How To Handle Client Criticism Of Your Writing Like A Pro
Having someone criticize your writing sucks. It doesn’t suck less simply because you’re writing business-related content for a paying client. In fact, it’s arguably more upsetting because you can’t choose to ignore them.
Whether you agree or disagree with client input, you have to take it seriously. And you may have to change your words to match their inclinations, which can be a tough pill to swallow. When your writing doesn’t meet with thunderous applause, you’ve got two options:
- Work with the client and try to sort things out, or
- Declare them a poopy-head and storm off.
I went with Option 2 once and it was invigorating. But it also cost me the final payment on a large project and it killed the possibility of repeat business.
Writing content is hard work. Ultimately, the goal is to be paid in full and have a happy, long-term client. With that in mind, I recommend choosing Option 1.
Accept criticism of your writing gracefully.
The key to handling criticism with a degree of grace is to view it as a normal, acceptable part of the job:
Rough draft => edits => client review => FEEDBACK => more edits => polished version.
A bit of negative feedback isn’t the crushing end to your creative efforts. It’s just part of the journey from your first draft to your final deliverable.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
– Winston Churchill
When someone criticizes your writing, it’s naturally a bit upsetting. You worked hard and probably expected a positive response. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging your disappointment and frustration. But before you de-construct your work, or jump into a spontaneous conversation with the client, you need to regain control of your emotions.
Here’s an article from Healthline, with some helpful tips: How to Calm Down. 15 Things to Do When You’re Anxious or Angry. Personally, a long walk is my preferred method of decompressing, but what works for me may not work for you.
Once you’re feeling less reactive and more reasonable, review the client’s feedback through an objective lens. Examine your content from their perspective. BE THAT PERSON as you read through each sentence.
Sometimes, this is all it takes. You accept their criticism of your writing as valid, make the necessary changes, and show them an updated version. This time, they love it. It’s a happy ending for everyone!
But, there are also more complicated situations. If you honestly can’t understand what changes they want you to make, or why, it’s best not to fumble forward. Instead of guessing, set up a meeting with the client.
Don’t rush to discuss the specific criticisms of your writing. Instead, ask them to elaborate on the bigger picture. What do they want to accomplish with this content? What’s their vision?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 20+ years in the trenches, it’s that clients love to talk about their vision! It makes them happy, strengthens the connection between you and them, and almost always unearths insights that help improve the content.
During this meeting, you should listen way more than you talk.
Take plenty of notes and thank them for their time and insights. Afterwards, send them a written recap of key takeaways, including the changes you plan to make. Don’t actually change the content until they’ve reviewed those notes and agreed with the plan. And keep a copy of your first draft.
It’s important to be moving forward rather than in circles. The edits you make after this conversation should get you across the finish line (or at least within sight of it).
If you do exactly what the client agreed was needed and they’re no happier with your second kick at the can, you may have a bigger problem – a client who doesn’t really know what they want or has unrealistic expectations.
So, what if the client is wrong?
The phrase “the customer is always right” was coined back in 1909 by Harry Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London. In the many decades since, it has cemented itself as a mantra in the business mindset.
The problem with adhering to this mantra is that it simply isn’t true. The customer is NOT always right. And when the customer is wrong, simply acquiescing to whatever makes them happy is a bad idea. They end up with mediocre content that doesn’t live up to its potential and you’re stuck with the knowledge that you produced mediocre content (even if they liked it).
As a professional, you are inevitably going to encounter situations where the client has misconceptions about how certain platforms and content formats work, and about best practices related to things like reader engagement or search engine optimization. When this happens, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your authority and expertise by offering helpful recommendations. The important thing is to focus on HELPING rather than CORRECTING.
No one enjoys being told they are wrong.
Resist the urge to explain why the client’s criticism of your writing is wrong and why the changes they want to make are bad ideas. No matter how polite (or brilliant) you are, they will get prickly because their ego feels the sting of being called out.
Even if the client’s feedback is miles off-track, your first response should always be LISTENING. Don’t interrupt. Don’t defend your work. Just listen.
We all want to be heard. So whether you agree or not, acknowledge them with statements like:
- “I hear what you’re saying.”
- “I understand where you’re coming from.”
- “That’s an interesting idea.”
Acknowledgement is not the same as agreement but it demonstrates respect and sets the stage for exploring other options. You can follow up your acknowledgement with a request, like:
- “Do you mind if I share a few alternative ideas?”
Now you are able to add new information into the conversation without devaluing the client’s input.
If their input makes no sense to you…
If you’re not getting a clearer picture of what they want, don’t fake it. The acknowledgement strategy I just described won’t work if you truly don’t get what they’re saying, or understand where they’re coming from, or think their ideas are interesting!
In this kind of scenario, it’s important to remind yourself that the client is NOT deliberately trying to drive you mad, even if it seems that way. Their intentions are good. Ultimately, they want powerful, impactful content that accomplishes great things. They want to succeed.
So, take a few deep breaths, and ask more questions. Try to figure out the intentions behind the changes they’re asking for by asking things like:
- “What led you to this conclusion?”
- “Why do you want to make these changes?”
Your goal isn’t to discredit them; it’s to gain a deeper understanding of their reasoning. For instance, a client who demands lengthy, rambling descriptions may have a misconception about how word count impacts on search engine optimization. Once you know why they feel compelled to use so many words, you can help them find more effective ways to attract visitors to the page.
Be willing to press PAUSE.
Sometimes, a conversation about the client’s criticism of your writing opens a whole can of worms. You may discover that they want (or need) something VERY different from what you’ve created. This can throw off your timeline or create additional deliverables that are outside the scope of the original agreement. In essence – you may find yourself with more work and not necessarily an offer of more money. It happens and it’s stressful.
If this happens, it’s okay to press pause. In fact, it’s the most professional option. Money talks should ALWAYS be pre-planned.
Say something like:
- “I’d like some time to consider the changes we’ve discussed.”
- “This has been an interesting conversation. Let me explore your ideas and get back to you.”
Give the client a concrete, reasonable time frame. Usually a day or two is acceptable. Use that time to consider how much work you still need to do and whether you need to ask for more money. Don’t undervalue your time and effort – but only charge more if the changes are out of scope. Sometimes, it’s better not to ask for more money and build goodwill instead. This decision should be made on a case-by-case basis.
If you simply can’t make them happy.
On rare occasion, you may find yourself unable to make a client happy. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just try to get to the end of the job at hand as quickly as possible. Avoid wasting more of your time, or theirs, trying to win them over.
Remain polite and respectful. Do one round of edits, trying to incorporate the changes they demand. Then send them the final bill and assume it will be paid.
If the bill isn’t paid, you can choose to let it go, or you can dig in and fight with them over money. Truthfully, it’s really hard to get a disgruntled client to pay you, if they don’t want to. If the amount owing is small, I recommend letting it go.
First of all, let me apologize for that last section. I debated NOT mentioning the possibility of an unhappy ending. But it can happen, so I would be remiss to pretend otherwise.
The important thing is to recognize unhappy endings are rare and largely avoidable. Client criticism of your writing is not fatal and the VAST MAJORITY OF THE TIME negative feedback is just a bump in the road.
Remain calm, avoid getting defensive, and make sure you have a clearer idea of what the client wants (and why) before you start tearing things apart. Document everything. Press pause if you need to. And remember that you’re a professional.
You’ve got this!
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