“Can you write something about this? Oh I don’t know, just something to let people know about it.”

All too often, this is what passes for a creative brief in my world.

Three writers were recently having a discussion about this. One had complained about the quality of briefs, saying a bad brief would result in bad writing. I agreed, but the third writer dissented.

He believed that if a writer was good, the brief wouldn’t matter — they should be able to create wonderful work anyway. It seems like the right idea at first scan — don’t blame your tools and all that, but I think this attitude misses the whole point of commercial writing (that is, any work preceded by a brief from another party).

Commercial writing exists for a clear purpose, is directed at a specific group of people, must speak to them in their language, and has a clear outcome. It is not open-ended writing, it is not “creative” (at a fundamental level). Knowing what a product or company needs to say and to whom is a long, involved process: talking to clients, talking to customers, reading surveys, tracking sales and other results, understanding markets and economics — few writers I know enjoy these tasks, and even fewer have the time to do them properly. So the idea that a writer can manage with even a scanty brief is to miss the point entirely. It is to believe that a person sitting at a desk chewing a pencil and conjuring ideas in isolation knows what’s best for a company or brand. It places the writer on an artificial pedestal and puts the writing in the spotlight when it is the audience who should be the focus at all times.

It is this attitude that results in the surfeit of pretentious, self-indulgent, ineffective writing you see everywhere. Ads that confuse or annoy or offend. Websites that give you no idea what a company does, even after clicking your way around for 10 minutes. Brochures that are so full of fluff that you stop reading after the first sentence. Manuals that seem to tell you everything about a product except the most important thing you need to get it working.

All this fuzzy copy can be traced to the brief. Either there wasn’t one, or it wasn’t a good one, or an arrogant writer didn’t believe he or she needed one. Even the greatest fiction authors of our time are dependent on editors, as are journalists — few of us can be brilliant and spot-on by ourselves. We need shoulders.

Creative brief

Creating a good brief though, is an art. In a memo once sent around his ad agency, David Ogilvy wrote, “People who think well, write well.”

Ah, that’s the little twist to this. That even people who write creative briefs, must by definition, be able to write well. After all, they’d better be able to think well, right? But too often good writing is assumed to be florid, “creative” writing with startling metaphors and subtle wit. However, long, long before all that, good writing is simply clear writing. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a healthy respect for the bullet point.

And as for writers who think they don’t need a brief, I can confidently say they also think they’re good writers. And here’s where another quote comes in handy: “The only writers who think they’re good writers are bad writers”.

Now excuse me while I go away to write “something” about “some event” and do someone else’s job in the process — inventing the brief even as I write the copy.

Gautam Raja is a journalist based in Bangalore, India.