3 software tools every writer should know

dashboard-menuOne of the perks of being a writer is that you don’t need a huge suite of software to break into the business. The days when a pencil and a notepad were enough are long gone, but these days you can get by with a cheap laptop or tablet, a word processor, and an Internet connection.

That being said, knowing a few of the most common software tools used by editors and designers can make you more versatile — and more marketable. It’s worth investing a little time to get to know them.

Reviewing tools of Microsoft Word

Have you ever looked at an edited document and wondered what’s changed? There’s no mystery with Word’s reviewing tools. From the moment you or a collaborator clicks the “Track Changes” button, Word highlights everything — and I do mean everything — that changes in a document.

You’ll know at a glance where a word was changed, where a serial comma was added, what was added or deleted, who did it, and when. A black line in the left-hand margin indicates where changes have been made. New text is highlighted in a color that’s unique to the user who made the change, and deleted text appears in a bubble in the right-hand margin with the same color code. Users can also add comments that don’t modify or become part of the body copy.

Buttons in the review bar allow users to click through each individual change, reducing the chance that you’ll miss something. As the editing process proceeds, reviewers can accept or reject changes, making them disappear.

The highlights are fairly intuitive and designed to keep the document readable. Be aware, however, that colors for each user are assigned locally on each individual’s machine — your editor’s comments might show up in red on your screen but in green on someone else’s.

Adobe Acrobat

If Word is the standard for text editing and proofing, Acrobat is the complement for graphic designers. In addition to text reviewing features, Acrobat adds annotation and markup tools that allow you to scribble, post sticky notes, attach files, apply pre-designed “stamps” and sign off with digital signatures. If you regularly work with designers or need to review text in draft layouts, Acrobat gives everyone on the team an easy way to interact.

Acrobat’s tools are a bit more free-form than Word’s, but you can still access everything in a Comments List to make sure you don’t miss anything. Better still, each item has a checkbox so you can easily keep track of what you’ve already dealt with.

If you’re working with a savvy designer who knows how to activate commenting for collaborators, you can access many of these features using the free Adobe Reader. If you do a lot of this sort of thing, consider purchasing the full version of Acrobat — that way your designer won’t have to jump through any hoops to make editing features accessible to you.

WordPress

A growing number of websites are being built in WordPress, partly because it’s easy for non-programmers to use, and partly because the explosion of content marketing has created demand for regular content updates.

A writer who knows WordPress has a competitive edge when working with clients like this, because he or she can load copy directly onto the site, freeing up the in-house team for other tasks. An editor or content manager still needs to review the work before it goes live, but can preview it exactly as it will appear. It’s also a godsend for the client when a blazing-hot deadline is looming.

Trust is essential in this type of workflow, so you may not want to dive in until you have a good feel for the working relationship you have with your writer. It’s also best for the writer and design team to agree ahead of time on key design conventions, such as how style sheets should be used.

Bonus tools (nice, but not essential)

Adobe Creative Suite

Writers who work regularly with designers don’t really need the Adobe Creative Suite, but having access to it and knowing how it works can give you a valuable window into the mind of your artsy colleagues. Designers who spend most of their time in Illustrator or Photoshop, for example, think about copy differently from those who build their masterpieces in InDesign. If you’re so inclined, you might also use the suite to offer additional services like indexing or variable data.

HTML

If you regularly work with web copy, whether in WordPress or some other tool, it doesn’t hurt to know a few basics of HTML, the code structure that runs the Internet. Knowing what’s going on “under the hood” allows you to peek backstage.

Monkeying with code can quickly lead you down time-sinking rabbit holes, so you’ll want to carefully balance how much of this sort of thing you do against the time you spend writing copy. Knowing just enough can save a web designer time by enabling you to write code-friendly prose and do a little basic troubleshooting on your own. I also like to keep tabs on how hyperlinks in my web copy work, for example, by making sure that they open in new windows when clicked — something text editors sometimes overlook.

  Dance like your buyers

swing-dancing-feetA few years after I started my freelance business I attended a weekend-long series of Lindy Hop classes. I had already been dancing Lindy for a few years by then, and was looking forward to learning advanced techniques from a team of out-of-town instructors.

I arrived with one of my regular dance partners, who I’ll call Diane (because that happens to be her name). The first session was about to start but the high-level stuff was scheduled for later in the day. The cool instructors were kicking off the weekend with a workshop on the basics of Lindy Hop—moves Diane and I had mastered long ago.

