As a marketer, you need reliable copy for your business or content project. So if you’re planning to work with a freelance copywriter, how do you make things run smoothly? UK copywriter Chris Alden offers his tips
Need copy for your website, white paper or other content project? You know the drill by now. Contact a freelance copywriter, ask them for some words, agree a price – and hey presto, the words arrive in your inbox a week or two later, ready for your content marketing. Simple, right?
Except: not really. When you’re dealing with a copywriter, you’re dealing with a person. That person is creative like you, inquisitive like you, analytical like you. So they start doing what you’d do: they start thinking. They start chipping away at your messaging, trying to refine it, trying to find the right words to say. As you would, in their shoes.
That’s when the questions start. (You were expecting this, right?) Your copywriter will call you up and ask things like: what do you want to say at this point? Is that really a benefit of your service, or is it just a feature? Is this benefit the same as that benefit, or two separate points? That’s great, but will your clients get it if you say this? Is that a piece of jargon your reader understands? What’s your goal here? What’s the client’s goal? And by the way: can I have the feedback on the copy I wrote for you last week?
This process of half-creative, half-logical tinkering with words and ideas is known as writing. It’s rewarding, but it can be frustrating too. To a point the process is unpredictable; but when we arrive at the final draft, we know we couldn’t have written it any other way. To get there, you need a freelance copywriter you can trust.
So when you’re looking for a copywriter, you need someone you don’t mind sharing half an hour with, to go over a topic. You need someone to whom you can say the irrelevant, unstructured stuff, in case it becomes part of a structured point later. You need to find someone with whom there can be – at least on some level – a meeting of minds.
How on earth do you find a copywriter who can do that? It’s OK – if you’re reading this, you’re already half-way there. Here are my tips.
Relax: freelance copywriters are more like marketers than you think
If you work in marketing, take a step back for a moment and think: why did you choose this job in the first place?
To hazard a guess: maybe it’s because you knew that, at some level, you wanted to do something “creative” with your life. That said, you’re business-minded. So you straddle two worlds, and that’s a strength – you’re able to step across the artificial divide between rational and creative thought.
Thing is: freelance copywriters are often the same. We’re writers at heart. Many of us have dreams of writing novels, or short stories, or songs, or at least the occasional haiku. A lot of us have been journalists in a past life.
But somewhere, deep down, there’s also the geeky side – the need to code, to explore numbers, to understand the technical world, and to build structures that stand up and stay standing (even if they’re only made of HTML, CSS and words).
I’m one of these creative/analytical types. I did English and History at A-level (this was a very long time ago) but also Maths and Further Maths. You’d call me “creative,” but I still spend a lot of my time writing about business and tech. I write for rhythm and tone, but I’m geeky about grammar, metadata and numbers.
So when you use a freelance copywriter, remember, you’re dealing with an ally. As marketers and copywriters, we come from similar worlds. We can both offer creative solutions to business problems – and see things from each other’s point of view. Which is a great start.
A freelance copywriter’s independence is their strength
But although copywriters and marketers are similar, there are differences. One of these is a matter of allegiance: a freelance copywriter works independently, as a matter of choice.
What is a “freelance” copywriter, after all?
On the face of it, a freelance copywriter is someone who provides words for money. But they’re much more than that.
When your copywriter chose to be freelance, they made an active decision about how they would make a living – far away from the security of a job.
A freelance copywriter deals with multiple clients, writes in multiple tones and formats, while handling everyday business issues such as their own marketing, IT and accounts. They lead lives away from the traditional office (and did so before Covid-19).
Personally, I do it because it lets me organise my working life from the bottom of my garden. Or, indeed, in a pandemic-free world, it means I can work from a lovely co-working space, which can be fun.
Harness the independence
If you work in marketing, the trick is to harness the independence and freedom that a freelance copywriter can offer. You’re dealing with someone who’s a bit outside the corporate world, and if you recognise that, you can use it.
