Working with Writers 101

Handing over a project to a writer, especially one you haven’t worked with before, is a bit like handing over your health and happiness to a total stranger.  If you’re hiring a writer, chances are it’s for a high-visibility project and you’re on the line for its success. Here are a few tips for assuring you get what you need out of the engagement.

PRELIMINARIES

Writers come in different flavors. Some are master copywriters who can nail a pithy headline, some are geeks who can incorporate the latest SEO strategies, some are the clarifiers who can make complex ideas perfectly simple, and some are strategic thinkers who can help you sort through how to reach your audience with the best messages.  And some writers do it all (but usually have a secret preference for one or the other).

Understanding the kind of writing you need to get done will make choosing the right partner much easier. Ask around. Word of mouth is a reliable way to find a good writer. Talk to people at your organization or in your social network. Once you get plugged in you’ll find good writers know other good writers and they are happy to provide referrals.

Finally, talk to the writer. Get a sense of her personality. Is this someone you can work with? Someone who will be able to understand your organization and its needs? Be clear about your expectations, project goals, and deadlines. Trust your gut and don’t hesitate to ask for a reference.

SCOPE OF WORK

Once you’ve identified a writer, come to a written agreement about the terms of the project. At a minimum, a contract or scope of work, prepared by your writer, typically includes what you expect as a final deliverable (a white paper describing your organization’s approach to cloud security, ad copy for three sequential placements, messaging for a new product launch), a cost estimate (either in hours or by project), a deadline for delivery, and terms of payment.

Considerations

When preparing a scope of work, a writer should be asking you these sorts of questions:

Do you have an estimated length in mind?

Does it require a significant amount of research?

Does it require interviews?

How will those introductions be made?

How will interviews be conducted?

What other sorts of inputs will you provide?

Who will comment on drafts?

Who needs to review final copy?

What is the deadline?

Throughout the engagement, be sensitive to changes in the contract. Changes to any of the criteria above can affect deadlines and deliverables.

PROCESS

Getting Started

Make sure you and your writer both understand what you want to achieve. It’s a good idea to capture that goal in writing. Why are you preparing this asset? How will it be used? Who will read it? Where will it live?

Think about what kind of inputs your writer will need (and ask if you really have no idea). For most projects, at least a bit of research is necessary. When a writer is new to an organization, it will take some time for her to understand your mission and goals. If you can, provide key messages about your organization and the services you offer. If your organization has built out formal personas describing your clients and customers, pass them along.

For longer works, even a cursory outline can serve as an anchor for you and for your writer. If you have a good idea of what you want to cover, and the time to prepare it, go ahead and take a shot at an outline. If you’re the kind of person who breaks out in a cold sweat at the thought, don’t worry. After a period of research, your writer can provide you with an outline. It’s a great opportunity to verify content goals as well as the terms of the original SOW.

Reviewing

Writing is an iterative process, so expect revisions and build them into your schedule. Without that feedback, you are unlikely to get a final product that matches your goals. For a longer piece, you might want to ask for a few pages up front to verify tone, direction, and content. And remember, as the reviewer, you are reading from two quite different points of view. Half of you is reading as a member of your audience; the other half is reading as a representative of your organization and its goals.Try to provide feedback from both perspectives.

First review. The typical default of most reviewers is to turn on track changes and start fiddling around. That’s not always the most useful point of entry. Try to see the big picture:

Have we made an impact?

Have we hit key points?

Is content sound?

Is tone appropriate?

If your answer to any of those questions is no, have a conversation with your writer. Often where you see a train wreck, the writer sees a couple of paragraphs that need to be shifted around or an additional argument that needs to be articulated. Don’t panic.

Second review:  Go ahead, turn on track changes. Detailed, inline comments at this stage are not just useful, but mandatory. Remember that you hired a professional who knows how to write, but you are the domain expert. Don’t be afraid to question conclusions or chime in when something doesn’t feel right.  Still, try not to spring “big issues” on your writer in a marginal note. Pick up the phone or send an email. Your writer needs to understand what’s not working in order to meet your deadline and to address your concerns during final revisions.

Third review: In the best of all possible worlds, you are the final reviewer. In the real world, you have a boss, or a board, or a committee to please. Unless you’ve given your writer access to these folks, it’s up to you to manage this feedback and communicate it to your writer in a productive way.

Final delivery: You should expect a clean manuscript, properly annotated. Unless you have contracted for more, writers will typically send you a very simply formatted manuscript that can be easily imported into design software or content management systems. The writer should also note in the manuscript call-outs, diagrams, and charts and indicate whether these need some design support.

CELEBRATE!

If only for a moment, enjoy the fruits of your labor. There’s always another project around the corner.

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