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The briefing document: Starting your writer off on the right path

Christine Paré, Certified Writer
Vice-President of Communications
Société québécoise de la rédaction professionnelle


Information is the primary material used by writers in their work. Who is their client? What are the client's communication objectives? What channels of communication does the client use? Who is the client's audience? Who are the client's competitors? All of the above is essential information upon which writers rely in order to structure their ideas, develop their arguments, choose their words and set the tone of their writing. This is why a successful partnership between writers and their clients rests in part on their ability to understand each other. The key? A well-written briefing document. Whether it's called a summary document, brief or guiding document, the goal is always the same: to give writers the information they need and sufficient knowledge about their mandate and their client in order to write a polished text.

A profitable investment

Writing a briefing document certainly requires clients' time and effort. In an era where everything moves quickly and where organizations focus on productivity, spending a few precious minutes on thinking and planning out their writer's work may sometimes be seen as a luxury.

Yet, all writers and many of their clients will agree: a well-prepared briefing document is worth its weight in gold. A clear and detailed briefing document helps writers understand both the hiring organization and its communication objectives. The result: better flowing texts that will speak to their audience.

With a briefing document, writers and their clients work together on common ground. Because clients can explain their thinking and their objectives from the outset and not as the project progresses, a briefing document saves time—and often a lot of time!

Time savings provide the client with a significant financial benefit, since drafting time, inevitable back-and-forth revisions, corrections and consultations are reduced to a bare minimum. These time savings will undoubtedly be reflected on the invoice.

Getting to the point…

Although a briefing document has many advantages, it is important to know how to structure it and what it consists of. First, it should be noted that a briefing document provides essential information, in writing, on the writer's mandate and the expected results.

In an ideal world, the client should first provide the briefing document and then meet with the writer—or, at the very least, have a phone discussion—to provide further clarification. Drafting a document is in itself good preparation and allows the client to elaborate, provide a clear vision for the project and outline specific and measurable objectives.

The key elements that will guide writers and help them clearly understand the context and objectives of the writing project should be outlined in two or three pages. Here are some of the key elements:

  • The project context: issue, objectives, key messages, main ideas, channels of communication (Web, electronic, hard copy, speeches, etc.);
  • The organization's positioning: identity, values, competition, brand, messaging, etc.;
  • Target audience: characteristics, expectations, expected action or attitude;
  • Delivery time, word count, format and any editorial specifications.

… and going a little further

The ideal, therefore, is to get right to the point. There is no need to clutter the writer's mind with information of limited relevance. The key words to keep in mind are clarity and simplicity.

Nevertheless, if there are some documents that may help writers understand and learn about the organization and its business line, these can be included as annexes. For example, the following documents may be particularly useful:

  • Documents produced by the organization and by its competitors (news releases, reports, annual reports, brochures, speeches;
  • Examples of well-written texts;
  • A communication plan or a marketing plan;
  • Templates, photos, maps.

After reading the briefing document, writers should know exactly what work needs to be done.

Asking questions, exchanging and communicating

It is not always easy for clients to know what information to give writers. This is especially true at the beginning. Before drafting the briefing document, clients can ask writers what their needs are and what information would be the most useful for them. Since writers are experts in their field, they can also help clients write the briefing document. Is something missing? Writers will ask questions until they are able to grasp the client's ideas and convey them in writing.

Although a briefing document takes time, it is the common denominator that allows writers and their clients to work together effectively. What's more, a briefing document is the foundation on which the writing project will be built. Hence the importance of establishing a solid foundation.