How to deal with ‘bad’ content: Tips for writers and clients

Oops, your content sucked. Or did it? Getting bad feedback from a client is heart wrenching. Getting bad content from a writer is equally as upsetting for clients. When your content has missed the mark, you and your client are on opposite sides of the same bridge. You both want to meet in the middle, it’s just not clear how to do it yet. So, what should your next steps be?

First, we need to clarify what ‘bad’ content really is. Next, we’ll look at how you as a writer can take the feedback on. Finally, there’s a few tips for clients around giving detailed and considerate feedback.

What counts as bad content?

Content writing, design and many other creative pursuits are subjective. Their artistic nature leaves plenty of room for errors. But that also means that ‘bad’ is in the eye of the beholder. Just as some art fans prefer Monet to Modigliani, some clients will dislike some writers’ work. Does that make it bad? No. Bad content is laden with spelling errors. It has no structure. It is difficult to read and understand. In other words, it’s not professional.

Content that you do not like is not by default bad. If it is well-structured and enjoyable to read – it’s not bad. Changes can be made to the word choices and the messaging which will make it what you’re looking for. Disliking content doesn’t mean you are entitled to a redo or you don’t have to pay for it.

The best way to avoid getting ‘bad’ content is to work with writers’ whose style you enjoy reading. Reading their past works or writing samples will give you a sense of what this style is. No matter how great a writer is at switching up their tone, the way they write is the same. Knowing you enjoy this individual style is the first step in knowing you’ll like the content they produce for you.

Learning to take tough feedback: for writers

First, I want to say that almost every client I’ve had has been great. They give great feedback and are easy to work with. This post is not about demonising clients. It’s about preparing for the one in a million who take out their frustration on you. To illustrate, here’s a handful of real feedback I and my writing friends have received:

  • This content has no heart or soul
  • Sounds like a middle aged dad is trying to be trendy
  • I would be ashamed to have this on my website
  • The vibe is off
  • It’s just bad English

The trouble with each of these assessments is they’re not actionable. They tell you that the client is unhappy, but not what you can do about it. Here’s 5 tips for writers to handle confusing feedback:

1. Get on a call

This conversation is not meant for email, unless you have time to write an essay and your client has time to read it. If the client has major issues with your work, get on a phone call. I’ve found that over the phone it’s easier to discuss the feedback and learn any underlying reasons for the client’s reaction. Sometimes it’s less about the content and more about a particular side issue you couldn’t have known about. Does that make it okay? No. But it does make us all human.

2. Use what you have

The worst thing you can do is throw away your hard work. Make sure to ask your client about any sections they did like. You might be surprised by how much of the content is salvageable. Knowing where you hit the mark can also help you understand how to align the rest of the content with their expectations.

If they’re still on the ‘everything is terrible’ train – go back to your original brief. What in there made you take this direction? Can you ask them to clarify things so that you don’t make the same mistakes?

3. Listen

The feedback discussion is not a debate on what makes good or bad content. It’s about what your client wants and understanding how to achieve it. You need to listen and let go.

4. Defend yourself

There’s a difference between listening to your client’s needs and being told off. Your client deserves the content they want, but that doesn’t make them right about everything. If you have made legitimate creative or technical choices – explain them. Clients have come to you as the expert. Whip out your expertise. I’ve had many productive conversations with clients around why I made certain choices and more often than not, they trust my judgement.

5. Make room for revisions in your quotes

One reason that writers dread terrible feedback is it means more work and less profits.  As a writer, it’s important to decide how you will handle revisions. Will you include them in your quotes? Will you charge them as extra? Setting expectations upfront about what kinds of changes are allowed and what will draw extra fees protects you from working for free to fix ‘bad’ content.

Learning to give great feedback: for clients

Most writers spend too much time in their own heads. It’s not until their content gets out into the light that its cracks show. For this reason, the feedback process is essential. It’s where good content can become great. As a client, you have every right to request changes. Where you need to be careful is how you request these changes. If you’ve received ‘bad’ content – here’s 5 tips to help you address it:

1. Don’t panic

The first reaction of many clients when they receive ‘bad’ content is to panic. This is not what I asked for – am I stuck with it? Quality writers are as invested in the content as their clients. They will work with you to get it right.

2. Take a breath

Before you take a red pen to the content – take a step back. Perhaps even get a second person to look it over and see if they agree with your thoughts. Emotional feedback is rarely actionable. Your writer won’t know where to start and you’ll have a difficult conversation ahead. You can absolutely let your writer know that you’re not impressed with the work. Just make sure its your final position, not just an immediate reaction.

3. Be specific

Try to avoid blanket statements. Instead, focus in on paragraphs, sentences and single words that are throwing you off. If you leave a writer with a blanket statement, they’ll most likely change the entire work when all you really wanted was a single sentence redone. You’ll be back at square one with content that’s now different, but not necessarily better than the first.

4. Highlight things you liked

It’s very rare for a piece of content to be completely off-base. There will be sections you are happy with. Highlighting these helps to boost your writer’s confidence and clearly illustrate the right direction for their amendments.

5. Ask questions

Ask your writer to talk you through their decision process. Why did they choose that word? Is there a reason this paragraph goes before the other one? In a lot of cases, its based on instinct and making a change won’t ruin anything. In some cases, there is a good reason and if you agree with it, you should leave the content as is.

The ultimate goal is a great working relationship

Whether you’re a writer or a client, what you really want is an effective working relationship. Feedback is an essential part of this. As a writer, it’s where you learn about your client’s preferences. As a client, it can teach you how best to communicate with your writer for future projects. This process, while difficult, helps you become closer and makes your visions more aligned.

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