How To Find Out Exactly What Your Writing Client Wants

by Anne Wayman

Ask lots of questionsOne of the biggest frustrations in freelance writing is doing some work for a client only to find out you’ve not understood what the client wanted. Or, as often happens, you discover the customer really has no real clarity on exactly what kind of writing they want.

Obviously, questions are the way you find out what a buyer wants or what they think they want, but the kind of question you ask is important.

For the most part, you’re being hired to solve a problem. Obviously the customer thinks a piece of writing will solve that problem. You need to find out exactly what problem the they are trying to solve.


In fact, I’d say it’s your job to do your best to discover what they want, and if you can’t figure it out, you may want to pass on the gig.

Ask lots of questions

Start simply, asking: What problem are you trying to solve?

The trick is to ask another question. Let’s say, for example, your client wants you to write an ebook. The conversation might go something like this:

What problem are you trying to solve?

I want to use the ebook to grow our mailing list.

Tell me more about that.

Well, we send out a mailing list every few weeks and we’d like to see more people sign up for it.

How do you see the ebook helping you grow your list?

I think people would sign up for a free ebook.

What do you want the ebook to say about you and your company?

Well, I’m not sure. Of course, I’d like them to come back to the site and buy one of our products.

Do you see what’s happening? You’re gradually getting to what is probably the real goal – sell more products. Knowing this you can begin to zero in on the ebook’s content, length, style, etc.

To a large degree the more you know about the problem the customer is trying to solve the more accurate your definition of the scope of work will be.

Sometimes it can seem as if you’re asking too many questions – you’re probably not.

You’ve also got to listen

It may seem obvious, but if you’re going to get real information from your questions you’ve got to listen carefully to the answers. Turn off any radio or other background noise. I actually turn away from my computer and write down answers with pen and paper. (The computer can be a terrible distraction for me.)


You want to capture as many details as possible – that doesn’t mean you have to take down every word, although that won’t hurt if you can do it. But you want the big and little ideas, in the client’s own words.

You’re listening not only for the actual words and sentences of the response, but for hidden meanings.

It’s not that the prospect is trying to hide anything, but often they have concerns they haven’t expressed. When you get a sense there’s something unspoken, just ask them to tell you more about the problem.

Feedback the information

The only way to be sure you’ve understood what your client has said is to rephrase and feed it back. You know, something like:

Do I understand that a 10 page .pdf including the cover will work for you?

You’ll discover either that you have understood which is great, or that you haven’t – at least not exactly. It’s surprising how often this happens. After all we know a great deal more about the writing process and results than our prospect and it’s awfully easy to assume we know what they are talking about.

When you discover you haven’t got it exactly right, just ask more questions.

By the way, these conversations can take quite awhile. If you have’t got at least 30 minutes, and maybe even an hour, schedule it.

This kind of conversation can seem awkward. Remember people do love talking about themselves and their problem. They will appreciate the fact you’re really hearing them and on their side.

You’ll also be in a much better position to deliver what they need and want.

What kind of questions do you ask about potential projects?

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Image: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Kevin Steinhardt

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Ali May 10, 2012 at 10:33 am

‘Ask a lot of questions’ is what my latest post also says :)
Ali recently posted..11 Vital Questions Freelance Writers Should Ask For A Successful Project CompletionMy Profile

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annew May 11, 2012 at 8:45 am

Great minds?

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Debbie May 9, 2012 at 6:11 am

Great advice. This just happened to me, and unfortunately it was for a non-profit client. I ate through the budget pretty quickly before realizing she was still “discovering” what she wanted to say. I’m completing the job at a big loss, but it was a lesson well worth learning. Now trying to decide if it’s worth maintaining the relationship, now that I’ve figured out her style.

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Greg May 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Great advice, Anne, especially the sample conversation. Repeating it back for confirmation is really important and like you, I also write on good ol’ paper instead of the computer. It helps me understand more fully what they want.

You basically covered everything I think, but one more thing is to maybe ask about the reader. Who are they, what do you want them to feel/do, etc. That helps you know the audience (although sometimes it’s obvious).

There’s definitely no such thing as asking too many questions. If I’m talking to a prospective client and they’re annoyed or they don’t wanna answer my questions, forget ‘em. I don’t like dealing with that.

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Samar | The Writing Base May 8, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Having a questionnaire helps. It gives your client a chance to sit down and think about what they want. I always tell my clients that it’s going to take them an hour but that hour will result in a phenomenal book for them.

If a client seems reluctant, I offer to walk them through the questionnaire. This way, the client doesn’t feel like I’m brushing them off. They know that I’m as committed to their project as them.
Samar | The Writing Base recently posted..Email Course: Break Free From Content Mills – In Just 6 Weeks!My Profile

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Sharon Hurley Hall May 9, 2012 at 11:26 am

I agree about the questionnaire, Samar. I have two – one general one, and another I use specifically for doing about pages for clients.
Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..How To Succeed As A Part-Time Freelance Writer – Part 1My Profile

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Sharon Hurley Hall May 8, 2012 at 10:49 am

Asking the right questions and listening to the answers so you can create a detailed brief are definitely the key to harmonious client relationships and a smooth working life – nicely done, Anne!
Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..Updating Your Writing Portfolio – SurveyMy Profile

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annew May 9, 2012 at 8:35 am

Thanks, Sharon!

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