My copywriting review process

May 22, 2013 •

You’d think reviewing a piece of copywriting would be pretty straightforward. It’s just a Word document, after all. And Word has Track Changes!

But once you’ve sent a few copy drafts off for client review (and if you’re reading this, I assume you have), you quickly see it’s anything but straightforward.

The horror client review

Here’s how it goes the first time you send a client some copy to review:

  • You write the copy based on a 20 minute telephone conversation with the client.
  • You turn on Track Changes.
  • You send to the client.
  • You happily await their review.
  • Meanwhile, the client prints out 5 copies and gives 1 to each of her 5 subject matter experts with instructions to write their comments only in crayon, lipstick or footprints.
  • She then completes her own review in Word 3.0, but not before turning off Track Changes.
  • 12 weeks later, all 5 subject matter experts have finally finished their reviews. Your client collects their annotated printouts, runs them through a 23-year old black-&-white photocopier, shuffles the copies like a deck of cards, mixes in some Fantail wrappers, then sends them to you, along with an 8” floppy disk containing her Word 3.0 review.
  • The mailman delivers your mail on a rainy day, and the envelope gets a soaking on one side.
  • You collect the mail and take your first look at the client’s review.
  • You reach for a strong drink.
  • Once you’re confident the alcohol has kicked in, you take a deep breath and begin the mind-bending task of re-ordering the review documents.
  • Of the comments you can actually read, 14 seem unrelated to the subject matter, 12 are directly contradictory, 9 question your use of conjunctions at the start of a sentence, 6 refer to documents you’ve never seen, 5 say just “Wrong!” or “I don’t like this!” or “Can you say this with more words?”, 1 is the phone number of an escort agency, and 1 asks simply: “Does the A692e unit support version 2 of the parallel 710 protocol?”
  • You realise your drink wasn’t strong enough.
  • Your client calls to ask when they can expect the completed copy; it’s now urgent, and they’re a bit miffed you’ve taken so long.

And that’s just draft 1. Come draft 2, the client decides it’s time to really put the copy through its paces. Usually this involves several extra subject matter experts and her husband (who did really well at creative writing in school).

9 months later, when you deliver the final version (aka draft 18), the client asks you to make 2 “minor” changes: Undo John’s comments from the first round of reviews and rewrite page 1 because the company accountant said “it doesn’t really grab him.”

Go to step 10 above.

How to avoid the horror client review

Obviously no review process can cure clinical stupidity, but if you follow a few best practices, you can definitely reduce a bit of heartache (and your Liquorland spend).

Here’s what I do…

  • On my website, I have a page outlining how I work (including my review process).
  • I include most of this same information in my proposals.
  • I get the client to sign a form saying they agree to my price, and they have read and understood my proposal and its terms and conditions.
  • Once I have their 50% first instalment, I send the client a questionnaire to cover ‘the basics’. This sounds trivial, but there are approximately 5-10 questions per page, so it takes quite a bit of time to complete. (I mention this because it’s vital to the review process. Firstly, it ensures the client provides me with the information I need, and because it’s in a questionnaire (not over the phone), they have time to consider their answers. Secondly, it means I have written information to base my copy on, so I can’t forget stuff, and the client can’t say I got it wrong. Thirdly, it – along with the first instalment – ensures the client has some ‘skin in the game’; they’re more likely to invest some time and effort in the review, and to give it a higher priority so it gets done quicker.)
  • I write a single page of copy by way of proof of style, and save it as D:JobsClientProjectCopyWeb Copy POS Draft 1.docx.
  • I turn on Track Changes.
  • I email the document to the client:
    Image showing an email to a client introducing draft 1 of a copywriting proof of style
  • When the client sends their reviewed document back, I save it to D:ClientProjectCopyReviewsWeb Copy POS Draft 1 REVIEW.docx.
  • Usually the client likes the style straight off the bat, and I can hook right into the rest of the copy. Unless otherwise requested, I write all required pages and submit everything in a single draft 1 document (rather than submitting page by page, or section by section). This way, there’s only one document to worry about, and less chance things will slip through the cracks. I save the reviewed proof of style document as my working draft 1 (D:ClientProjectCopyWeb Copy Draft 1.docx), implement/accept any requested changes, turn off Track Changes, and start writing the rest of the copy.
  • It’s rare that I’ll be able to write all the copy without asking questions. If it’s a minor question that doesn’t impact the entire piece, I’ll usually add a comment to the relevant part of the document, and ask my question there. The client can then answer the question as part of their review. Like this:
    Images showing question to client using comments in copy deck
  • If the question is a bit more complicated, but still won’t impact the rest of the copy, I’ll email the client. If the question is complicated and WILL impact the rest of the copy OR the deadline is too tight for me to wait for an emailed reply, I’ll call the client for clarification.
  • When I’ve finished draft 1, I turn on Track Changes again, and email to the client:
    Image showing an email to a client introducing draft 1 of a piece of copywriting
  • Occasionally, the client will reply saying they have no changes, but usually there are a few factual changes and answers to my commented questions. The client typically adds these to the document either as direct text changes or comments:
    Images showing question to client using comments in copy deck
  • When I receive their reviewed document, I save it as D:ClientProjectCopyReviewsWeb Copy Draft 1 REVIEW.docx (so I have it on record), then save it as my working draft 2: D:ClientProjectCopyWeb Copy Draft 2.docx.
  • From there, it’s normally just a question of accepting changes, making a few tweaks, and incorporating their other requests. First, I work my way through the client’s changes/suggestions. With Track Changes still on, I accept all straight-forward changes the client has made (e.g. simple word changes). If any need a tweak (e.g. spelling or punctuation), I make it immediately after accepting the change, then continue working my way down through the document.
  • Next, I return to any more complex/time-consuming changes.
  • If I have questions, I use the same approach as described in steps 10-11 above. And I take a similar approach if I disagree with the client about one of their review suggestions/changes. If it’s something simple (e.g. they tell me I shouldn’t finish a sentence with a preposition), I’ll simply add a comment explaining that they should forget most of what their high school English teacher told them. If I disagree with them on something complicated, I’ll either write them an email or give them a call. (Calling is usually more effective, because it’s less likely they’ll misinterpret your tone, and think you’re being a smartass.)
  • Normally that’s it. The client emails me back saying it’s all approved, and can I send them a final version with no revision marks. Of course, it’s not unusual for a client to request more changes – occasionally through a couple more rounds of review. When they do, I simply repeat steps 14-17 (but I increment the review number with each round).
  • When it’s all approved, I turn Track Changes off, and save the final version as D:ClientProjectCopyWeb Copy Final Version.docx.

