Category: Freelance life

Going solo: what I’ve learned

June 13, 2016

It’s been almost two years since I handed in my key fob, tore up my travel card and became a freelance writer. That’s right – time doesn’t so much fly as screech hysterically through the sound barrier.

There are things I miss about office life: workmates, free digestives, the ignorant bliss of never thinking about tax codes. And there are things I don’t miss – communal fridge full of brown salad-mulch, anyone? All in all, freelance life has been a blast. And I’ve learned A LOT.

Now seems a good time to look back at the projects that went well, as well as some of the curve balls that came along. After all, the things I’ve learned won’t just help me to do better work – they’ll help clients (like you?) run projects that are more cost-effective, more straightforward, and more successful.

So, have a look at my posts about:

1. The perils of asking for a ‘rewrite
2. How to work with a writer on your new website
3. How to give feedback to a writer
4. Why tone of voice is not your problem

And do comment to let me know what you think – and to leave some tips of your own!

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Why ditching that last draft is a false economy

June 3, 2016

There are lots of ways to cost a writing project. You might agree a fixed fee with your writer. Or you might ask them to work on a ‘taxi meter’, where the costs are based on the number of hours they’ve notched up. In some projects, a writer and their client might agree on a maximum number of drafts. This is perfectly fine – but it’s worth making sure that everyone understands how the writing process works, and why some drafts are worth more than others.

The other week I was working on some brochure copy for a client. We’d agreed a price based on me writing three drafts – but, just as I was about to start writing, they asked: if it turned out that we didn’t need to do all three drafts, would that reduce the cost of the job?

(This is actually a trickier question than you might think. Yes, my fee was based on me writing three drafts. But that can get hazy – it’s fairly typical to end up doing ‘half drafts’ or ‘just a few last tweaks’ without asking for more budget. That’s no problem. The three drafts I’d outlined were primarily there to keep everyone focused and on track. Also, does this kind of arrangement actually discourage writers from turning in an awesome first draft, nailing the brief and saving their client valuable feedback time? It’s worth thinking about. Anyway.)

I didn’t mind keeping the costs flexible. But I did need to flag a couple of things that some people might not have thought about:

Different drafts do different jobs

When I cost a project like this, I don’t attach the same cost to each draft. The first draft takes by far and away the most time – it’s the one which involves all the upfront research and brainwork, and it’s the only one where I’m starting with a totally, intimidating-ly blank page. So, depending on the size of the project, this first draft could cover a big part of the cost.

The second draft, and those that come after it, are usually easier, since there’s at least a framework for the writer and client to knock about. So, even if there are big changes, they probably won’t take as long as writing the first draft from scratch. Later drafts should just be about polishing and tidying. And the final one often doesn’t take very long at all.

So, you could ditch the later drafts. But you might not save as much budget as you expect. And in saving a relatively small amount, you might end up making a false economy…

Don’t fall at the last hurdle

You might think: well, if the last drafts are easier, we can do them ourselves in-house. But I’d advise against it. Those last bits of polishing can make the difference between a line that sings and a line that falls flat. I’ve often had a well-meaning designer tweak something in the final copy, only for the parallel structure to become unbalanced, the alliteration to be lost, or for some other very clever thing I was trying to do be unintentionally and completely cocked up. Someone once said to me that hiring a writer and tinkering with their final draft was like employing a mechanic to fix your car but then trying to sort the exhaust pipe yourself. I’m no driver (got three majors on my first test, lucky for you I never took to the driving seat again), but it’s kind of the right idea.

So, even if the first draft is pretty good, think about going through a few more, refining as you go. Sometimes, in those later drafts is where the magic happens.

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How to give feedback to a writer

May 16, 2016

Some things really put a dampener on my working day. Scary brown envelopes from HMRC. My printer eating a whole sheaf of paper in the five minutes before I need to leave, with handouts, for a presentation. And fluffy feedback. However… Focused feedback makes my little heart sing – and it helps me get a job done quicker, with a lot less back-and-forth with my client.

When you give clear, considered feedback on a piece of work, it’s much more likely that your writer will nail the next draft. But if you’re vague or unclear, they’ll struggle. For instance: if you highlight a headline and simply say ‘I don’t like this’, your writer will be left wondering: why? Is it too jokey? Too serious? Too technical, or just a bit too long? And until you’re more specific, you’ll both trudge despondently from one draft to the next, your writer sobbing: is this what you mean?

Please: don’t be one of Those Clients. Take a look at my tips on giving great feedback:

1. Start big, then zoom in

It’s easy for a writer and client to spend draft after draft tinkering with individual words and phrases within a paragraph, with the writer buffing and polishing until everything is just so. And then the client realises that, actually, the second paragraph should move to the end, and the stuff on the third page needs to come sooner… So everything needs reworking, and all that tweaking was a waste of time.

Always start by agreeing the big, structural stuff. Do you like the general shape of the draft? Is it missing something, like an intro paragraph, a case study, a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Boris Johnson chatting awkwardly in a cable car? Once your writer has sorted that stuff, you can happily move onto questions like whether your readers would prefer the word mellifluous or euphonious.

