Do you spend enough time questioning your clients (and prospective clients)? You should! No. I'm not suggesting that you get into a spat with a client about how they want you to handle a project. I'm talking about good old fashioned information-gathering.
If you spend some time looking at public responses to job ads from writers (bidding sites, forums, etc.), you would notice a common mistake some freelance writers make. They insist they can do a job before they know anything about it!
It baffles me honestly. If I posted an ad on Craigslist saying "Looking for freelance SEO content writer - will pay $50 per article for 10 articles monthly," I have absolutely no doubt that I'd receive plenty of responses from people saying they could do the job and making a case for why they should be hired.
What's the problem with that? If you pitch your services without bothering to ask about the company, their market or audience, and the specifics of the project itself you're telling that client you don't really care about the job--you just want the money.
Now there's nothing wrong with wanting to earn a living. But as freelancers we have a responsibility here. We're not employees who have been with a company for years, getting to know the corporate culture and customer base. In order to meet the client's end goals (whether it's improved search engine rankings, natural backlinks, sales conversions, or something else), we have to know who the writing has to appeal to and what it should be designed to do. Because we don't have that direct experience, we have to ask!
The next time you either respond to a job ad or answer a request that came through a referral, send a list of questions to the client before agreeing to get on board. They may initially be a standard set of questions and then followed up with more specific requests if you do the same type of project regularly, a list of casual questions based on their initial contact with you, or any format that works.
I've not once had a client complain that there were too many questions, but have had quite a few express gratitude for receiving them at all. Clients really do appreciate it when you show them that you're invested in making the project a success. Not only is questioning a client easy to do, but it demonstrates that you're really interested in making the piece work, even before they've agreed to hire you. It makes a good case for that actually happening.
If you don't normally question clients before landing gigs, and you're wondering why more of those contacts or pitches don't turn into paying jobs, give it a try. Put some thought into it. The more invested you become in the client's interests, the better your chances are for long-term work or repeat business with them.
Do you already ask a lot of questions? Do you use a standard client or project brief? Tell us how you approach the information-gathering phase of a project? Or do you just jump right in with anything that comes along?