The tweak trap: how to avoid nightmare rewrites

August 9, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

writing tweak trapRecently a guy called me about my writing services. Says he has a small job he would like me to consider. All he needs are a few “tweaks.”

The phone conversation went like this:

Guy: Hi, Dean. Great to finally talk to you. I’ve been following your articles and have subscribed to your newsletter for years.

Dean: Thanks. I appreciate that.

Guy: So I wanted to talk to you about a project you might be able to help me with. A while back I hired a local writer to write a quick little sales letter for me and I’m not happy with it.

Dean: Okay. Why don’t you tell me about that.

Guy: Well, I just don’t like the letter. It seems to fall flat. So I was hoping you could tweak it for me. Do you do that sort of thing?

Dean: Tweak it? Can you define “tweak” for me?

Guy: The letter is headed in the right direction, but it’s just that the words aren’t quite right. So I was hoping you could, you know, just clean it up a little. I’m thinking it’s a minor revision.

Dean: Can you show me the letter?

Guy: Sure. I’ll email it to you. Again, I think it just needs a little tweaking.

If you’ve been writing professionally for a few years, in a job or as a freelancer, you can see the red flags in this conversation, can’t you? Because you’ve heard this conversation before.

Here’s a plain English translation:

Guy: Hi, Dean. Great to finally talk to you. I know your reputation and am sure you can fix my problem.

Dean: Thanks. I know you’re trying to butter me up for something.

Guy: So I wanted to talk to you about saving my ass but I don’t know if you’re going to fall for it. A while back I hired a copywriter to write a sales letter for me and because I was trying get it cheap, the copy turned out crappy.

Dean: Okay. You’re a moron, but keep talking.

Guy: Well, the letter sucks. It doesn’t sell. So I was hoping you could totally rewrite it for me and give me a big price break if I use the word “tweak.” Are you that gullible?

Dean: Tweak? I know what you’re trying to pull, but I’d like to give you one more chance to be honest with me so define “tweak.”

Guy: The letter mentions my product, but that’s all it has going for it. The writing is horrible. So I was hoping you could, you know, write it from scratch for dirt cheap and take pity on me.

Dean: Can you show me the letter? Because I want to see just how ridiculous your request really is.

Guy: Sure. I’ll email it to you in the vain hope that you’ll say yes. Again, I want you to bail me out and not charge me a whole lot. M’kay?

Admittedly, sometimes tweak really does mean tweak. People occasionally just need help making copy better. But more often than not, the word tweak means something else.

It could mean “I want you to do the work for less pay than you normally charge.” Or “I have no clue how much work is involved.” Or even “I can’t do the work but I still want credit for writing it so we’ll pretend you’re just changing a few words.”

And of course, people may use words and phrases other than tweak, such as revise, rewrite, fine tune, tune up, clean up, polish, revamp, or tighten up.

Okay, so how do you handle this situation? Notice that in the phone conversation, I didn’t commit to anything or comment about the project. I just asked to see the document. That’s because you first need to determine if it’s really a tweak project or a write-it-from-scratch project.

If it’s a tweak project, and you think you really can just polish the copy and end up with a good result, you should provide a tune-up price that’s a little less than your ordinary fee. Maybe you can use your editing rates.

If it’s a write-it-from-scratch project, and you’re sure the current copy can’t be saved, you should provide your ordinary fee. Explain that you’ve reviewed the document carefully and, in your professional opinion, you can’t do anything with the copy as it is.

People usually don’t understand why bad copy can’t be saved or why trying to rewrite bad copy can be more time-consuming than writing from scratch. But it’s true. If the premise is bad, the structure is weak, or there’s just nothing to work with, it’s generally easier to start over.

So if the person persists, you might try quoting both your tweak fee and your from-scratch fee, with the tweak fee being a little higher.

Be honest and straightforward when you’re explaining this. Tell the client or boss or whoever you’re talking to that you are looking out for his or her best interests and that a tweak will be a waste of money. If you rewrite it from scratch, however, you can provide solid copy and solve the problem.

I know you’ve run into this, right? Tell me your story.

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Smart Comments

17 Comments on The tweak trap: how to avoid nightmare rewrites

  1. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 9th, 2010 9:24 am
  2. Been there, done that. Seeing what you’re dealing with first is critical to knowing what you’re up against and quoting the job properly.

    But what struck me was that you asked the person to define “tweak”. I do that as well sometimes, because as you mentioned, it can have a wide range of meanings to different people.

    I recently got caught, too. (And yes, even seasoned pros miss the warning signs from time to time.) For me, “tweak” meant “spend a tiny bit of time making this better than horrible because that’s all the client could afford”.

    “Tweak”, to the other party, meant “fully rip apart, overhaul and invest a ton of time into making this spectacular because I think writers should get $10 an hour like everyone else, therefore my $200 is going to go a long, long way and bring me castles, unicorns and rainbows.”

    Yeah. No. Sorry. And once I realized that fantasy-land was what I was expected to provide, I put an end to the project, thanked the person for giving me a good laugh, and went to spend my time somewhere else that mattered more.

  3. Jeremy L. Knauff on Aug 9th, 2010 12:36 pm
  4. “People usually don’t understand why bad copy can’t be saved or why trying to rewrite bad copy can be more time-consuming than writing from scratch.”

    So true! We run into that quite often with potential web design clients. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “But we already have a website, so it should be cheaper to just redesign it.”

