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My perfect project from start to finish

Jolin Matraku illustration

Recently, Jolin Matraku, my designer / illustrator friend whose work was featured in Creative Mornings and Vanity Fair Italy, who likes making characters and weird places and impossible scenarios and is the cohost of Ladies Wine Design Tirana, reached out with a question. “What’s your perfect project, from start to finish?

Here’s how Jolin started this week’s newsletter and explained the idea behind the question:

“The April issue of the Newsletter is coming (finally) in the middle of May, but in a world changing so rapidly are you really surprised? Let’s get right into it, many people ask how I deal with clients, commissions, what’s my process and workflow. It was also the second most voted request on Instagram polls. Drafting this, I really wanted to be as helpful as possible and I don’t really think that could happen by solely expressing my experience, so I had a little help from friends. I sent the same request to three well rounded professionals working in creative fields.”

Here’s my long-winded and complicated answer. You can find the previous answer here and check out the other creatives’ answers by subscribing to Jolin’s newsletter here.

Describe your perfect project from start to finish.

My perfect client

I often get questions about who I work with or my “niche”. Four years in, I have a clear answer to that question. My persona non grata policy for clients is simple. My ideal clients are PSD (not to be confused with PCD, The Pussycat Dolls): Positive, Smart, Decent. 

  • If they’re smart and decent, but spew negativity every chance they get, it’s hard for me to get excited about their product/service or working with them. 
  • Not decent? I’m in it for the long run. I’ll gladly sacrifice revenue when it comes to values. It’s why I rejected this shady Orwellian AI company who contacted me about freelance writing. Not all money is good money. 
  • Positive and decent, but not smart? I consider myself a lifelong learner. While I’m vehemently against Vanity Verses™️ (faux deep subjects and using pompous words to sound more knowledgeable than you are), I love working with quick-witted clients who can go beyond surface-level conversations and analysis. 

Ideally, this client would be in the mental health space and their work would positively impact people’s mental wellbeing.

One of my favorite writers, David Cain, reflected on how “the clear standard for a respectable’s day work is gone” when we’re self-employed or freelancing.

We often either do too little and slack behind or burn out. So, he came up with “work like the client is you in two years.” 

Here’s David referring to his client, himself, but in two years:

“I want him to regard me as a professional, so I’d rather tough something out today and get it done, than embarrass us both by trying to give him the runaround. He’s not stupid, so I can’t be either.

Most compelling of all, in two years I will be him, and will either be enjoying or suffering the karmic fruits of my efforts today.

If you’re struggling to get yourself to do the vital, difference-making tasks on your list, work like the client is You in Two Years.”

That’s another way I like to think of my ideal client.

Jolin Matraku illustration girl in phone
The addiction pool. Illustration by Jolin Matraku.

The perfect brief

For some reason, many clients seem to completely miss the “brief” aspect of briefs. For some strange reason, I like it this way. While I don’t mind short briefs, I really enjoy learning as much as I possibly can about the organization I’m working with; their clients and what their values and struggles are. 

I recently wrote a 2000+ word blog post for a British web analytics consultancy. Their brief was perfect for me- simple and straight to the point. It included the article outline ( the general structure of the blog post as it’s planned), their customer’s pain point (web analytics data doesn’t show actionable recommendations), and two main messages I should try to get across. 

My ideal brief would also include insights on top performing content so I know what their readers love.

The British web analytics consultancy also provided helpful documents such as:

  • A detailed customer avatar– a long description of the person I was writing this for, their job, values, their biggest struggle, the biggest hesitations about the company’s solution and even how the company would like this person to feel about their solution.
  • Writing guidelines – Some brands focus on sounding friendly, while other companies dread conversational transitions. Having some clear guidelines on whether Mean Girls or other internet culture references are okay avoids unnecessary back and forth comments.
  • Brand purpose – Okay, okay, I know this sounds woo-woo, but knowing what a founder or an agency stands for beyond making money is super helpful to me as someone who considers herself a value-driven writer. Of course, this only applies if it’s their real purpose, not some marketing bullshit from huge corporations about “humanizing” brands.

The perfect process

Depending on whether I’ve been assigned to write something specific or whether I’ll be deciding what topic to write about, the process can differentiate a bit, but my perfect process includes a lot of research, a clear purpose, an amazing designer to help make the words shine, little to no hand-holding, and self-editing. Quick tip: edit reading backward for spelling mistakes and from top to bottom for meaning.

Writers are first and foremost readers. I consider research an important part of my day as a writer- I’ve created a “Reading & Research” project in my Toggl time tracker, so I can prioritize it. The best way to explain my process is to think of me with a thought bubble over my head containing the following:

  1. An issue the company is trying to solve
  2. Last impressive piece I read (I save everything I read online in Evernote)
  3. Patterns I’ve been noticing lately (in the industry or in daily conversations) and how I can beautifully tie them all together

The perfect delivery

Usually, the revision process includes tools like Trello, Slack, Airtable, Notion, etc. that companies use to keep track of the stage the article is at: draft, assigned, being written, editing, etc. I love these tools and I can’t imagine how hard life as a freelancer would be if every minor change had to be an email. This is my only pet peeve: reviewing work in progress.

Dave Harland
When the client starts making changes while you're still writing in the Google Doc.

Paris Fashion Week: Rick Owens Spring Collection.

Ideally, after I submit the first draft, the client writes back amazed and makes zero changes. This hasn’t ever happened in real life, though. When your work is a kind of art, it’s difficult not to take revisions as a personal attack. As I continue to grow as a writer, I’m learning not to get so butthurt about editing.

Time-money situation 

As Tommy Walker, veteran content marketer who ran content at Shopify Plus and QuickBooks, said for Superpath:

“I also made it very clear from the outset that I am a chef, not a short order cook, and I needed time to gather my ingredients and put the recipes together.”

head in flames Jolin Matraku illustration
Illustration by Jolin Matraku.

While I’m very passionate about growth and going beyond my comfort zone, I don’t feel comfortable promising more than I can deliver.

Strangely, I perform quite well under pressure. Deadlines not only do not stress me but actually do the opposite. Still, I like to work when I have the time, resources, and all the necessary “ingredients” to create the most decadent recipe ever.

As for money, I’ve come up with the Three Lot-s Framework, which gives me peace of mind when I’m working on low-paying gigs. 

In your experience, have you yet encountered a perfect project as the one you described?

In all honesty, no. I’ve encountered perfect elements in many clients, but they rarely all come together. Some clients in the psychology sphere don’t have the budget I’d hope for. Other clients have the budget, but are gaslighting micro-managers. I recently turned down an opportunity related to mental health and mindfulness where the client had a lovely budget and I’d have complete creative freedom, because while our values matched in theory, my gut feeling was telling me they definitely wouldn’t in practice. 

Jolin Matraku illustration you can't control everything
Lessons learned from living life foolishly. Illustration by Jolin Matraku.

At the end of the day, I try not to focus much on labels and remember that “perfect” is like pottery- shapeable, breakable, and involves a steep learning curve. 

Thanks, Jolin for giving me the opportunity to reflect on the past and get excited about the future. Read the other artists’ answers by subscribing to her newsletter here. I’d love to hear from you- What’s Your Perfect Project From Start to Finish?

3 thoughts on “My perfect project from start to finish”

  1. This was a great post. what you said is really helpful to me and it was really interesting as well. Keep up with your good work.

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