A strong copywriter is a powerful asset to have. But having worked as both a writer and someone hiring writers, I’ve seen first-hand how potentially great relationships can go sour.
There’s a better way.
This is a start-to-finish guide to working with copywriters, including tips that will save you money and headaches while giving you the best copy you could ask for. This guide is written for businesses hiring outside help, but most of what follows will apply to in-house relationships as well.
Getting it Right-Side-Up
Most businesses get things completely backwards: They realize they need content, frantically hunt for a writer, establish their requirements on the fly and make up approval processes as the relationship progresses. Is it any wonder their copy projects go sideways?
If you want lasting relationship with a copywriter, it’s time to flip that process right-side-up. Whether you’ve already recognized a need or you’re planning for copywriting in the future, going about things the right way will make all the difference.
Step 1: Start With Two Questions
Before you send a single e-mail, you had better know the answer to these two questions:
1. Who are we?
2. What do we want?
It is imperative that you have a sense of who your brand is and the content you need. Both these questions are rooted in two others: Who are your customers, and what do they need?
While a copywriter can play a role in helping you define these things, you’ll find that a content strategist is the better option – and no, the two are not always the same.
Step 2: Create a Writer’s Style Guide
A style guide is to a writer what a blueprint is to a home builder. It ensures that the way your brand communicates will remain consistent, no matter who the writer is or what the format might be. That said, style guides walk a thin line between defining requirements and stifling the writer.
A few tips to keep in mind:
1. Make no assumptions.
Clearly explain all technical requirements, knowing that writers won’t know intuitively how you want quotes cited or which fonts you’d like them to use.
2. Use examples whenever possible.
Show writers the difference between copy that is on and off brand; give them tangible examples of layouts that work and formats that don’t. Examples are more powerful than explanations.
3. Keep it organized and short.
If your style guide is over 3 – 4 pages long, you run the risk of inundating writers to the point that they won’t actually read your document or be able to recall what’s important. To be actionable, the document needs to be digestible.
4. Test and improve it over time.
Style guides are living documents that should be tweaked as you receive feedback from writers. Test your style guide by analyzing the copy you get in return. Where could you have been more clear? What was assumed, or lost in translation?
Need a bit more help? There’s a great style guide creation resource over at CopyPress.
Essential Components of a Style Guide
Your style guide is not complete until it includes all of the following:
1. Detailed Personas
Every piece of content should be targeted at a persona. Give writers information about who your personas are, their needs, their interests, their appetite for content (how they consume content has a huge impact on length and format) and their reading level.
2. Voice & Tone
Define your voice and tone by giving examples, comparisons and descriptions.
Don’t tell a writer that your business is “fun”, explain that you’re “playful but not juvenile”. Don’t tell writers you want to sound “authoritative”, say you want to “exude confidence without fostering alienation”. Though it might sound over the top, these subtle clarifications make a world of difference in how your content will be written.
If you’re going to list individual characteristics, give several (and make sure they don’t contradict) to paint a clearer picture, ie: “Our tone is casual, upbeat and optimisitic.”
3. Layout Considerations
How long should the content be? Should the writer incorporate images and lists? How are headers to be utilized? Let writers know how to lay out the content they’re creating.
4. Formatting Guidelines
What should be bolded and underlined? How should quotes be cited? Does the writer need to include HTML markup? These are just a few of the formatting questions you should define to avoid receiving copy that needs heavy editing.
Of course, the above is not exhaustive. If you want a template for creating your own styleguide, Hubspot has put together a great launching point that will help you mind your P’s and Q’s.
There’s also a brilliant style guide that covers formatting in greater depth from The Writer. It’s a little overboard for most businesses, but it’s also a great example of making a big document actionable.
Step 3: Build a Process
Make sure you’ve got a process in place to accommodate writing talent when it arrives:
1. Who will be the main point of contact?
Give the writer a consistent source of feedback and information. This will drastically cut down on wasted time and prevent writers from receiving mixed messages.
2. Who will own the project?
There are many stakeholders in any writing project. Define not only who gets to have a look at drafts, but who will get the final say as to what stays and goes – and be sure that they’re qualified to make that call.
3. What is the approval process?
- Who will see the piece, and in what order? Avoid the trap of “writing by committee”. Too many cooks in the kitchen will almost always result in a bland or confused piece of copy.
- Who will implement the copy in its final form? Make sure they understand the formatting and layout requirements, too.
- Who will track the performance of the piece? Someone needs to be tracking and measuring the success of your content.