2. Don’t ask your whole extended family for their opinion

A designer recently told me about a private health company who wanted some print ads. First drafts done, the client decided it would be a good idea to ask a random handful of patients what they thought of them. This was, in fact, not a good idea. It resulted in unhelpful feedback – built entirely on personal bias – like ‘I don’t like pink’.

Only get feedback from those people in your team who really need to give it. After all, the more feedback you gather, the harder it is for your writer to collate and act on. And make sure your commenters are working to the brief, not personal preference. No, they may not like the headline, but if it’s linked to your latest campaign then it might be a good idea to use it.

3. Get yourself a moderator

I once got a document back from a client’s team. One person had highlighted a line, saying: ‘I like this.’ Another person had highlighted the same line, saying: ‘I don’t like this.’ It was hard to know what to do with that.

If there are several people in your team commenting on a draft, make sure there’s a moderator who’s going to collate and rationalise any contradictory comments. Otherwise you’ll be bombarded by phone calls from a writer desperately trying to work out whose comments carry the most clout…

4. Remember: tracked changes are the Devil’s work

Picture the scene. I’ve written a document about a financial product, which includes the line: ‘And you can increase your payments whenever you want to.’ When the client returns the document, the line has been changed to: ‘This dynamic product flexes to suit your changing lifestyle.’

Now, what do I do with this? Did the client cut ‘and’ because they don’t like starting sentences that way, or did they not even think about it? Is the ‘dynamic’ idea the same as increasing the payments, or are there other product features I don’t know about? Is the substance of the line actually any different, or does the client just like macho words like ‘flex’? I need a phone conversation to get to the bottom of it.

To make things simpler, leave your feedback as comments in the margin of the document – it’s easy to do in Word docs. Instead of making the changes yourself, explain why you want the words to change, like: ‘This makes it sound like the payments are the only flexible thing. But customers can change their investment options too.’ It means I know what needs to change, and why – and I won’t make similar mistakes elsewhere.

Oh, and one last thing: feel free to highlight the bits you like as well as the bits you don’t. Just because, you know. It tells me what to do more of. And it feels kinda nice too.

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Why asking for ‘a rewrite’ is A Bad Thing

May 13, 2016

Sometimes clients say they’ve got a website, or a report, or a speech, and the copy is OK – but it’s not in the right tone of voice. The ideas are there. But it just needs to be friendlier, shorter, simpler, or maybe all of the above. In other words, the client needs a rewrite. Oh, and since it’s only a rewrite, the job should be quicker. And cheaper.

This way, friends, lies strife. For everyone. Because, in so many cases, it’s not about how you’re saying it – it’s what you’re saying in the first place.

Last year, I worked with some other writers on a project for a global financial services client. This client wanted us to rewrite their website. They wanted us to use the content on each existing page, and rewrite it in a clearer, more conversational way.

And that’s exactly what we did. We rewrote a few ‘test’ pages, and – feeling pretty pleased with our work – sent them to the client for approval. We felt the tone was spot on. Which is why we were surprised when the client got in touch to say that they, erm, kind of hated what we’d done.

The problem wasn’t that we’d failed to make the original copy clear. The problem was that we had managed to make it clear – and, in doing so, we’d made it possible to see that the original content was rubbish. For instance, once we’d got rid of all the corporate waffle and silly jargon about the products being dynamic, flexible and customer-centric, and explained what the customer could actually do with them, the client realised: er, we can’t say that, because the product isn’t really very dynamic, flexible or customer-centric at all.

The pages didn’t need a rewrite. They needed a rethink. In the end, it took a HUGE amount of time speaking with product managers, marketing teams and other stakeholders, to agree what content needed to be on the page. And that was before we’d written a single word of the final ‘friendly’ copy. A quick rewrite turned into a much more complicated – and more costly – job.

Writing is thinking

The thing is, it’s pretty much impossible to separate words and ideas. I’m reminded of a quote from the very clever Lindsay Camp:

‘…when a writer runs into difficulties, it’s very rarely words that are the real problem. Almost always, confused and over-complicated thinking is to blame.’

And there’s absolutely no way of getting the words right without getting the thinking straight. Imagine your document as a house: a rewrite is a bit like painting the walls. But if japanese knotweed has played havoc with the foundations, no amount of Farrow & Ball is going to make you move in.

If your thinking is clear, your words can be too. But if you don’t really know what you’re trying to say, you can’t connect with your audience – whatever tone of voice you use.

My suggestion

Happily, the whole thing has an easy fix:

Project Managers – ask your writers to have a good look through the original documents before planning any rewrites with a client. And make sure everyone understands exactly what is meant by ‘rewrite’. Is the client really happy for your writers to use the existing content on the page, and no other content whatsoever?

Writers – when you’re looking at the document, ask yourselves: do I really know what this is trying to say? And is it saying the things it should say? Do I need to factor in some time to find new content, or can I just sweep away the abstract nouns and chop up the humungous sentences?

And, clients – remember never to skimp on the thinking time. It’s worth far more than friendly words.

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