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When you hire a copywriting or marketing agency, you should give them lots of money and long deadlines. Well, we would say that. But, there are some thing you can do to get the best bang for your buck. It’s important to develop a positive relationship between writers and clients so that both parties enjoy the day-to-day. Because, hey, life’s too short.
We’re a marketing agency that loves to deliver strong results for our clients. Apply the ideas in this article and you’ll be the dream client we wish we had (and currently do have, you know who you are). AND, you’ll ensure you get outstanding content. It’s a win-win.
We love the written word and although we do other cool things, like website design and SEO, this article will focus on how to work with marketing copywriters.
Let’s jump in.
Things to avoid when working with writers (a.k.a. how not to be a jerk)
No matter who you are, you need a framework that allows good writing to happen. In other words, it’s all about managing the writing process.
So, here’s a big ol’ list of the pitfalls that create bad writing, and how you can avoid them so you can be the best client possible.
#1 Dirty briefs.
Luckily, it's rare that pieces go totally off the rails. In many cases, you can trace the problem back to an unclear, or non-existent, brief.
Remedy: mutual understanding between client and writer is essential and a brief is how you get it. Another step that can reduce hostile feedback is the use of detailed outlines or skeletons. If it’s a 2000-word brochure, taking time to approve a 200-word outline at the start is far easier than a mess of edits at the end.
Lawyers, academics and technology firms are notorious for writing things ‘because this is the way we’ve always done it.’ Don’t be one of the bad actors.
Remedy: hire talented writers that read and write outside your field or company. Let them challenge convention to ensure that it serves the needs of actual readers.
3# Brand Nazis
Some people in big companies use brand bibles and conventions to turn good prose into ugly corporate speak: typically, with too many capital letters (speed bumps for the eyes), impenetrable product names and trademark symbols everywhere. Hopefully, you’ll be able to steer clear of this.
Remedy: establish rules, but also let writers be flexible. Like health and safety regulations, at their worst, brand guidelines are often used as an excuse for stupid decisions and conventionality. It’s less risky to write like a corporate robot but it is also less effective. Find writers who know the guidelines better than everyone else, and know when it’s right to break those rules. Also, try writing your own guidelines (if you don’t have any) or contributing to rewriting your existing guidelines (if you do).
#4 Editing by committee
The best clients nominate one person to us as an editor and let them be the focal point for all feedback. This way, the writer gets a single set of comments. Working within an organisation, it’s important to agree who gets to sign off the document and who gets to give feedback.
The people with sign-off have a power of veto and, ideally, you want to keep that number to a minimum. You also need to make sure you provide feedback, not rewrites. Tell your writers what you want them to do and why, not how they should rewrite it. Like broth, too many cooks can spoil a document.
#5 Death by redlining
Feedback face-to-face or on the phone is good. Redlined documents: less good. It’s like a theatre director giving line readings to an actor rather than helping them explore the character and give a performance. (Line readings = ‘when you say his line, raise your eyebrow.’ Yuck!)
Remedy: try to give feedback in person, by email or in comments rather than changing the text itself.
#6 Bad working environment
If you’re hiring writers to come and work onsite, it’s important to consider the physical environment you’re providing for them. Writers, like programmers, need a good working environment that is free from distractions and designed for the purpose.
A good resource for this is Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Here’s a link to it. Even though it is about software development, almost everything in it applies equally to writers.
#7 Death march to publication
It’s easy to let standards slip and lose concentration when you’re faced with a tight deadline and lots of interruptions. As a client, if you’ve given a writer a project, please don’t email them every day checking up on progress. And try to agree sensible deadlines to help manage the workload. It’s a good idea to get things done a few days early.
#8 No process
When you’re working on a case study or a press release, it’s good to agree a workflow with your writers before you start. This can be either as part of the briefing process or as part of your planning. Fail to plan, plan to fail.
Good writing starts with a good brief, so use a checklist
Great buildings start with an architect’s drawings. Even Ikea shelves come with assembly instructions. To have your writers write well, you need to provide a clear brief. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate formal document. It doesn’t have to be a document at all if your writer/s can answer all the basic questions in their head or by reference to something they've done before. But you do need it.
Here is the outline of a briefing document that you can use as your very own briefing checklist:
The name of the piece or project.
The contact details of the individual who commissioned the piece and (if different) the day-to-day contact and the person who will sign it off as complete.
What do you want to happen? What are the goals and outcomes of this work? (Are these goals self-consistent and realistic?)
