A former Israeli prime minister once chastised his fellow politicians by saying their slogan could be, “Sure I promised. But I never promised to keep my promise.”
Outside the semi-virtual world of politics, of course, there are real consequences to failing to keep one’s promises.
There is a strong incentive, especially when we are starting out, to agree to any project that finally comes our way after weeks or months of self-promotion and knocking on virtual (or physical) doors. I get it, believe me. At times, though, we may be asked to provide copy that we actually don’t yet know how to write. Seeing in our mind’s eye the kids’ next dentist appointment or the weekend away at that hotel on the beach, we think, “How hard can it be? I’m a good writer. I’ll figure it out.”
In general, I am a fan of stepping out of your comfort zone as a writer. If you are open to learning, it will definitely make you a better writer.
In order to commit ourselves to providing copy beyond our current abilities or know-how there is a very serious precondition. We must know – ahead of time, before we sign the dotted line or send the engagement letter – exactly what we will need to deliver the goods. That includes knowledge, time, expenses, collaborators, and what we’ll have to do to get them.
For example, let’s say a potential client asks if you can write copy for a popular print magazine on parkour read religiously by wealthy particle physics researchers. Now let’s say you’re not sure if parkour is the fine art of finding a parking space in Paris or the name of Spiderman’s alter ego, and you’ve never even read an actual magazine in your life. On the other hand, they’re offering good money for the copywriting.
If you agree to the project right away, you are risking your professional reputation. You may provide poor copy out of sheer ignorance, or you will drive yourself crazy spending inordinate amounts of time trying to leap the knowledge gap. The most common result is that you’ll need to request an extension on the agreed-upon deadline and probably lose money in the bargain. And you can be sure the client will blame you for any subsequent delay or screw-ups in his own timeline.
On the other hand, if you take the time to research the request before replying, you can determine if you have the time and ability to deliver. You may discover that you can realistically learn all you need to know in plenty of time or that you can collaborate with someone for a reasonable fee. You may also decide that you want to develop the needed expertise for future projects — or that you are giving up writing altogether and devoting your life to parkour (please don’t).
Alternately, you may have to admit to the client that their request is outside your area of expertise. That’s okay, too. Just be sure to offer them an alternative (say, to find a colleague with the necessary know-how or to provide copy with a different angle, etc.). Sometimes the client will take you up on your offer and other times they will take their business elsewhere. But in either case, you have impressed upon the client that you are honest and that you value their time.
It is far better to lose the project and win the customer’s respect than it is to win the project and lose all future business.