    Maybe if more people in creative fields (writing, design, etc.) had a little more confidence in the value of the services they provide and were willing to stand their ground, we wouldn’t have to deal with as many of these types.

    Sadly, I think poor quality is becoming the norm and fewer people recognize real quality these days.

  5. Dean Rieck on Aug 9th, 2010 1:17 pm
  6. Jeremy,
    Maybe we all need to spend more time educating clients. It’s never the smart clients who make the unreasonable requests.

  7. Jeremy L. Knauff on Aug 9th, 2010 1:48 pm
  8. That’s true.

    There is definitely merit to educating them, but personally, I would prefer to spend my time working with clients who already get it.

  9. Ren Plaintext on Aug 9th, 2010 3:45 pm
  10. While there is definitely a bit of cunning and deception from clients in these scenarios, I think some clients genuinely don’t realise the work that’s involved in writing. They see a piece of rubbish writing as a job half done, rather than…a piece of rubbish writing. To them, it’s a fence half painted – easy to just slap some paint over the missed bits, right?

    I had a very similar experience recently and re-learned this lesson the hard way. The client had a website that was “basically good, but just needs language that can sell.”

    I rewrote the first set of pages and the client thought it was “Amazing! Perfect! Only…there is some more information I think we should include here, plus I want to restructure this page and add another page for that bit of info. Please read the 15 brochures I’m sending you and think about what else I might want to add. You can still meet that Friday deadline, can’t you?”

    The clincher? Client emails again to say, “you know, I’m not sure if I’d like this word rather than that in the first sentence. Please change it and send it back through so I can decide.”

    I kid you not.

  11. Dean Rieck on Aug 9th, 2010 3:58 pm
  12. Ren,
    This is what contracts are for. You should always make it clear that you have all information up front and that changes in direction and major rewrites cost extra. I also insert a 20 day limit on changes. I’ve had people come back to me a year or more later and expect me to keep working on a project, as if once they hire me, I will provide free service forever on the project.

  13. Ren Plaintext on Aug 9th, 2010 4:02 pm
  14. I hear you, Dean. It was a big lesson for me and it came at an opportunity cost. I’ve printed out all the ridiculous emails from this client, tied a ribbon around them and placed the prominently on my desk as a reminder to not let this happen again!

  15. Michelle Wood on Aug 9th, 2010 6:05 pm
  16. My personal favorite is “I don’t have a budget to hire a writer, so I drafted it myself. I just need you to proofread it before it goes out.”

    Someday I will learn to stop quoting a proofreading fee before I preview the piece and inevitably realize it needs to be redone from scratch.

  17. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Aug 9th, 2010 7:13 pm
  18. @Michelle – I have to admit, anyone who says, “I’m a writer,” in a quote request sends up HUGE red flags. And alarm bells. And flashing warning signs.

  19. Jeremy L. Knauff on Aug 9th, 2010 8:27 pm
  20. Hah hah James! I once had a client tell me “I fancy myself an amateur web designer, so I’ll send you a PowerPoint of what I want.”

  21. Joshua Black | The Underdgo Millionaire on Aug 10th, 2010 9:38 am
  22. I think that the tweak request is nothing more than a huge danger sign. It should just be a re-write or nothing.

    Now, if your client is trying to beat their own control and calling it a tweak, that is a warmly-welcomed and totally different animal.

    …but taking junk and trying to squeeze out gold coins is never going to happen -both parties will just end up unsatisfied.

    Just like Beavis and Butthead proved for us- You can’t polish a turd.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  23. Sara on Aug 10th, 2010 10:46 am
  24. I run into this every now and again, too. It’s a person you want to work with, but it’s tough to do when they don’t know what they need.

    I agree with Joshua in that it’s best to just write from scratch. But how do you convince the person that’s what they need?

  25. Paige Jeffrey on Aug 12th, 2010 10:51 am
  26. As a newbie to the game, I haven’t really run into this yet. But I know I will. And am now armed with some excellent advice from the comments. Big thanks. :)

  27. Kevin Francis on Aug 25th, 2010 4:28 am
  28. Another variation on this, one I hadn’t encountered before, is a project where part of the work is to “review” copy prepared by non-copywriters (in this case web developers selected for their supposed SEO prowess).

    Or “editing” special reports provided by the client.

    Final red flag on this occasion was that another copywriter previously involved was now “too busy” to complete the project (Gee…I wonder why?)

    Beware of fixed fee projects where the scope is not clearly defined and can be flexibly expanded at your cost!

    Just to re-iterate other comments here, having to clean up the mess left by someone else is almost always a nightmare and best avoided. When you think about it, if the client was worth working with, they wouldn’t have got into the mess in the first place.

  29. Art on Aug 30th, 2010 9:25 am
  30. I run into this all the time, but I’ve got to admit that in the past I had a tendency to fall for the schtick. Clients like this were like stray dogs to me, and I tended to take them in and feed them. But…recently I said to myself, “Ya know, I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and I’m sick of giving it away.” The whole “free milk and a cow” thing finally hit me. And it occurred to me that 1) most clients don’t appreciate the value that a professional copywriter brings to the table, and 2) folks like me only reinforce that ignorance. That’s why it’s important for professional copywriters everywhere to make sure they charge accordingly for their work.

  31. Dean Rieck on Aug 30th, 2010 9:39 am
  32. @Art: Well said.

  33. Joseph on Sep 7th, 2010 2:18 pm
  34. The interpretation of the phone call made this article worth the read. Hilarious.