What to do (and not do) when engaging a copywriter

June 22, 2018 •
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Engaging a copywriter for the first time can be a daunting prospect.

Not because we’re monsters (or at least I hope not!), but because, to most people, copywriting is a complete unknown. A dark art.

Over the past 16 years, I’ve had maybe 500 clients who’d never engaged a copywriter before. And almost all of them had the same concerns and the same questions. Many of them made the same mistakes too.

So I thought I’d finally put pen to paper and shed some light on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do. (It’s only been 16 years; you can’t rush these things! 😉

Here goes…

Don’t worry!

First and foremost, don’t worry. When you hire a good copywriter, they’ll take control, hold your hand and lead you through the whole process.

They’ll tell you how they’re going to get the information they need, they’ll be able to advise you on what to say (not just how to say it), they’ll tell you how the review process will work, and they’ll provide you with a proposal outlining price, inclusions, exclusions, assumptions and next steps.

They’ll also track the progress and status of the project, and keep you up to date at regular intervals.

It’s not up to you to take on all of these worries. If your copywriter isn’t prepared to do all of this (or you get a gut feel that they won’t), then find a new copywriter.

Know your ‘why’ and your brand archetypes

Before you brief your copywriter, have a think about the personality of your business and how you want it to be perceived.

This doesn’t have to be a time-consuming, expensive branding process. In my experience, the quickest and easiest way is to:

Define your ‘why’ – Watch the first 5 minutes of Simon Sinek’s TED talk about defining your ‘why’, then figure out what yours is.

Choose a brand archetype – Here some half-decent summaries of the 12 standard brand archetypes:

This will help your copywriter decide what to say and how to say it, and will help you be more targeted in every area of your business.

Provide links to copywriting you like

Many clients find it easier to show their copywriter what they like, rather than trying to explain it. This is a great idea. It helps us a LOT!

It doesn’t have to be copy from your competitors, or even from businesses in your industry. Just make sure it matches your brand archetype. You may love the style of Vino Mofo’s copy, but if you’re a lawyer, it’s probably not the best choice for you.

Provide a fixed scope if you want a fixed price

Most clients prefer their first foray into copywriting to be a fixed-price foray. This is totally understandable. When I had a landscaper do my backyard, I wanted a fixed price too. There was no way I was going to agree to a vague hourly rate.

But like a landscaper, copywriters need to know exactly what they’re quoting on in order to give you a fixed price. As a minimum, you’ll need to be able to tell us how many pages you want, what those pages are, how many rounds of review you want and what your deadline is. (It’s also really helpful if you know how many words per page you’re after, but if you don’t know this, a good copywriter will be able to advise you.)

Armed with this knowledge, your copywriter will usually be able to tell you exactly how much the job will cost.

Provide lots of information (before we start)

Every detail you need in the copy has to come from somewhere. And it’s best if it comes from you. Any good copywriter is also a good researcher, but when the info comes from you, we know it’s factually correct and relevant. If we include information from our own research, there’s a chance it’ll be wrong or somehow else miss the mark. Then we’ll have to rework that section, which will obviously increase the turnaround time and, depending on your agreement with your copywriter, may also increase the cost.

Be prepared to answer a lot of questions

Remember, you’re the expert in your field, and we have to get the information out of your head and into ours. This means we have to ask a lot of questions, and you’ll have to spend quite a bit of time answering them.

The more technical and/or obscure your subject matter, the more time you’ll have to spend.
If you won’t be able to spend a decent whack of time answering questions, and you can’t delegate this task to someone else, let your copywriter know when you brief them, so they can factor it into their quote.

Get a contract

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a written contract. You want to know exactly what you’re getting for your money. In fact, if your copywriter isn’t prepared to provide one, that’s a very big red flag, and you should run a mile.

A good copywriting contract should include:

  • Scope of work (e.g. number of pages, words per page)
  • Inclusions (e.g. number of rounds of review)
  • Exclusions (e.g. site visits)
  • Assumptions (e.g. client to supply keyword phrases for SEO)
  • Details about the review process (e.g. file format, tracking changes)
  • Turnaround time
  • Price
  • Payment terms (e.g. 50% before commencement of work, balance on completion, paid within 14 days of invoice)
  • Next steps
  • Definition of ‘completion’
  • What happens if you cancel the job mid-way through
  • Terms and conditions

Get at least 1 round of review in your fixed price

It’s unlikely your copywriter will get your copy 100% right with the first draft. (We do that on about 5% of our jobs.) Most of the time, you’ll need to review it and make factual corrections, emphasise different things, add missing info, delete stuff that’s wrong, etc.

