The complete guide to choosing a copywriter

by 24 Feb, 2016Business, Helpful Tips0 comments

It’s the one way I never wanted to win a client. When Simon* came to me, he’d just started a new business. He knew most of his leads would come via his website, so he’d already hired a copywriter.

But when they sent the content back, Simon wasn’t happy.

“It’s just dry”, he told me. “I can’t use this.”

We started from scratch. I was glad to win the work, but at the same time, I felt frustrated for Simon. He’d wasted a big chunk of money, right when he was in start-up phase.

When you’re looking for a copywriter, you may feel like you’re flying blind. You’re damn good at what you do, but copywriting may not be your thing. How can you avoid what happened to Simon if you don’t know what to look for?

I decided to write down everything I know about finding a copywriter.

It’s a big investment: in the money you spend, but also in trust. This is the person who’s going to choose the words that represent your business to the world.

So here’s what to ask.

1. What type of businesses do you work with?

Look for a copywriter with runs on the board in your sector. Relevant experience gets you a better result, faster.

Let’s say you work in IT. A pro IT copywriter already has a feel for how your sector works. They understand your business model, and what your prospects need to know before they’ll say yes. A pro writer gets up to speed quickly. You don’t need to spell everything out, or treat the writer like the work experience kid.

An experienced copywriter also knows what approaches are right for your sector.

When I was just starting out, I found words that I thought sounded impressive, and I used them everywhere.

Several years and a lot of research later, I’ve developed better judgement: I know what situations call for high-falutin’ language like ‘implementation’ and ‘optimisation’, and which ones call for straight-up words like ‘install’ and ‘lift.’ I’ve discovered that, when other companies are shooting for the moon with abstract language and ‘strategic synergies’, using grounded, direct language can make your company stand out.

Being a pro copywriter is more than just knowing how to use the tools. It’s knowing when. When you engage a copywriter with experience in your sector, they know what style, structure and language is right for the job.

2. What type of copywriting don’t you do?

When a copywriter answers this question, listen carefully. Their answer tells you a lot about confidence and experience.

Most copywriters, if we’re being honest, will tell you that some projects make us jump out of bed in the morning. And other projects just make us want to pull the covers over our head. An experienced writer will politely decline work that doesn’t interest them. Because you deserve a writer who’s genuinely interested in what you do. Not just someone who sees you as the next invoice.

Saying no is also a sign of confidence. When copywriters are starting out, most of us say yes to everything. It’s like any start-up business: you don’t want to turn down leads.

An established copywriter has passed that phase and is going deep into a handful of sectors, honing their skills. They know their boundaries:  where their expertise can stretch to, and where it breaks. For me, I’d rather get damn good at a few things, then take on the whole field and be average at best.

So if a writer tells you, “I can write like a boss about wellness, and psychology, but I don’t really do government tender responses,” that’s a sign of integrity. You can trust them to be good at the areas they stake out.

3. What approach do you recommend for my business? Why?

When you engage a copywriter, you deserve to have their approach explained in a way that makes sense to you.

Have you seen those blog posts telling business owners that they ‘must’ blog, or ‘must’ be on social media? To me, it’s just a tad manipulative. Copywriters know that, if a client lacks confidence in a field, using imperative language like ‘you must blog’ conveys authority. Some clients want to be told what to do, and unfortunately, some copywriters take advantage.

A good copywriter will absolutely give you a recommendation. But they’ll also tell you why. They want to build up your business’s writing capability and confidence. Great copywriters want to develop a partnership, rather than remaining on a golden guru pedestal.

So to test if a copywriter’s a good fit, watch your own reactions. Do you feel that they respect your intelligence and take you seriously? After all, it’s your money, and your brand.

Don’t put up with being talked down to.

And don’t be afraid to ask them to clarify. A pro writer will be glad to explain.

4. Do you use an editor?

Most pro writers I know use an external editor to check their copy.

Here’s why.

When copywriters try to review our own writing, we’re fighting an uphill battle against our own brains. Last post, I talked about the curse of knowledge – how we’re unable to look at our business from fresh eyes. That goes double for editing content that we’ve written. We see what we think we wrote, not what’s really there.

When we try to proof-read our own work, we may feel confident that we’ve caught every last error, but there’s a strong chance we just passed right over glaring bloopers.

I want you to have word-perfect copy, and that means paying an editor to run a final check.

5. What’s your process?

Great copy doesn’t drop out of the sky, like a perfect little stork baby. It’s created through a methodical collaborative process.

The pro writers I know all have slightly different ways of doing things, but here’s a few common features I’ve noticed.

More than one conversation

Great copy is grounded in a deep understanding of your business. Unless your copywriter sends you an ultra-detailed questionnaire, they’ll usually need more than one conversation to get that insight.

For web copy, I’ll always do at least two interviews. In the first conversation, I get to know you, and what makes your business tick. It’s in the second conversation that we draw out the details that make content credible.

Rounds of revisions

When a pro writer sends you the first draft, they’re reflecting back everything they’ve heard, to check that they’ve understood your business. It’s natural for you to notice some things that need changing. To be honest, we get nervous if a client doesn’t ask for at least some revisions.

That revision process should be clearly spelt out in the proposal:  how many rounds are included at no charge, and what the costs are if you need more. One to two rounds of revisions are standard.

What’s included and what’s not

The last thing your copywriter wants is to not deliver the work you asked for. Maybe you wanted the whole website built, and they just give you the words. I got the wrong end of the stick once (I get embarrassed just thinking about it), so now all my proposals include very clear inclusions and exclusions.

Look for a copywriter who’s very specific about what you’re getting for your money. If you know you’ll need related services, like marketing strategy, or social media management, make sure those are in the quote.

Being helpful

A pro copywriter doesn’t just sit back and wait for your brief. They dig in up to their elbows, to unearth what you need.

What gets my goat is when copywriting briefing forms make the client do all the work. One form I saw asked the client what key messages should appear on the homepage, and what the call to action should say. Which I thought was a bit cheeky. A pro copywriter will think that through for you and bring recommendations to the table.  All you need to bring is your experience, and vision for your business.

Creating great copy is like tailoring a suit, or fitting a dress. A pro copywriter doesn’t bother you every time they need to make a stich. They’ve got a planned series of interactions to get your input right when they need it.

Where to look

You’re armed with all the right questions. Now where to find copywriters to put them to? If you’re looking for a pro copywriter, shoot me an email. I’ll either be able to help, or point you to someone I trust.

Whatever you choose, I hope you find a writer who respects the trust you place in them. And who writes outstanding copy that pulls in new clients so fast your hands will get rope burn.

*Name changed to avoid embarrassing people.

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