Before you start working on any writing project – whether it’s an article, a blog post, an eDetailer or an entire eBook – you’ll need to spend time defining the requirements as well as the scope of work.
I like to call this the “requirements gathering” stage or process of a writing project. It’s almost more important than the writing itself!
In this stage, you’re not only finding out what, if any, medical research, journals or references you need to refer to. You’ll also be defining the tone of voice, target audience, objective, format, word length, terminology, language, writing style and more.
Requirements gathering is a process which should define every crucial detail concerning the project you’re about to undertake.
You might have a dedicated briefing document to help you do this – or you could simply refer to a checklist of questions.
Whichever way you choose to gather your requirements, this process as a whole should be placed permanently in your health writing toolkit.
How to gather your requirements
Imagine your client or employer asks you to write an article about fish oil. What would YOU need to know in order to write this?
What you need to know might be slightly different to what I’d need to know if I was writing the same piece.
We all work differently, in other words. If someone asks you to write or edit a piece of content, you’ll have your own ways of getting this done.
And, there’s no “right” way. You can attend writing courses and editing courses that give you advice about the most efficient ways to work, but ultimately it’s your choice in terms of the how you get the writing completed.
Requirements gathering is about ensuring you have all of the information you need to get started – and you can save a lot of time and work efficiently if you collect this information before you start writing.
You don’t want to be halfway through a project and think of something you should have asked before you started.
You don’t want to have to rewrite your work because a key detail was missed during the planning stage.
Also, requirements gathering can be a risk management process for you. I’ve worked with clients and employers who have come back to me, after I’ve sent the first draft, with changes that contradict the answers they gave in my briefing document. So, in these situations, being able to refer to documented requirements is crucial.
What questions do you need to ask?
You’ll need to tailor your requirements gathering process to suit every individual project. I have a generic briefing document that I adapt, depending on what I want to know about the specific project.
It doesn’t matter if I’m writing articles, social media posts, blogs, scripts, or marketing materials. I always get this brief completed. The only reason I don’t is if the project owner has a brief of their own which covers my questions.
Below, I’ve included an example of the types of questions I asked when I was briefing a client about writing some cancer articles recently. I already knew the titles and subject matter of the articles from our phone discussions, but I wanted to ensure I captured every key piece of information in a document.
I start by documenting the general details of the project:
- Client name
- Date of brief
- Project owner
- Task required
- No. of articles required
- Approximate word count per article
- Approximate deadline
Audience and actions
- Target audience – are the readers lay people, health professionals, educated public, academics, children, industry professionals? Try and get as specific an answer as possible, and based on the answer you might want to ask more questions about the emotional state of your audience (whether they’re a ‘scared patient‘, for example)
- Desired actions (what is the purpose of the project?) – the overall objective – whether it’s to drive sales, promote awareness or, in the case of my recent project is to suit the ultimate end goal of securing donations – definitely affects how you approach the content writing
- Format notes (should the articles be written in a specific format?) – the client told me over the phone that they didn’t want bullet lists of symptoms, for example, and I wanted this to be confirmed in the brief
Voice and tone
- Describe the brand’s tone of voice – should it be authoritative, friendly, serious, relaxed, fun, professional, medical, academic?
- List 5 adjectives that best describe the brand values – this question can help you to understand how the company wishes to be perceived in the marketplace
- What are 2 brands in your industry (or related industries) that you like and why? – I like this question because it gives you a benchmark and helps to articulate what the project owner is looking for
- Attach the company style guide – a lot of businesses and brands already have style guides that you will need to adhere to
- Does the company have a desired referencing style? – there may be specific sources that you can and can’t use (for example, a no-website rule, peer-reviewed content only)
- List any company-specific referencing guidelines – should you use footnotes, in-text references or a reference list at the end of the piece?
- Who are the key competitors, if relevant? – this question gives you an accurate picture of the marketplace as well as an idea of what’s already out there and how you can create more unique content
- Are there specific examples of copywriting on competitor websites that you admire or dislike? – similar to the question about brands the company likes, this question helps to give you an idea of the desired standard and expectation
Business and communication objectives
- What are the key business and communications objective of this project? – the big-picture question of WHY are you writing this content
- What makes your company unique, and why should readers choose you? – this question works well if you need to incorporate a unique selling point into your content, and it’s probably more relevant for marketers
- How is your company perceived in the marketplace? – if you don’t know much about the company you’re writing for, this is a good question to ask
- How do you want your company to be perceived? – if the answer is different to the above question, you can use the answer to inform the tone and brand voice of your content
- List or attach the key messages to be included in the copy – this is relevant for copywriting and marketing projects but it can also be helpful if you’re writing to promote general brand awareness or encourage signups to a new program – you could also ask if there are any take-home messages or health tips that the project owner wants to include
- Provide or attach any relevant background information or specific details to be included in the content writing – it’s always helpful to ask this in case there’s anything that hasn’t been captured in your questions
It can be overwhelming for businesses to answer all of these questions. In my experience, some clients love it while others can hardly complete it.
If you aren’t able to get the answers you need, it can help to talk these questions through over the phone. You could then send the completed document to your client or project owner and ask them to sign it off before you start – so both parties are clear on what needs to be done.
This level of detail can seem like overkill if you’re only tasked with writing a 400-word article. But I assure you it’s not. By spending time finding out exactly what you need to do and why, you’re more likely to produce high-quality content that your readers – as well as your clients and employers – will love and adhere to.
Do you have your own requirements gathering process? What questions do you ask before you start writing?