And you definitely don’t want to pay extra for this. So make sure your copywriter gives you at least 1 round of review as part of your fixed price. (At Divine Write we offer 2 rounds of review, standard, as part of our fixed price – so you get 1st draft, 2nd draft, final version.)

Be prepared to review drafts and provide constructive feedback

It’s important to note that the review process can take quite a bit of your time. You’ll need to read through the copy, line by line, to ensure that it not only reads well, but it also meets your objectives.

The only way you’ll get exactly what you want is to provide detailed, constructive criticism. It’s not enough to say, “I don’t like it” or “It’s not quite what I was after.” If you do that, we’ll have no idea how to fix things, and we’ll just ask for more information. In order to deliver the results you’re after, we need to hear things like, “The second paragraph is a bit too formal, and it hasn’t really conveyed the benefit of my product effectively. It needs to really reinforce the fact that the customer will save 5 minutes every time they use this widget.”

Forget what your high school English teacher taught you

Contractions are too casual? Wrong. Can’t start a sentence with a conjunction? Wrong. Can’t finish a sentence with a preposition? Wrong. Good writing is complex? Wrong. Saying “you” is unprofessional? Wrong. Passive English is better for conservative readers? Wrong. Sentence fragments are bad? Wrong.

I could go on.

Trust your copywriter on this stuff. They know the rules. Plus they know what rules you should break.

Tell us when you don’t like it

It’s OK to not like what we write. We may be gutted, but that’s our problem, not yours. So always make it clear if you don’t like what your copywriter’s written for you. If you don’t tell us, you’ll never get what you want, and you’ll end up frustrated.

Tell us when you DO like it

By the same token, please tell us when you like our work. This helps us continue to tailor the copy to your tastes, and write faster and more confidently. (It also makes us feel good, so we drink less alcohol! 😉

Expect to pay a 50% first instalment

Writing good copy takes a lot of time. So does everything else involved in a copywriting project – the research, discussion, planning, thinking, reading, project management and so on. Most copywriters will charge 50% up-front. Partly for cash flow and partly to mitigate the risk of dodgy clients who decide not to pay at the end.

Don’t assume it’s faster to write less

There’s an old quote from Blaise Pascal that, loosely translated, goes something like this:

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

This is soooooo true in copywriting. A couple of short, pithy home page sentences will often take longer than a 300-word services page.

Of course, there are limits to this generalisation. A 2,000-word technical article will usually take longer to write than a 500-word one.

Don’t assume it was fast, just because it’s simple

This point is very closely related to the last. Writing something simple and elegant takes time. If your copy comes back and you think, “Yeah, that makes perfect sense. That’s exactly how I would have said it”, then your copywriter probably spent a LOT of time on it.

Don’t expect to pay peanuts

Sure, you can get a blog post for $5 if you offshore it. Or you can pay a junior $300 to write your entire website. But you get what you pay for. These people may be good writers, but I’m telling you now, if they’re writing that cheaply, they’re absolutely rushing your job. If you’re ok with that, fine. But if you want considered, engaging, credible, authoritative and compelling, it’s probably not something you want rushed.

Allow some lead-time

Most good copywriters need at least a couple of weeks’ lead time. If it’s a small job, they may be able to slot it in while they’re waiting on a review or a brief, or simply when they need a break from a bigger job. But generally speaking, you can’t expect them to make a start immediately.

Don’t expect it to be finished overnight

I usually allow at least 5 working days to write anything – even if it’s only short. Not just because it takes time to write quality, but because I like to review it a while after I wrote it. To look at it with fresh eyes.

So even if you think it’s a small job, don’t expect it to be finished overnight.

Don’t call after hours (unless you’ve discussed it)

Most good copywriters do it full-time. If you call them after hours, it’s like your boss calling you after hours to talk about work.

That said, if you really need to talk after hours (e.g. you’re starting a new business, you still have your full-time job, and you can’t talk while you’re at work), then please make sure your copywriter is OK with after-hours calls.


Hopefully this answers most of your questions about what to do when engaging a copywriter. But please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions I haven’t covered.

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