Freelance writers: should clients get to see your notes?

Image: Fyodor Dostoyevsky via Wikimedia Commons

A startup recently hired me to write a tag-line and a paragraph of description about their company. I spent most of a day with different groups of their people and took notes on my PC. The next day, as I was working on the assignment, the client asked for a copy of my notes. I’d never gotten that request before, so I wondered: was this a reasonable request?

Let me be clear about a few things:

  • I signed a confidentiality agreement with the company. The agreement specifies that I should delete my notes when the job is done, and I will comply with that.
  • The client didn’t tell me ahead of time that they’d be asking for the notes.
  • I trust this client and don’t think this was any sort of a “gotcha” type request. They were just interested in how their messages came across to an intelligent insider just learning about the company.

Freelancers disagree about whether a request for notes is reasonable

Before I responded to the request, I posed the question to a private Facebook group for copywriters. Their opinions were diverse.

Many were suspicious of the request:

It seems like they want to verify that you are now qualified to write about their company. I’d probably just tell them that I scribbled it down in a hurry so those notes aren’t even close to even being a rough draft and that more research goes into your copy.

Don’t do it. They will have sucked what they needed out of you for half the price and possibly misrepresent your thoughts.

I am not sure what the “reason” should be but don’t give them the notes – just say they are way too incomplete, that you’re working on a draft which you will show them in due time.

My notes are proprietary. They are for my eyes only.

Josh, truly bizarre request from all angles. Perhaps some sort of corporate mind game?

I never show clients rough drafts or notes unless they hire a lot of copywriters. I wouldn’t even consider it.

I won’t show my clients any of my notes. Sounds like they want to “see the formula” of how to write copy for their business. It’s suspicious…at least that’s what it seems like to me.

Tell them you took notes in shorthand   

Others found the request benign:

Don’t be worried, it’s probably the first time they’ve actually sat down and discussed all this stuff cohesively. They’ll most likely just copy what you’ve got and would like to see how their business is viewed from someone not too far into their own Kool Aid. No one is going to judge you on your inaccuracies and misspellings. If you’re nervous, just put “(?)” next to things you know are inaccurate but didn’t write down properly. I’ve had this happen to me before, didn’t see it as unreasonable.

Copy the notes and send them off I say. Often I tell people in negotiation, conversation or in advisements something like “I want to make sure I’m getting this right so I takes notes” and then I read them back to them. This always precipitates a correction, always. Both sides are be better for it. They clarify jumbled thoughts first expressed and I leave with a better understanding of their position.

You are the first “mirror” they have had in a while, and I bet they just wish they had their own note-taker to capture their own gems of insight . I take notes with clients and every so often the client has done their first “download” in years. They want my notes because I filter, eliminate and polish, and drop off some good information that isn’t relevant to the immediate draft I need to make. In those cases I buff and puff notes or make them a quick synopsis, and deliver with the finished first draft.

I would just rewrite the notes into a more nicely constructed document and send it over. Looks like they’re just wanting to see if they can use them to get their own message aligned in their heads. Naturally, when sending them over mention that they’re a rough smattering of observation and thoughts so not particularly suitable for use as a source doc for brand or positioning as-is.

How clients and writers should deal with a request like this

This disagreement comes from conflicting expectations. The client expects that anything you produce belongs to them. The writer thinks of the notes as private and proprietary. (And as I learned from the copywriting group, writers are suspicious of clients’ motives and wonder if the client is attempting to reverse engineer their process.)

If you are a client in this situation, things will go a lot smoother if you make a request like this ahead of time, or at worst, while the meetings are going on. It’s the request after the meetings are complete that generates the discomfort.

If the client gives the freelance writer advance notice, the writer will likely take notes in a more organized fashion before handing them over. A freelance writer in this situation can include any additional effort associated with preparing notes in cost estimates.

In my case, the request didn’t seem sneaky or unreasonable. My notes are electronic and detailed but fragmentary with lots of misspellings; when I take notes, I type very fast without worrying about errors. It took about 20 extra minutes to clean things up to where I wouldn’t be embarrassed about the level of quality of the notes. When I am taking notes, I am writing down not just facts, but impressions and ideas about copy that come to me as I am listening. Luckily, I don’t write nasty stuff (like “the CMO smells funny” — and no, he didn’t) since I’m too concentrated on the facts and ideas. As a result, cleaning things up was easy. I did wonder if the client would get any value out of it.

In two years, all of my writing and editing jobs have been completed in an environment of trust. I’m not paranoid about clients, and if anyone can read my notes and do my job better than I can, then they don’t really need me. So I didn’t share the suspicions of the people in the copywriting group.

I’m sure there’s a trust breakdown coming with some future client I’ve misjudged. But until then, I’m wiling to hand over my notes. I’m just happier if you tell me you’re going to need them before I start typing.

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  1. This is a weird and annoying ex post facto requirement, but an acceptable, if weird and annoying, requirement if the client states it up front with a clear explanation you trust. “Destroy all notes after we accept and pay for your work product” would be a fair contract requirement. As would be a request for a private/not to be quoted debrief with the client lead on who from the client team communicated best and most clearly with you, and who needs help. You handled this like the high-road pro you are.

  2. At first glance, I agree with Peter that it might be a quest to learn how/what people (or an individual) on the team currently communicates. It could also be the client wants to learn a good strategy because theirs wasn’t working. It could put you in an uncomfortable position if someone said something to you and assumed it was in confidence. I’ve only had one instance of that, and, while I complied, it made me feel “owned” and think of the client as “too controlling.” It could just as likely be “inexperience” or “incompetence.”

  3. I would look at such a request as a potential “interview.” Perhaps the client wants to see how I handle an off-the-wall, but possibly reasonable request, so they can use that info to decide whether to make me their primary go-to for what I do. 🙂

  4. Would knowing in advance that they wanted to see your notes affect how you recorded them or what you included in them?