When people ask me what I do for a living, I simply respond that I am a freelance writer. I then stand back and watch faces gloss over with expressions that range from confusion to curiosity.
Over the past few years, small business people have been coming to grips with the idea that the words they use to describe themselves, their skill sets or their businesses are not only important – they are vital to how clients and potential customers view them – especially in the infinite online world, where articles, quotes, videos and content can live on forever. For that reason, many are turning to professional copywriters, usually freelancers, to write colorful, accurate copy about them to reflect their expertise in professional-sounding terms.
Freelance writers (writers for hire) are creative types, but they are also business people, whose livelihoods depend on referrals gleaned from the good will of past clients. Few of them hang shingles. None I know do any advertising. Instead, they are those men and women backstage you’re just not supposed to bring much attention to, which suits them just fine.
If you are considering hiring a freelance writer for the first time, it may be wise to prepare yourself for this unique relationship. Your writer will usually meet with you in person or set up a time to chat by phone, discuss your needs, show you samples of his or her work and interview you to get a full picture of what is to be written. Like an architect creating a design, he or she works using a process; usually a first draft is written after which you will be asked to suggest edits. One or even two more drafts may take place until you are pleased with the result. Be sure you have the time to read these carefully, but don’t take so long that the process becomes tedious. Your writer will clear up any misstatements, ambiguities and add to or subtract from the word count according to the space constraints and the “punch factor” – sometimes short and concise has more impact.
Some writers charge a fee up front for their services; others bill the entire fee upon completion of the work. Some charge by the word, others by the hour, and others by proposing a flat fee for an entire project and often they figure out which arrangement will work by the nature of the assignment. Occasionally, a large project requires a monthly retainer, since the work will be ongoing for a particular client.
Apart from being word experts, freelancers are not unlike any other independent contractor, however. They take on jobs in good faith, expect timely communications and feedback, and hope to complete the work you ordered by a certain date. Most don’t collect regular paychecks unless they have a number of steady retainer clients. They live under the risk, like any independent consultant, that those regular checks may disappear at any time, forcing them to continuously look for new clients even if their plate is already full.
A good freelancer will be honest about whether or not (1) an assignment can realistically be completed within your timeframe and (2) the subject matter for which you are requesting copy is something not in his or her repertoire. The latter comes into play when a copywriter may not be versed in (for instance) highly technical topics, grant-writing or corporate white papers. But he or she may be great at producing copy such as newsletters, blogs, web site content, executive profiles, and video scripting.
Freelance writers are basically storytellers who want nothing more than to tell the story you want to see out there about you or your company in an articulate, caring way. That’s why it is incumbent upon you to ask a lot of questions before you hire one and then commit to working through the process in order to get the kind of product you seek.
Web site designers can often refer you to a reputable freelance writer, since most have a few they use consistently when taking on a project. If you have the time for it, one of the best ways to find one is to look online at what is already out there. Well-written professional bios, for example, can be found on many corporate web sites, and white papers, newsletters and blogs can be found among the pages of financial planners, attorneys, real estate agents and other professionals. Look for several that reflect the kind of tone and wording you admire. Then either try to find out who wrote it or bring a copy of it along as an example for the person you eventually hire.
Once you see how a professional copywriter works magic, saying things you’d want to say about you or your business if you had the time, patience and focus to say them in the best possible way, it’s not a stretch to say you just might get hooked, using that copywriter every time a marketing-oriented writing need occurs. But if your budget does not have room to hire someone, imitation is always the sincerest form of flattery.
No, I am not talking about plagiarism. When you go online to find examples of what you are trying to create – a bio of yourself, for instance – pay attention to the structure that is used. Is it written in first person or third? Does the writer begin with the person’s name or does he or she lead into a story about the person? How short is the first paragraph and how punchy is the first line? How many words are there – is it short and sweet, or long and rather tedious? You can learn a lot about how to write something by studying the make-ups of both well-written and really badly written copy.
If you do decide to delegate this important part of your marketing efforts, consider it part of your overall business strategy. Behind most ad campaigns, Podcast scripts, award-winning applications, mission statements and even well-written Craigslist ads is a professional writer, sitting somewhere in his or her sweats, making edit after edit to finely tune a client’s message. Give us a call.