When a copywriter is running an independent business, you get:
- A fresh perspective on your content, from someone outside your firm
- Direct access to niche skills, such as (in my case) B2B and technology copywriting, case study copywriting or white paper copywriting
- Experience that comes from working for multiple clients, in many sectors
- A direct and relatively informal approach, compared to a marketing agency.
Of course, a freelance copywriter won’t be at your beck and call like an in-house employee. But to get sparkling copy, you don’t need an employee. You need targeted help from someone experienced, who is prepared to work with you on the copy you have in mind.
The success of the project depends on the brief
Permit me a digression. At the moment I’m going through a middle-class rite of passage: having a small extension built on the back of my house.
Being the geeky writer I am, I went out and researched it to death. I subscribed to magazines on house-building, got books from the library, and lurked on just about every relevant forum online. I now know a lot more than I ever did about perp joints, padstones and damp-proof membranes, but I’m still not qualified to put a shelf up for you, so please don’t ask.
Where’s this going? Well, in all the books, and from all the people I spoke to, there’s a piece of advice that repeatedly came up. It was this: make sure you give the builder a proper brief before work starts.
Nothing, apparently, is more likely to lead to higher costs than vague plans and last-minute changes from a client who doesn’t know what they want.
Now, as a freelance copywriter, I don’t wear a pencil on the back of my ear, though perhaps I should. But as with building, so with copywriting: the clearer and more specific the copywriting brief is, the cheaper and quicker your project will be.
A bit of homework is no bad thing
Let me give you an example. If you come to me and say: “I need a copywriter to write my blog, my case studies and my email marketing,” that’s, frankly, a bit vague.
It’s a bit like going to a builder and saying: “I’d like an extension,” without any drawings, structural calculations or spec.
I might be able to help you, but I’ll be quoting fees to get you to where you need to be. And you might assume I’m more expensive than I actually am.
It’s much more cost-effective to pick the single most important part of your marketing – a set of sales sheets or product pages, for example – and work on that.
I host a briefing form on my website. Why not start there?
With copywriting, starting small is just fine
In this blog, I’ve talked a bit about trust, and the importance of achieving a “meeting of minds”. That, of course, works both ways.
So, even if you have loads of content projects that you’re bursting to work on, sometimes the best approach is to start small.
Imagine, for example, that you’re looking for a freelance blogger to write you two blogs a month for the next year. That’s a big commitment, and at several hundred pounds per blog (done properly), the cost can add up.
So before you commit to a dozen blogs – or worse, get 12 low-quality efforts “written by numbers” at an agency – why not think about doing just three or four posts, really well?
That way, you get the chance to learn as you go – working out what kind of content brief works, and what doesn’t; what kind of quality you can get for your money; and exactly what working with a freelance copywriter is like.
There are many kinds of freelance copywriter – and not all are for you
Tap “freelance copywriter UK” into Google and you will, of course, get dozens of results. As a marketer, it can seem hard to tell these copywriters apart. Many, probably, are half-decent wordsmiths; but not all are right for your job.
So you need to find ways to sift through the copywriters you find.
In my view, copywriters can be divided into the following broad types:
“Creative” v “explainer” copywriters
Loosely speaking, there are writers who produce creative ad copy and taglines (“creative copywriters”) and writers who create broader content marketing and long-form copy (“content copywriters” or “explainer copywriters”).
I’m broadly in the latter camp. I help sell the benefits of your services, directly, in plain English. That way, I make it easy to do business with you.
Of course, creativity is still a big part of “explainer copywriting”. An “explainer copywriter” has to write snappy headings, streamlined copy and punchy microcopy as part of the job. It’s just that we care about long copy too.
Techie v non-techie copywriters
There’s a cliché among copywriters of what a nightmare request from a technology client is like. It goes something like this:
“Hello, I’m looking for a copywriter to write a 2,000-word blog post about artificial intelligence in doorbell systems. Please send example of previous writing about AI and smart home technologies, preferably doorbell-related ...”
