At some point in your writing career, you are going to want to write to a brief. When you are writing for an anthology or as a freelance writer, you are writing to a brief. A brief is a set of instructions that define the piece to be written; these instructions might cover length, style, topic, intent, market. If you take yourself seriously as a writer, you won’t see these instructions as restrictions, but as a challenge.
To be honest, I enjoy writing to a brief. I find the challenge invigorating, it gets my creative juices fizzing, and I often am inspired by the very instructions set by the publishers and editors. The challenge brings out my best efforts and so I produce work that gives me a real sense of accomplishment.
Do not think that you can get around the rules, even by exceptional writing. There is no quicker way to alienate a publisher than trying to be too clever by half. If you want to bend a restriction, ask first. That way you know where you stand, and the publisher will appreciate that your respect their opinion. If the answer is ‘no’, accept it and move on.
It won’t hurt your professional standing if you can get a reputation for being able to work to a brief.
Here are a few tips to help you if you’ve never tried to work to a brief before:
1/ Consider the market: The style you write in should be tailored to the audience. A science article for a serious magazine uses a more formal style when compared to an online gossip column. If you are uncertain, try to read some the previous work published by that publisher or editor.
2/ Word length: Do not try to inflate a piece with waffle to achieve the required word length. Apart from being a bad writing practice, it might render the good parts of your work unpublishable. Conversely, if your piece runs too long, don’t think that you can’t edit back to the correct length. Your work will be stronger after a good edit – take out the weasel words.
3/ Read the brief carefully: This might sound self evident, but you would be surprised at how many times you might miss an important point by ‘skimming’ the instructions and going off half-cocked. I recommend reading the instructions three times, even if you have a perfect memory. I often put the instructions at the top of the page when I start a project, for easy referral.
4/ If you are uncertain, ASK: It is much better to ask a question than get it wrong and waste all your efforts. There is no such thing as a stupid question.