Copywriting Revisions Gone Wild! Why it happens and how to handle it

April 29, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

endless copywriting revisionsIt’s happened to all of us.

You take on what seems to be a normal copywriting project. You plan to do your research, write the copy, polish it, then submit it for review.

You figure the most you’ll get is a few minor changes. And at first, that seems to be the way things play out.

Then the project takes a nasty turn.

Your copy deck comes back bleeding red ink. You make the revisions, submit it again, and it comes back still bloody.

And it happens again, and again, and again. Sometimes you get a lot of changes. Sometimes it’s just one or two. But you start to feel like you’ll never stop revising.

What’s going on? And what can you do about it?

First, don’t panic. Nightmare revisions are like stomach viruses. They’re painful, but they don’t happen too often. Take a deep breath and keep repeating to yourself, “This too shall pass.”

Second, consider some of the reasons this happens.

  • Your client or boss doesn’t know what he or she wants.
  • There’s miscommunication about the project requirements.
  • A committee is editing your copy.
  • The situation changes in the middle of the project.
  • Your contact actually wants to write the copy.
  • You’ve screwed up.

Third, you need to figure out what happened and deal with it.

If you’ve screwed up, you’ll find that out pretty quick. And the only thing you can do is have a direct, honest discussion to determine where you went wrong, then fix it. This isn’t fun, but it’s pretty straightforward.

The real challenge comes when it’s one or more of those other reasons.

If your client or boss is fickle or undecided, you have to act as a consultant and help guide the project. Usually this works. But truly fickle people can’t make and stick to decisions. The best you can do is explain why you’ve written the copy the way you have and why this is the best way to do it.

If there’s miscommunication, you need to zero in on when and why this happened and get the project back on track. Explain the requirements as you see them and ask if this is accurate. If not, have your client go over the requirements again.

If a committee is editing your copy, that’s not good because you’ll get conflicting comments. Ideally, you should ask whoever is in charge of the project to collect and filter these comments in one document so you’re getting feedback from just one source.

If the situation changes in the middle of the project, this is clearly not your fault, so you shouldn’t get any grief for it. However, if you’re a freelancer, this is the time to have a frank discussion about extra charges if the changes are extensive. Be professional but firm.

If your client or boss really wants to write the copy, or is an anal retentive type, well … you’re in a bit of a pickle. Almost nothing you do will be good enough. Ask for specific feedback, then make the changes nearly verbatim. A few flattering comments can help, such as “That’s a good edit” or “I really like that suggestion.”

A little organization and clear communication at the beginning of a project can ward off most situations like this. But sometimes, you can’t escape those “copywriting revisions gone wild” scenarios.

Just put your head down and plow through. Don’t get upset. Don’t say anything you’ll regret. And do your best to finish the project and move on.

One more thing, if you’re an employed copywriter, you’ll be paid for all the extra time you put in, so money isn’t an issue. But if you’re a freelancer, there comes a point when you have to enforce your contract limits (I limit revisions to 2 rounds) or add to your fee.

I once had a project some years ago that started as one mailing insert for $3,000 and ended up as 9 inserts for $11,000. Most of that went to the designer who put in endless hours creating the extra versions and making all sorts of silly changes.

The client was furious, but paid the bill. I then dropped him permanently and wouldn’t even take his calls. Sometimes you have a “life is too short” moment and need to cut people off for your own sanity.

What about you? Do you have a story about revisions gone wild? How did you handle it?

Related posts:

  1. How to handle those pesky ASAP copywriting requests

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Smart Comments

9 Comments on Copywriting Revisions Gone Wild! Why it happens and how to handle it

  1. Brooke Crawford on Apr 29th, 2010 10:40 am
  2. Painful to read this blog (because it has happened so many times), but very true. Good tips…especially about laying down the law at some point and limiting the revisions. We deal with this in the agency a lot. Have to take each client on a case-by-case basis.

  3. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Apr 29th, 2010 2:11 pm
  4. Sometimes you just have to fire your client as well. Of course revisions and serious re-writes can happen from time to time, but there are a few customers out there that love to cause trouble.

    Every now and then you need to get your dignity back and just fire the customer, saying thank you, but you no longer need their business. This can be a really big help when you are down.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  5. Dean Rieck on Apr 29th, 2010 2:22 pm
  6. Joshua,
    You’re right. I’ve only done it a couple times, and it was only in response to outlandish behavior. This is no different from what any other business owner would do. Trouble is, too many writers have a subservient attitude and think they have to take it to keep the client, when what they should be thinking is “Do I really want to work with clients like this?”

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tony Mack and Dean Rieck, John Domzalski. John Domzalski said: Revisions Gone Wild: How to handle endless copy changes: It’s happened to all of us. You take on what seems… [...]

  7. Matthew Needham on Apr 29th, 2010 5:26 pm
  8. I discovered this blog thanks to Joshua @ the underdog millionaire. I’m really pleased he has, there’s some great stuff here.

    I agree with Joshua, if the pain doesn’t justify the reward, then firing your client can be a very good option.

  9. Dean Rieck on Apr 29th, 2010 6:12 pm
  10. Matthew,
    Thanks for the kind words. I love your site colors and design. Looks great. But it’s making me hungry for a big juicy tomato.

  11. Rich Becker on May 3rd, 2010 12:02 pm
  12. Hey Dean,

    I suppose I am fortunate that our copy revision issues are minimal, anymore (although when it does happen, points one and two are often the most common).

    On every estimate, we always include that revisions are inclusive unless there is a change in the strategic or creative direction, which generally addresses those two most common points.

    I also take care and teach staff to analyze any suggested revisions by asking if they are good, lateral, or bad. We praise the good, accept the lateral changes, and attempt to provide explanation on those that are bad. If the client insists, we’ll make the changes while recognizing that they are probably not the right client. It’s less effort to replace them. :)

    Overall, I have to say that I’ve become accepting of the few changes that come back to us. The only one that doesn’t sit well with me is the “I dunno, it just doesn’t strike me” comments that provide no real semblance of direction. But again, that is usually indicative of someone who doesn’t need to be our client.

    All my best,

  13. Michelle Quintana on May 25th, 2010 5:43 pm
  14. Hi Gang,

    Here’s a doozy for ‘ya-all! Recently I was hired by a client to re-write her entire website. As I understood the project, the client would have me write each page, review, approve and move on to the next page. The client advised me that she had hired a second copywriter to come up with a “different creative angle” since our styles were very different. That was mistake #1. I completed the home page copy, the client loved it, then did not get back to me for 4 weeks! In the meantime, the other CW was writing away on her end. After 4 weeks of tirelessly being placed on hold, I was able to get ahold of the client and firmly but professionally confront her. I was advised that she had already chosen the other CW’s work over mine and that she would “dovetail” my copy with that of the other CW’s. Additionally ( and here’s where the story get good) she would not be paying me the 2nd half of my deposit! I decided right then and there to fire the client and call it a very expensive learning experience. The takeaway lessons in all of this is:
    1. Never accept a job where a another CW will be working on the same project as you.
    2. Avoid clients who are very confused and unclear about the direction of their project even if you provide a creative brief before the project begins.
    3. Never sign-off on anything that lets the client get out of their project if they are not going to use your copy ( my mistake)
    4. Be crystal clear with the client that the fee is due and payable regardless of who’s copy they decide to use.

    A very expensive lesson in-deed but hopefully this will help other CW’s avoid this type of client like a yeast infection!

    [...] a committee. You should never accept writing by committee unless you enjoy the torture of handling conflicting comments, regression to the mean, and spiritless copy. Instead, ask the person in charge of the project to [...]