Step 4: Determine Your PROJECT Requirements
Now that you’ve defined your audience, created a style guide and built a process, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the specific project at hand. Establish detailed requirements for length, format, style and budget. Lay them out clearly and make sure all stakeholders agree with what’s been put together.
Step 5: Vet Potential Writers
There are dozens of ways to find writers: word of mouth, referrals, freelancing websites, LinkedIn, Google and more. Where you look will depend on who you’re looking for.
Higher quality writers tend to stay away from freelancer websites and bid-for-the-job boards and as a result. To find them, you’re better off asking around, hunting on LinkedIn or even browsing the web for content pieces you like and then contacting the author.
Regardless, how you track writers down is less important than how you choose who you’ll work with.
1. Read writer portfolios.
Is their work polished and professional? Do you like their style? Is their content effective? Portfolios are showcases of talent and experience – or lack thereof.
2. Check their references.
Who have they worked for in the past, and what did they have to say? Often, writers can’t showcase work they’ve done publically on account of contractual agreements but are still able to earn a recommendation from the business or agency they worked with. Don’t stop at portfolios – read their reviews.
3. Analyze their personal marketing materials.
“Never trust a skinny chef.”
You can’t trust a copywriter who can’t market themselves. Is their website well-organized and designed? If they blog, is it worth reading? The care and attention a writer puts into their own presence will mimic what they put into yours.
Evaluating A Writer’s Work
Depending on the particulars of your project, assess each writer on the following criteria:
Has the writer done work in your niche or with your medium (website copy, editorials, technical manuals, etc.)? How long have they been writing for?
Experience is not a hard rule; a junior copywriter may be excellent beyond their years and hungry to impress while an experienced copywriter may be stuck in their ways. Still, experience in your vertical may be an asset, especially in highly technical or legally stringent fields.
Also bare in mind that experienced writers have had more time to develop their processes, refine their talents and learn the ins and outs of time management – skills that newer copywriters may still be ironing out. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give a fresh and eager writer a chance, but do so anticipating a few more bumps in the road (and be delighted if they never arrive).
While strong copywriters are content chameleons, some have a trademark style. Is the writer funny, or eloquent? Do they excel in direct copy, or are they more of a creative-type? Not everyone can write, and not all those who write can write all things well. You’ll usually get a better result working with a writer whose natural style syncs up with your project than someone who needs to fake it.
Talent is an intangible, but you can tell it when you see it. Does the writer captivate your attention? Do they make you laugh, cry, or desperately want to buy something? Do they make you feel like your own writing is complete rubbish? All of these are signs you’re dealing with someone talented.
4. Personality & Work Chemistry
Is the writer somebody easy to work with? While you can’t always tell before you get going, it doesn’t hurt to ask around and get a sense of their reputation if you’re giving them a serious eye. Divas, primadonnas and phantoms need not apply.
I put this last because too many businesses put this first. Though price is inevitably a deciding factor, it shouldn’t be the only one.
“the fewer barriers there are to the activity, the more it’s treated as a commodity. just because someone believes they can grab a piece of paper and a pen and start putting words on paper, they think everyone can do it.”
If you want professional copy, be prepared to pay professional rates. A talented but inexperienced copywriter can command up to $35 – $50/hour. More experienced writers often range from $75 – $150 an hour. There are talented writers who will work for less – and some who charge much more, but the point is this: no career copywriter worth their salt wants to be working for $20/piece.
If that drops your jaw, it’s probably because content used to be cheap as it was drastically undervalued. As the recession fades and content becomes more of a priority for businesses, attitudes and importance are both changing quickly – and for the better.
Everyone talks about “creating great content”, but so few seem ready to foot the bill for great creators.
Yes, overseas writers and college kids trying to build their portfolios are both viable options if you’re looking for content on the cheap. No, they aren’t always the best options – especially if your copy is at risk of actually being read.
Sometimes there are diamonds in the rough who offer exceptional copy at meagre prices. If you find them, lock them down for as long as you can.
But if a writer is “cheap”, you need to ask why. Is their English shoddy? Are they plagiarizing? And if you wouldn’t have a $5/hour writer put together your CEO’s company-wide address, why would you be okay with having them write your (or your client’s) marketing materials?
Set a budget reflective of the value you’ll receive from the writing, and then look for a writer who lives in the intersection of that budget and your needs.
Contact the Writers
Whether you’re contacting a writer via e-mail, phone or carrier pigeon, your first message is important.
When you’re interviewing writers, they’re interviewing you.
Avoid wasting both their time and yours by giving them the right information and asking the right questions:
1. Tell them who you are and where you’re from.
Writers often research your company and existing content before replying. They do this to get a sense for if you’re a company they’d like to work with. They also want to give you a competent response to avoid wasting your time.
