I’ve been hiring and managing freelance writers for twenty years now, and sometimes the process feels like herding cats.
There was the writer who wanted a percentage share in my company as a bonus if they filed by deadline (isn’t that just part of the job?). There have been a few who just forgot to deliver stories at all, and when I chased them, shrugged and said, “Oh well, sorry”—but never offered to write them immediately.
There have been one or two who just wrote pages of keywords with what seemed like random sentences. One who delivered an entire story in point form, with a note saying, “get the sub-editors to fix it up”.
But for every disaster, there have been a dozen examples where a writer has delivered a story far better than the one I asked them to do. They are the magic wordsmiths who can, from some alchemic process, get all those words that are kind of floating around in your brain and put them all down on paper in the correct way. They are the ones who fundamentally understand what makes content engaging.
In the past, journalism and writing work was thin on the ground, and very few people could make a living doing it. It’s still a tough gig, but with lots of digital work around, for good writers, it’s a seller’s market. All you have to do is find those good writers in the first place, and hang on to them after that.
Over the years I’ve figured out some hints for how to find and how to hire a freelance writer; and how to manage them once they are either on retainer, or working for you on a regular basis (the latter is more likely). Here’s my advice.
1. Read what they’ve done, but don’t believe it
A good first step when deciding if a writer will be good to work with is reading what they have written before. Unfortunately, for many people, this is the only step they take. And it can be very misleading.
Just like with financial testimonials, job interviews or dating website profiles, it’s best to remember that when it comes to writing, past performance is not indicative of future performance. A writer will show you what they consider to be their best work—and you have no idea how heavily that work has been helped along by editors, sub-editors, or anyone else.
So do read their portfolio of work, but keep in mind that the only things you’re looking for are:
- a body of work from more than one source (which proves they have been around the block at least once);
- some consistency of voice (so if one of the articles seems to be well-written and the next is a shambles, that indicates some heavy editorial help);
- their own website (which sounds tough, but heaps of writers have their own websites now, and it’s not expensive or difficult to maintain)
- their own work-related blog (which indicates that they are comfortable expressing themselves with writing)
If someone ticks all those boxes, they will be worth at least talking to. But if they don’t, alarm bells should be going off in your head.
Things to NOT pay attention to include: customer testimonials (they could be written by their best mate); a personal blog (their hobby is their own business); and their own Facebook or Instagram feeds (unless they invite you to).
2. Pay them on acceptance, not months afterwards
When writers are working for someone else, they work for money. They do not want to write for your blog or anything else for the glory of being published. If they are slaving away on something for free, it should be their own Great Australian Novel (or screenplay, or stage play). Even then, they are not doing that for free—they are merely speculating on their own talent.
You would be surprised the number of companies and individuals who either don’t feel the need to pay writers for work they’ve done, or pay them late, or think it is acceptable to negotiate pay rates after the work has been done. Many freelance writers are used to this kind of behaviour. If you give them any indication that you are the kind of person who will pull these stunts, they will not write for you again.
However, if you are the kind of person who will pay them as soon as they have done the work, you will find they will be fiercely loyal to you, and reject other work in order to complete yours.
Obviously, this is more difficult if you’re paying a large group of writers to produce a lot of work at once (for example, for a company magazine or newsletter). But if you’re paying for a single blog post, the few hundred dollars it will cost will have no significant impact on your cash flow. And the benefits in terms of loyalty and effort you will get from the writer will outweigh the cost.
3. Pay a decent rate
You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you believe that a particular writer’s work is inferior to something you would do, then write it yourself.
Some writers will charge by the word (which is the classic print way of paying, and is linked to space-limitations in a print publication), and others will charge by the hour. The best way to find out what they believe a decent rate is? Ask them.
4. Brief them properly
A writer’s job may be to express your thoughts, but it isn’t to read your mind. Imagine if you went to a restaurant and said, “I don’t really know what I want, how about you cook something for me and I’ll tell you if I like it.” You’d never do it, would you? If you don’t know what you want it’s very difficult for someone to deliver it to you.
Writing is the same. A professional writer knows how to make a story read well, but can’t make the story out of nothing at all. If you’re briefing a writer to do some work for you, the first question you should be able to answer is: what is the story I want to tell? If the work is for a blog or website, then the next question you should be able to answer is: what are my primary keywords?
A brief should also specify if you want the writer to supply a headline and a ‘sell’ or meta-description (based on whether this is for print or digital). It should also specify the rough number of words you expect—is it 500 words or a thousand, or more?
Finally, the brief should also include a deadline for the writer to work to, and re-iterate how much they can expect to be paid for the work.
A brief works as an agreement between yourself and the writer. By laying out what you expect from them and what they can expect from you, potential conflicts are short-circuited and if something does go wrong—if they don’t deliver what you expect, for example—you have some solid ground for complaining about their work.
5. Respect their craft
A professional writer will not look at a story the same way you do. Their priority is to make the story work as a story. They are looking for a beginning, middle and end. They are looking for the fundamental change or shift (sometimes called a hook) in the character’s actions or the reader’s expectations that will drive the story. They are looking at the way the story turns in each paragraph. They are looking for the familiar and the new, and at ways they can jam them together to surprise you.
Often they are doing all of that with imperfect raw material—with interview transcripts of people who grunt one-word answers to their questions, or hastily scribbled notes and emails. Sometimes, in their quest to get the big picture of the story right and the medium-picture of the structure right, they will occasionally spell a word wrong. Sometimes they will make a grammatical error, or structure a sentence in a weird way.
Sometimes they’ll do it just for the effect.
In any case, if your feedback for their efforts involves saying nothing at all, or pointing out that they made a spelling error in line 578 … or just saying, “yeah, no, didn’t like it”… they are unlikely to give you their best work.
Sometimes you may legitimately feel the work needs rewriting. That’s OK. It probably needs rewriting because you didn’t brief the writer correctly in the first place. If you brief correctly for the rewrite, you will often find them happy to accommodate your request.
There are some people who believe it is acceptable to ask for constant, small, meaningless changes to copy for no reason other than to change it. If you are one of those people, be assured that you are not improving the writing in any way. You are not making the sentences perfect. You are making them bland.
It seems to be pretty well accepted that great writing and great storytelling can lift your inbound marketing efforts from a chore to an invaluable asset. While there are many great writers out there who can help you do that, if you treat them like word-monkeys you’re going to end up with poor quality copy on your site, and no-one who wants to help you with it.
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