Writers have historically lamented the blank page, but I think this is overstated. No writer approaches the task of writing without an idea, some spark that feeds the imagination. I have been writing for 57 years, and I can promise you that only rarely did I sit in a comfortable chair with my notebook propped on my knee, or with fingers hovering over my keyboard with the aim of producing some writing, without first having a thought about where I was going. That’s not how writing works.
I learned this the hard way. I have done precisely the thing I now know is fruitless, hoping that the act of, well, sitting there at the ready was all that I needed. That some brilliant idea would just land on my head and off I’d go, spilling my thoughts all over the place. I discovered that it never happened. So I stopped doing it.
You need something.
Which is why so many writers will tell you that their best writing emerges when they’re not writing at all. Not writing in the sense that non-writers might expect to see happening: a pen or pencil scribbling words across a piece of paper, fingers clanking away on a typewriter or a laptop computer. That part is required, of course, but writing starts long before the physical exertion.
You need something. You need the idea, the thinking, the metaphorical two-by-four walloped across your noggin.
Creative brief writers have an advantage over the fiction or non-fiction or poetry writers. We (and I include myself here only because I teach brief writing. I have written briefs only on rare occasions) have a template staring back at us. If it’s a good template, we are looking at questions. The best templates ask questions. I am skeptical of templates that have topic headings rather than questions. Why do you suppose I feel this way?
So here are a few pointers that will get you on your way as a brief writer even with the open-ended prompts staring back at you.
Ask questions before you write a single word.
To whom do you address your questions? Start with your creatives. Your brief is for creatives. They are your audience, always. You might as well ask them what they want, what their early thoughts are, if they’re aware of the project-in-the-works. Even if they don’t know the brief is in progress, tell them about it. Tell them you’re starting your draft and you want some suggestions.
Asking your creatives will likely provoke a conversation, one they will appreciate and you will find valuable.
Review your past briefs and be your harshest critic.
Gore Vidal told a story about a visit he’d paid to his long-time friend Tennessee Williams. While they sat together in Tennessee’s study, Vidal noticed he was making margin notes in a collection of Williams’s plays. Vidal asked what he was doing and Williams replied that he was editing one of his published plays. This was a play that had been written years before and had been in published form for almost as long.
Writers never finish with their work. They merely abandon it. Whether you credit E.M. Forster, Leonardo da Vinci or Paul Valery for those words, the sentiment remains the truth. Go back and study your briefs and be critical. What could have been clearer? More inspiring? Where were you verbose and where were you too sparse?
A creative brief post-mortem is a valuable exercise before you embark on your next outing.
Find other creative briefs you know to be exceptional and study them.
This is what all writers do. All artists in fact. If you’ve ever visited any of the world’s most famed museums, chances are you saw many artists, young and old, sitting in front of paintings they clearly admire with their easels and oils and brushes assembled. They are absorbed with the task of copying on their own canvasses what they see in front of them. They are imitating the brush strokes, the texture of the oils, the colors, the shadings, everything they see in the work before them. They are copying to infuse their hands, their arms, their eyes with the memory of what it feels like to paint like a master.
Writers do this too. I remember copying out line after line of Neruda’s poetry and Keats’s poetry and Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry when I was a young graduate student. I was teaching myself what it felt like to write like a poet.
You must do this work too. You must train your eye, your ear, your fingers to know and understand what it is like to write a great brief.
Call this pre-work. Call it prep. Call it a creative brief triage.
Three tasks you can do before you write a single word of your next brief: Ask. Review. Find.