For years now, I’ve described the internet as an all-you-can-eat buffet for content writers — meaning that there’s enough work out there for as many writers as want to partake. Unfortunately, the reverse is true, too. There are soooo many freelance writers looking for work, and, as far as work quality goes, they range from fried spam to reverse-seared beef tenderloin. And sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re going to get, which means that there is no single best way to work with a content writer.
The reality is that there’s no amount of editing that will elevate the fried spam crowd, and the beef tenderloin writers will often “manage up,” making you a better editor. For everybody else — the center of the bell curve, so to speak — creating good content is a collaborative effort. And if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain, even top-drawer writers won’t be able to do their best content marketing work.
So here are some tips on how to get the very best out of your writers:
Start with a good content brief
Contrary to popular thinking, a good content brief isn’t a list of keywords to use. In broad strokes, a good content brief covers the following (at a minimum):
- Your target audience
- The target audience’s knowledge level
- The target audience’s position in the sales funnel
- What you want them to think, do, or feel after reading the content
- Why that’s important
- The names of any product lines that can be indirectly promoted through examples
- Competitors, competing products, and anything else that should be avoided
In a nutshell, the most important thing you can do to help your writer produce great content is to tell them what the heck it’s for. What are you trying to accomplish with the content you’re asking them to write?
Realize that writing content is like baking cookies
This is an analogy I use with every new client:
Writing content is like baking cookies. I could bake the best chocolate chip cookies on the planet, but that’s not going to do either of us any good if you were hoping for oatmeal.
The point is that there are a gazillion “right” ways to approach a topic. If the copy your writer delivers is not at all what you were hoping for — sure, maybe you’ve encountered a lousy writer. But if the writing itself is pretty good, it’s more likely that the two of you just had a communication glitch. After all, J.K. Rowling isn’t the only best-selling author to receive repeated rejection letters. So did Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis, J.D. Salinger, and other names you’d recognize. That’s because their writing wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t what those particular editors were looking for.
The point is that, before you give up on a writer, ask yourself whether you could be an oatmeal cookie lover turning your nose up at truly exceptional chocolate chip cookies. If that’s the case, ditch the first draft, but save the writer. Use your feedback to steer the writer in a different direction, and you’ll eventually get there.
Be specific with your feedback
Editing is as much of a skill as writing. Telling the writer only what you don’t like accomplishes absolutely nothing; your feedback has to include guidance on what to do differently.
I’ve been doing this off and on since 1990, so I thought I’d seen it all. But just recently, I was the recipient of this feedback: “This misses the mark.”
Uhm…OK. Sure — it was obvious that the editor didn’t like what I had written. But without any guidance on why she didn’t like it, attempting revisions would have been like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey after a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc: just a matter of blind luck that, hopefully, wouldn’t include painful injuries or embarrassing face-palms.
Seriously, though: The one thing I wish editors understood (the ones who have been writers usually do) is that there are a bajillion different ways to approach a topic. Feedback such as “this doesn’t work” just narrows it down to whatever a bajillion minus one is — and neither you nor the the writer have that much time. For the love of all that’s holy, please be as specific as you can. Even if you can’t quite put into words what you’re looking for, at least be as specific as you can about what you don’t like.
Don’t trip yourself up by trying to be nice
There are probably some baby writers with a lot of potential who would disagree with this, and that’s fine. If you’ve got a promising baby writer to nurture, nurture away. We need them. But for those of us who have been there and done that — please, please, just get to the point. Experienced writers can tell when you’re dancing around something, and, unless you’re video conferencing, they’re biting their tongues to keep from yelling, “Just say it, already!” While you might think you’re being diplomatic, experienced writers will think you’re being vague and unhelpful.
Please don’t conclude that I think writers bear no responsibility. A writer who misses deadlines or churns out sloppy work should be immediately expelled from your rolodex (does anybody even use those anymore?). The writers you work with, whether freelance or in-house, should be every bit as professional as your other colleagues. But before you throw up your hands and ditch the fifth writer in a month, take a look in the mirror and see if there’s anything you could be doing to help your writers succeed. If so — what do you have to lose by giving it a try?
For you writers out there…did I miss anything? What would you love for the editors you work with to know?