So there you have it. Since I started following this process many years ago, I’ve had far fewer review dramas. Usually my clients review quite quickly, they send me back a single Word file with revisions tracked, and their comments are normally specific, helpful and understandable. Usually… 😉

What’s your process? – Please comment…

Please comment below with a description of your review process. I’m not so old a dog that I can’t learn a few new tricks!

Feel free to comment...
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Lauren McKellar wrote on May 23rd, 2013

Loved reading this, in particular the 'I'm not Superman' comment! I do more work with fiction, but have a surprisingly similar process. I think the proof style guide is just such a lifesaver. It's made things easier so many times...

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on May 23rd, 2013

Hi Lauren. Yep, you're definitely right there. Sending a proof of style saves a lot of pain. :-)

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Tim Schoch wrote on May 23rd, 2013

Sounds good to me. I prefer, if possible, to get to the table much earlier in the process and collaborate with the client's team as they just begin to assess their project's goals and needs, including copy and design. Often they overlook ways to integrate a project into other programs or mediums, and paying attention to those areas can really strengthen a brand. At any rate, the objective is to avoid your opening nightmare scenario and take charge of the system. Thanks for posting.

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Serena Star Leonard wrote on May 24th, 2013

I am not a copywriter, but having people review my eBooks/books is pretty similar. In those times I don't have a beautiful clear process like this - but I do drink a lot of whiskey...

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Glenn Murray wrote on May 27th, 2013

Hi again Tim. Definitely agree that it's better to get in early to try to ensure the copy is part of a sound strategy. Unfortunately copy is so often an afterthought. Especially web copy. I think that will change, as businesses come to appreciate its value. But in the meantime, it helps to have a strong drink handy! ;-) Serena... Mmmmm whiskey...

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Dana wrote on May 31st, 2013

I loved your article and think your process is great, easy for clients to submit their revisions and even easier to tweak. It may be a process I would consider using. :)

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Glenn Murray wrote on June 1st, 2013

Thanks Dana. Any process involving a strong drink is worth considering... ;-)

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Aprill Allen wrote on September 4th, 2013

I used to do something sort of similar, but I recently switched my client work to Google docs. Using Google docs means I can share the doc with my client and have them insert comments on the doc without it going back and forth, and ending up with several versions floating around. The original client-provided text stays on the page, while I start from scratch (for a rewrite) at the top. I add a horizontal rule under my work, so the client knows where the new stuff ends and the old reference material starts. S/he is free to add more info to the bottom, while I continue working at the top. We don't get in each other's way, but we're still able to collaborate and know where we're both at.

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 10th, 2013

Hey Aprill. I ported ALL my files and folders across to Google Drive, but found its sync terrible. So I'm back to the old-fashioned way of doing things now. I know I could still use it for client reviews, but I like to keep everything together. Plus I tried it once, and it just didn't do it for me. (Suspect there's a lot of ignorance in that statement, though! ;-)

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Rae wrote on July 7th, 2014

hi Glenn! i'm a copywriter for a small creative agency and i'm attached to this client who loves to review my work and change it to whatever they like, despite obvious grammar errors. i feel baffled and insulted, since i'm a bilingual copywriter, i write in 2 languages for the same collateral, and changing everything for both languages is really dampening. it makes me doubt my capability in writing too. it is not so much of the thousands of comments, but i get complaints a lot, and eventually the client goes back to draft 1. but the damage, the complaints have already escalated to the management. i know the only way is to suck it up, but is there any advice on how i can reduce such going back and forth and giving 17 revisions for a simple campaign header in both languages, before going back to draft 1? thanks!

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