Why I stopped outsourcing to freelance copywriters

October 14, 2016 •
Why I stopped outsourcing copy to freelancers

Most freelance copywriters who hit me up for work are pretty good writers. Some are actually great. But I still haven’t outsourced any work for years. Here’s why…

Being a good writer – even a great writer – is only half the battle. If that. The real challenge for most of my jobs is figuring out what to say.

Why? Because most client offerings are really, really tricky. Even the ‘simple’ ones.

Imagine a lawnmower man has asked you to write copy promoting his service. Your first challenge as copywriter is to understand that, even though lawn mowing services are quite common, they’re all very different. Your client possesses his own unique qualities and skills that make a big difference to his customers.

You have to accept that, even if those differences seem impenetrable to you at the outset, that’s merely a reflection of your ignorance and preconceptions. Which means you have to acknowledge your own inadequacies. Not just to yourself, but also to your client. You have to say, “I’m stupid and prejudiced. Please teach me.” It’s a humbling experience, and you have to do that on every single project. Because if you don’t, you’ll never understand the differentiators, and you’ll never be able to articulate them.

But sometimes even laying yourself bare and asking to be taught won’t be enough. Sometimes your client won’t be able to explain how he’s different, or he won’t actually know. When that happens, you have to tease the information out of him, in bits and pieces, then put them all together to form a picture.

Then you need to figure out all the other stuff. Like who his target clients really are, what they need, what their current service providers are failing to give them, what language they’re comfortable with, and so on.

Then you have to decide on an ‘angle’. An overarching message that will engage and compel readers.

Then you have to explain this approach to the client and, if necessary, persuade him that it’s the right one (which means having the courage and diplomacy to disagree with him).

And finally, you have to write the copy, remembering, all the while, that the reader is probably just as ignorant and prejudiced about lawn mowing services as you were. You need to educate them. But unlike you they’re not being paid, so they have very little incentive to understand the differentiators, and none at all to acknowledge their own inadequacies. So you have to skip the humbling part of the education.

Your writing skills – the actual stringing together of words and sentences – only come into play in this very last step. And even then, they’re not the whole show.

To be honest, I’ve never met a writer who can do all of the above. (Not one who writes in the style promised by my website and who leaves me with any margin, anyway.)

And it’s not for want of trying. I’ve outsourced plenty in the past, but mostly what happens is the freelancer comes back with something that reads nicely, but when I really break it down, I come to the sad realisation that it just wouldn’t stand up to a critical reading from my client’s real-world readers. It’s superficial, it misses the point, it lacks credibility or it’s just subtly off in some other way.

Whatever the problem, if I think the copy won’t engage readers and compel them to act, I simply can’t let it go out the door. Which means after spending hours getting the freelancer up to speed, managing the job and the client, and really reviewing the freelancer’s drafts, I end up having to write the copy myself anyway!

Feel free to comment...
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Tanja wrote on October 16th, 2016

Yep! I've stopped working with clients who just want me to take copy they've already written and "polish it so it reads more compellingly", rather than going through my process to help me get clear on who their perfect clients are, what those clients struggle with, and what they really REALLY want instead. The analogy I've started using is that "polishing their copy" without getting to understand them and their clients first is like cooking a gourmet meal for a dinner party... and only discovering after I've brought a stunning lobster bisque to the table that three of the folks attending are Jewish, two are vegan and one is alllergic to shellfish. Of course, some people still want to take shortcuts... which is fine. I just know they're not my perfect clients ;-)

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Glenn Murray wrote on October 16th, 2016

Excellent analogy! :-)

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Di wrote on October 16th, 2016

Perfect analogy. I've made that mistake and I'm going to try very hard never to repeat it!

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Jayson wrote on November 27th, 2017

Hi Glenn, I'm a (relatively new) freelance copywriter, are there any specific ways I can work on becoming a copywriter you WOULD outsource to? I'm aware that I've got a lot to learn as a copywriter, or as a writer generally, and that includes everything you've outlined above. Where I am getting stuck is where I can learn practically to become a great copywriter. Thanks for everything.

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Glenn Murray wrote on November 27th, 2017

Hey mate. To be honest, I don't actually know. The problem is it takes such a big investment in time to get to the point where I can judge a writer's ability to do all the non-writing stuff. I toyed with apprenticeships, thinking that would give me the time, but that didn't work out either. I'm still actively trying to work it out.

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