How many words? (Or page-equivalency?) It’s astonishing how many times this is overlooked. But for a writer, it’s fundamentally important. Words are the trade and word count is how it’s measured.
Target audience. Who is the project aimed at? The more detail you have about this, the better the writer can do. Ideally, you should have a full persona, but in a pinch get thumbnail sketches of typical readers. What else do they read? What are the concerns and priorities?
Controlled vocabulary. Are there words or phrases that we can assume the audience knows? For example, writing for an audience of programmers requires a different vocabulary than writing for doctors. Are there words we absolutely must use AND explain? A concern here is words and phrases that mean a lot to the client and nothing to the reader.
English or American English? Case studies, releases and, especially, white papers all have different meanings to different people so spell out EXACTLY what is required. Reference other media where appropriate. For example: ‘This piece should read like an article in the Economist or FT’. Are there any special client requirements such as tone of voice, trademark or style guide? If so, have they been provided and is there a contact to review and assist with getting them right?
Delivery format. Microsoft Word? HTML? Are pictures required? Footnotes and sourcing? Documents intended for use online must be written differently from print documents, so this distinction is especially important to get clear.
Third parties. Are there any other parties who need to be involved, either by providing content or approval? Typically, this can include PR or marcomms agencies, or subject matter experts to check technical details.
Client resources. This is what you as the client provide to make the piece happen: interview contracts, access to spokespeople, samples, reports, data etc. Ideally, this lists everything so that the writer has a clear understanding of what their tasks are.
Fees, rights, schedule. What media and territories are involved? Whose name will be on the piece? Is copyright assigned or licensed? What about moral rights? What is the schedule and final deadline? What is the fee and when is it due? What is the approval process? What rights are reserved, for example the right to use the piece for the writer’s marketing?
‘Do not be bullied out of your common sense by the specialist: two to one, he is a pedant.’
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
How to work with professional writers
To get the most out of a writer, there are some more important principles to follow. Here’s what we’ve found matters most:
Look for writers with a track record of work in a similar format or subject, but don’t get hung up if they haven’t done the same thing elsewhere. A good writer should be able to research new topics effectively.
Meet the writer (not just the account manager) to make sure there’s good chemistry. Do they talk your language? Understand your requirements? Give constructive input about ways they might carry out your brief?
Look for a chameleon-like ability to write in different styles. A good writer should be able to follow a corporate style guide and adapt their work to the audience and client.
Ask for references.
Check that your writer has professional indemnity insurance.
Like most people, writers like to get positive feedback. If they’ve done a good job, tell them.
When it comes to fact-checking, you should expect a writer to keep meticulous notes and they will normally record any interviews they carry out.
Similarly, writers should be able to provide independent sources for any facts and statistics they use in their work.
Like anyone in business, writers will try to schedule their work. Last minute requests and short deadlines are okay (sometimes) but you are more likely to get a good job if you allow a reasonable deadline.
Writers tend to think in terms of deadlines, drafts and word counts and chunk up their time in units of interviews, research, writing and editing. Understanding a little about how they work will help you understand what progress they are making.
Editing and rewriting
You may find writers reluctant to release work until it has reached a final draft form. At Articulate, work goes through a fact-checking and proofreading stage before being released to clients.
You should expect to receive work that is spelled correctly, is grammatical and that makes sense. It should, naturally, meet the brief.
It’s normal for the client to review the work from their company’s perspective to check, for example, that trademarks are properly written out or that job titles are correct. Minor tweaks like this are fine, especially when you start working with a writer.
In our experience, most major rework arises from a faulty brief or one that changes during the assignment.
That said, you shouldn’t have to deal with a writer’s ego. If the work doesn’t do what you expected, explain why not and request changes. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to get a satisfactory result.
In our view, unpardonable sins include: missing a deadline, starting work without an agreed brief, clichés, and making the same mistake twice.
If you work with agencies, contractors or directly with writers, review the way you select, brief, and manage them and see if there are any ways you can do it better.
Thanks, we feel better now
Needless to say we've thought long and hard about how we’d like clients to work with us. It’s important to us because we love the written word and always try to create content that sings.
That said, it’s also in your best interest to follow these guidelines. Whether you work with us or another agency, these tips will ensure your writers know exactly what you want and deliver the content you need.
But, working well with your writers is just a start. There are many facets to an effective marketing campaign, and inbound marketing is an art and a skill. It’s also a form of marketing that, when done right, delivers results. Statistically, it achieves three times the results than paid advertising.
So, beyond writing, you need to ask yourself, is your business getting the leads it needs to thrive? Well, is it, punk?