When To Be General and When To Be Specific When You Direct A Writer
What qualifies “bad writing?” If I were to ask you to purposefully write poorly, as in, TRY to write as horribly as possible, what would that look like? I imagine it would be full of clichés (happy as a clam), completely general (I felt sad, mad, but also glad!) and overwrought flowery language that’s trying so hard to be deep (my lungs burst out of my chest and flew up to the sky). Your lungs did what now?
Indeed, bad writing tends to be synonymous with either too general or too specific. Those two extremes: so vague it means nothing or so detailed that it goes over a reader’s head are often what qualifies bad writing.
Advice For Working With Writers
That said, how do you direct a writer in such a way to avoid being too general or too specific? After all, there are circumstances when you want to detail out your expectations, keywords, audience and goals as thoroughly as possible with your writer because you have what you want exactly in mind. Would these detailed instructions lead to over-specific writing?
Then there are times when you are uncertain exactly what you want and would rather throw options at the wall to see what sticks and leave it to your writer to create content. But in that case, when the writer is in the dark, will they in turn then produce too generalized content?
Let’s explore the times it’s best to be general and give your writer the freedom to generate content and the times it’s best to be specific with expectations. This varies from articles to email marketing copy to social media digital content, but what’s clear in all of it is staying in that happy medium between overwrought and underdeveloped writing.
Starting Specific And Going General
For instance, let’s say you’re a brand trying to sell essential oil candles. You’ve hired a writer to write blogs, email marketing copy, and social media posts with the goal of getting customers to buy a candle on your website. You’re targeting people who have bought other products on your site, but not yet candles.
What kind of instructions do you give your writer, in addition to the obvious goal of “entice customers to click through post to website and buy product.” Well, you might want to include specifications of the candle that you absolutely want to emphasize. You’re not Yankee Candle with toxins and GMOs, so you probably want your writer to get specific about candle ingredients. This is key because it’s part of your brand story and it’s like if a writer didn’t include a major accolade when writing a celebrity profile.
If you were to be too general and only say, “Write so people buy candles” a writer may be intuitive enough to guess emphasizing ingredients, but they also might be caught up in writing about how peppermint energizes, lavender soothes, and rose essential oil boosts skin glow and sensuality. Of course, these are wonderful candle qualities to emphasize, but you may have to ask for a revision because you wanted the organic, soy-candle, non-GMO, non-toxic message included.
Never assume the writer has the same story in their head as you do. Sure, sometimes, you may not have a particular story in your head and you’re thrilled to hear theirs, but if you DO have assumptions and details, always overexplain and include those in your directions so you won’t have to have too much revisions back-and-forth.
Starting General and Getting More Specific
A lot of brands may think they have no hard and fast rules or specific guidelines but actually do once their writer cooks up content and they say, “But not like that.” Sometimes we assume a writer will go a certain path and then get annoyed when they don’t. If you realize you don’t know what you want until you see it (or do NOT see it), then I’d leave plenty of time to make that initial draft a “brainstorming/throw ideas on the wall and see what sticks” part of the process. That way, your writer and you will be able to gradually define what’s best and not feel rushed or disappointed.
We see the specific vs. general conflict play out with social media posts especially. For instance, if I’m told to “Make candles appealing to men,” and “Feel free to be edgy and humorous” but also told “Be general to appeal to a wide audience” and “Imitate successful posts of the past” then this is a hodgepodge of contradictory guidelines that paint a writer into a corner because they’ll be breaking a rule no matter what they do.
As a brand and as a person, it’s very common to not know what you want until you see what you don’t. Starting general and gradually honing in on specifics just means you like to start big picture and then whittle down to the details. Other brands start with extreme attention to detail in writer guidelines and then gradually loosen the noose when they observe the writer adhering to the rules but also generating ideas outside that box. There’s no right or wrong way, it’s just something to be more aware of when working with writers so that you don’t paralyze them or the process itself.
Samantha S writes direct, dynamic, digestible copy for any purpose and any medium. She has written for apps, games, websites, literary journals, trade magazines, newspapers, e-commerce brands and health//nutrition brands. Samantha’s most notable achievements are authoring a guidebook for College Prowler, interviewing Leonardo Dicaprio, Zac Efron, and Amy Sherman-Palladino for The Hollywood Reporter, reviewing books for Publishers Weekly, covering the World Series of Poker, teaching creative writing at Harvard-Westlake, and working as Editor-in-Chief of The Oval literary magazine.