When, why, and how to turn down a writing assignment

As a marketing writer, I get paid to write about a wide range of products and services for a variety of audiences. Some of what I write verges on the silly; other assignments are dry and technical; still others involve hard-driving sales language that verges on being over the top.

I don’t mind being asked to write in a way that isn’t my style; in fact, I relish the challenge. I couldn’t do it 40 hours a week, but for a shorter assignment, it’s fun.

But what I want to talk about here is those assignments that just…aren’t…right.

They might sound like just another writing assignment when the phone call comes in, but when I sit down to do them, the tell-tale clues appear. It often starts with a weird little twitching in my stomach. And there’s a narrowing of the eyes. I try to get started with a few sentences, but something just isn’t…kosher.

This is the point at which I’m tempted to call a writer colleague and whine, or go off and distract myself with a cup of tea. But that’s just a waste of time. Because when I return to my desk, the problem assignment is still there.

I  started to draw up a bullet-point list of the five top signs that something is wrong with an assignment. But then I realized there’s this simple litmus test:

Would you want your name attached to this piece of writing or would you be comfortable if it came to the attention of a potential client or employer, identified as your work?

If the answer is “yes,” you can probably buckle down and do the writing. If the answer is “no,” stop now. Move away from the keyboard. Take a deep breath.

Because you’re going to call (not email, but call) the client and tell them why are having “some issues” with the piece. If your client is the type who doesn’t hear or recognize feedback, you may need to state, clearly, “You need to get someone else to write this.”

They’ll either say “OK,” or, more likely, they’ll ask “Why?”

Tell them what makes you uncomfortable about the piece. Chances are, if you’d be unwilling to have it appear under your name, they’d probably be embarrassed to have it appear under theirs. Explain why, and they’ll be grateful to you for bringing it to their attention.

I recently had a client whose SEO consultant asked me to post a bunch of “anonymous” comments on rival companies’ blogs, touting my client’s products. I was able to show the client the story about the Motorola employee who did this and how he and Motorola got outed and humiliated on Boing Boing (“Motorola, could you please tell your viral marketer to get out of our comments?”). The client’s heartening reponse was: “Whoa! Don’t do it!”

A few minutes ago I got an email from an established Seattle website for female shoppers. The chatty introduction to their list of this week’s hot sales and events was this:

But there is one thing that never fails to make us feel like a kid… we hate staying home alone at night. Especially for long periods of time, like when our boyfriend goes on week-long business trips or our roommate goes on vacation. We are completely ridiculous about it. We end up checking every nook, cranny and closet for scary attackers at least twice before we climb into bed, seriously consider sleeping with a big knife under our pillow for protection (and would do so if we weren’t afraid we would end up hurting ourselves with it), and finally, we resort to sleeping with the lights and television on. We only manage to catch a few winks of sleep between all the worrying and jumping up to check out every little noise we hear. It’s exhausting to be a grown-up (a scaredy-cat grown-up, that is).

Well burn my bra and call me a feminist, but if a client had asked me to write that, I’d have been deafened by the alarm bells going off. What about you?

It wasn’t my client, it wasn’t my email, so I just clicked Unsubscribe. And I doubt I’m the only one who did.

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