Personally, I am a technology copywriter. This doesn’t mean I’m sure to have deep experience of your technology; if I did, I’d be working in tech, and I wouldn’t have the writing skills you need. But it does mean I’m smart enough to research and understand your product and sector, from your customer’s point of view – as I did, for example, for this technology client last year.
If your copy is on a technology topic, but not intended to be highly technical in itself, that’s often all you need.
Copywriters who are ex-journalists, and those who are not
There is, oddly enough, a bit of friendly banter in the copywriting world about whether being an ex-journo makes you a good copywriter, or not.
I’m firmly of the view that it does – if only because I worked on the nationals for many years before writing commercially.
My experience as a sub-editor makes me perfect for the snappy, punchy copy required in today’s content marketing.
Local v non-local copywriters
Here’s a tricky one: does a copywriter need to be local to you to do good work? After all, you wouldn’t choose a builder from Brighton if you’re in Burnley – but would you choose a copywriter in Brighton if your business is in the north? Or just north of the M25?
My take is that a copywriter can do their job from anywhere, as long as you don’t need face-to-face meetings (which, in the Covid-19 pandemic, is moot). But distance can still be obstacle to a trust.
So, perhaps consider working on a small project together, then go from there?
A freelance copywriter is looking for the right clients
Remember that analogy about the builder? There’s an old cliché that, when you choose an experienced builder for your job, you’re assessing them – but they’re also assessing you.
This can be true about freelance copywriters, too. Just as you try to narrow down your shortlist of copywriters, we too narrow down our prospects to the jobs we want. That way, we can take our business in a direction that reflects us.
That means, as a freelance copywriter, I’m looking for reliable, friendly clients, who work on fun projects for ethical businesses, are realistic about costs, and will (ahem) pay every invoice immediately on receipt. I can but dream.
Still, there are a few ways to make sure that the process of working with a copywriter goes smoothly:
- When approaching a copywriter, use the email address of the company you work for, not your personal gmail. A freelancer wants to know that you are who you say you are. I may well google your name, look for you on LinkedIn and check your company out at Companies House.
- Send a wonderfully detailed brief (see point 3)
- Keep contracts as simple as you can
- Pay by the invoice date, because to do otherwise isn’t cool.
Finally: your copywriter is managing resources, just like you
Speaking as a runner, I know the importance of managing energy over time. If you want to run a 10k in a certain time, you need to pace yourself for the whole race. But you also need to plan a training schedule that doesn’t take too much out of your body. A 6 x 1-mile session at 10k pace might be fine for the next runner, but for you it might be too much – leading to reduced performance.
Copywriting is similar. In fact, I use an analogy about writing which is a reverse of the old running cliché: “It’s not a marathon, it’s a series of sprints.”
In other words, writing is intensely demanding on the brain – like running the 200m, again and again and again.
To write well (as you know from writing in-house) you need to listen to the internal voice in your head – which is somehow, without being asked, coming up with version after version of the words you might write. It’s like reading one of those Choose Your Own Adventure stories from the 1980s, but with constant edits and re-edits – and all the while you’re listening hard to that voice, concentrating on the rhythm of the words, the sound and the flow, before choosing the form that works, and typing it as fast as you can catch up. It’s hard work.
And when you’ve finished that copywriting “sprint”, you need to breathe hard and rest your mind for a while, before you can re-read it all and have another go.
Freelance copywriting in practice
That’s why, when you come to me for a copywriting project, I’ll try and negotiate a deadline that’s longer than the time I think the work will take. Yes, I’ll schedule time for your project – but I will need downtime in between bouts of writing.
During that time, I might put your copy away for the evening, go for a run, then come back to it in the morning – when I can see what’s right about it and what still needs to be done.
I’m an experienced freelance copywriter. Time to get in touch?
In this post I’ve tried to get across some of the realities, behind the scenes, of life as a freelance copywriter – at least for me. I hope it’s helpful. As I say, freelance copywriters work at the crossover point between creativity and business life. Fortunately, as a marketer, you know what that’s like.
Hopefully, if we understand each other, we can get to work.