were a new client I expected we'd need changes until I became more familiar with their business.

    They ignored repeated follow-ups from me regarding the draft. When they did finally respond it was to say that I didn't "get" their business. They were polite about it but that was the essence of their feedback. Yet the funny thing was when they sent their revised copy, it had minimal changes. And, no, it wasn't a tactic to avoid paying me. They paid promptly and in full. I was disappointed to say the least.

  • Ashley August 10, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    Thankfully, I've had very few instances in which a client came back with major edits, and only one of those instances turned out badly. I hate not hitting the mark on the first try, but most of my clients understand that it happens occasionally — and they've taken the time to talk to me about what they like and don't like. And then, of course, I edit and make it right. Love, love, love those clients!

  • Paula Hendrickson August 10, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    A few years back, a new-to-me client sent me the edited copy with tons of questions and "problems" to fix. They'd used Track Changes, so I could see which of the two editors had done what. And what do you know….one of them introduced some of the problems I was being blamed for. I guess they didn't like that I politely pointed it out ā€” "What I wrote was….., so I have no idea what this phrase refers to. Perhaps we could changed it to…..?"Ā ā€” since they never hired me again. Well, there's also the part that I didn't send them any additional article ideas.

  • Jake Poinier August 11, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Back in my corporate days, I had a custom magazine client that used to destroy the first draft of his publication, regardless of how good it was. (Including the graphic design.) So, the art director and I would purposefully do something that we knew he wouldn't like, so that it would draw his attention! A few years back, I came across a nifty little article where the author calls it "the blue boat" strategy:

    He ultimately was a fantastic client, albeit with insanely high standards. After I left my corporate job, he became a loyal freelance client, too.

  • Paula Hendrickson August 14, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    Jake, my dad (a graphic artist & cartoonist) said he always included one tiny, easy-to-fix flaw for certain clients he knew would have to change something to feel as if they were doing their job, or had some input. I never knew the stealthy strategy had a name. Thanks!

  • Lori Widmer August 14, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    KeriLyn, I don't blame you. Once into the fire is enough, isn't it?

    Cathy, that sounds like a client I had (and I believe you remember him). I wonder if the issue was they simply didn't know what they wanted? That's probably more likely than you not "getting" them.

    Ashley, we've all had those instances. I think it's a matter of some clients never having worked with a contractor and not knowing what to expect. Or it could be they suck at conveying what they want, which also happens.

    Ah Paula, you became the scapegoat. šŸ™‚ Sounds like you couldn't win that no matter what. You're better off.

    Jake, I remember you mentioning that strategy! It's a great one. It removes the need for the client to put fingerprints on the work. You give him/her something to revise and everyone is happy. šŸ™‚