2. Outline your writing requirements in detail.
Telling a writer you need “writing work” is like telling a barber you want “a haircut” – it doesn’t give them a lot to go on. Take the time to carefully explain:
- The format/medium of the writing
- The frequency of the work & the scale of the project: Is this a big, one-off project or an ongoing relationship? The writer may offer an agency discount for ongoing work or suggest a different payment structure like a monthly retainer.
- The goal of the content (What is it you’re trying to accomplish with this content?)
3. Ask about their availability.
When do you need the work done: Tomorrow? A month from now? There’s nothing more frustrating than ironing out the other details only to find the writer is too busy to take on the job.
4. Ask for their rates – but in the terms they prefer to quote.
While most writers prefer to quote on a per-project basis, some will quote per word, some per piece and others per hour.
Most experienced writers should be able to give you an average range of costs for projects similar to yours. At first contact, put the writer at ease by asking them for a range and expect your project to land somewhere in the middle. The writer will firm up a quote when they’ve got all your information.
DO NOT: Ask a career copywriter to work for free or complete a free “test project”. If you want to get a sense of if they’re good to work with, have them complete a small, fully paid project. If you wouldn’t work for free, don’t expect them to.
Manage the Project
Success! The writer is available and loves the sounds of your project. Clear and open communication is just as vital now as it was before.
Before the writer begins…
1. Get a copy of their terms and conditions.
Important questions to ask are:
What does this quote include? Clarify what you’re getting for the quoted price. Will the writer also source images and video? How many revisions are you entitled to before there’s an extra cost?
How much do they want upfront? It isn’t uncommon for a writer to ask for a 50% down deposit. They ask for this in good faith; both parties assume a risk that ensures compliance.
What’s their Ideal payment time? Get a sense for the writer’s payment period expectations and give them yours.
Can the project be featured in their portfolio? A writer may want to showcase your project. Let them know if this is possible before you get going.
When’s the deadline?
Clearly define deadline expectations. As an added tip, break complicated projects down into smaller deadlines and attach them to deliverables. This will help the writer keep organized and avoid awkward phone-calls mid-project.
2. Get everything in writing.
No matter how big or small your project, get the terms and conditions, quote and contract agreement in writing. This protects you, the writer and your business should a conflict arise.
3. Put them in touch with other creatives like designers.
The creative disciplines rely on each other and combining them can be a recipe for even better content.
4. Give them all the resources they need.
The more you arm your writer with, the less ambiguity they’ll face.
When the writer begins writing…
1. Get out of the way!
If you’ve assigned a deadline, don’t hassle them with phone calls or check-ins.
As many writers can attest, the thinking and organizing parts of a project often take far longer than the actual writing. Just because they don’t have a draft doesn’t mean they aren’t working.
2. Keep them updated of any pertinent changes.
If the scope, tone or nature of the project changes, they need to know.
When the first draft comes…
1. Read it – and wait.
Let the piece stew with you for a bit so you can (rationally) collect your thoughts.
2. Provide useful feedback.
“I just don’t like it” is the “Make it pop!” of the copywriting world.
Tell them – specifically – what you love and hate. If something is off, tell them why – and if you love something they’ve done, reinforce it.
3. Be patient and understanding.
A writer is trying to get into your head and communicate your vision. There’s no sense in flipping your lid over a typo or two along the way. First drafts are learning experiences; don’t treat them like a finished product.
When the project is complete…
1. Celebrate successes and pay them forward.
A simple testimonial or recommendation means a lot. Affirmation will assure them they’ve met your expectations and excite them about working together again.
2. Give writers data.
Did sales improve? Did social metrics explode like the 4th of July? Tell writers how their piece performed – they can use this info to make their copy better.
3. Pay them on time.
Waiting around to be paid is a relationship killer, especially for freelancers who count on your paycheck to make ends meet. If you can, accommodate a 14-day payment period.
Finish With Two Simple Rules
We started with two simple questions and I want to finish off with two simple rules that will make any relationship with copywriters better:
1. Recognize writers as professionals (and treat them as such).
Writers are not word-mills or content spinners. They’ve spent time and energy mastering the nuances of written communication. Great writers create, inspire, persuade and entertain, sometimes while jumping through hoops in a minefield. Treat them as professionally as you’d like to be treated, and view them as strategic partners – not employees.
2. Do not treat content like a commodity (and pay for it like an asset).
Talk is cheap, but the messaging of your brand is not. If your company name is on the copy customers will judge you for it, so invest wisely, budget accordingly and be choosy about who you let write for you.