Reviewing the fundamentals of any skill is a valuable exercise, but Diane and I were both craving something more that day. So we created our own challenge by swapping roles. Diane danced the “lead” part (what’s traditionally thought of as the male role in partner dancing) while I joined the circle as a “follower.” Diane literally doubled over with laughter the first time I did a hip swivel while waving my hand in the air. I looked—and felt—pretty silly.

Yet as it turned out, I learned a lot more from that hour or two of role reversal than from the rest of the weekend.

I haven’t been able to remember what the advanced classes were about for many years, but I never forgot how it felt to dance like a follower. It made me aware of things I was doing as a leader that could confuse or distract my partner. I also learned a few things skilled leaders do to help followers have more fun. Diane, in turn, discovered one of the biggest challenges leaders face—having to perform one dance move while deciding what the next one will be. We were both better dancers when we left that “basic” workshop.

This experience also illustrates one of the writer’s roles in the creative process. Whether you’re writing your own copy or preparing a brief for a hired scribe, part of the job is to get into the heads of the people you want to reach, whether they’re potential customers, voters, donors, or whatever. The more you know what it’s like to be in their shoes, the more likely you are to write in a voice that speaks to what they really want and need.

You don’t have to do hip swivels and wave your hand in the air to learn what it’s like to be your buyers (unless you’re selling dancing shoes, in which case I highly recommend it). The key is to do something, however small, to get a window into their world. Interview the type of people you want to reach—or think you want to reach—to find out where your strengths overlap their needs. Read what they read, watch what they watch, visit the websites and social media groups they like.

You may find that all your assumptions about your readers are correct. If so, great! But it’s more likely you’ll discover at least a few insights that will change the way you do business, making the marketing dance with your best potential buyers far more effective—and profitable.

  Do you need a contract with your writer?

contractNo matter how well you know and like your writer, some kind of written agreement is always a good idea. It makes expectations clear and protects everyone involved.

Some designers create separate contracts for each job, while others ask for a broader agreement spelling out the terms of the working relationship. Many use both, defining the relationship in one general contract, then detailing the specifics of each job in separate agreements on an as-needed basis. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney when creating the template for your standard contract or letter of agreement.

At a minimum, your agreement with your writer should include:

  • A list of deliverables the writer is being engaged to prepare for any specific job.
  • The project schedule, including all key deadlines.
  • Terms of the writer’s compensation, including any payments that will be made in advance or upon reaching certain stages (for example, upon submission of the first draft).
  • How many rounds of revisions are covered by the compensation (typically 2–3), and how additional compensation will be handled if the project exceeds this scope.
  • What information, if any, the writer is expected to keep confidential.
  • Who owns the work. Most jobs are “work for hire,” in which the client retains all rights to the finished product. Another item that should be stated explicitly is whether or not the writer may use the finished product as a sample of their work for his or her own self-promotion.
  • Length of the agreement.
  • How disputes are to be resolved. For example, some contracts state that disputes should be handled in arbitration rather than via a lawsuit.

Your contract might also include:

  • Details on communication with clients. Can the writer contact clients directly? Do they need to go through you or some other representative of your business? Is it okay to have direct communication as long as you are CCed on any messages?
  • A non-compete clause, specifying a reasonable amount of time during which your writer may not work with a direct competitor. This period is usually stated in terms of the end of your working relationship, such as a period of 6 months after you stop working together.

  See you in January!

Green holiday lightsOne of the things I love most about my job is the variety of the people and industries I work with. My clients, colleagues, readers, and friends are part of a diverse international community who celebrate many different holidays and festivals throughout the year.

Whatever and whenever you celebrate, I wish every one of you a truly meaningful and relaxing holiday. Thank you for helping to make 2014 my most successful year in business so far!

The WordStreamCopy office will close for the holiday season on Monday, December 22. I’ll be back bright and early on Monday, January 5.

Best regards,

Tom

  Who pays the writer?

who-pays-the-writerSome designers prefer to work with writers as subcontractors so they can provide a single-source solution to their clients. Others simply introduce the client and the writer to one another, then step aside to allow them to make a separate financial arrangement.

My design clients tend to use these two payment models about equally. While each has its merits, you’ll probably find that your business model will make one approach more logical than the other.

Here are a few questions to consider:

Do you want to be the one-stop manager of a virtual team?

If your design business positions itself as a “one-stop shop” or serves clients who value your ability to make things as easy for them as possible, give serious consideration to working with the writer as a subcontractor. You’ll be taking on a bit more responsibility, but you’ll also have more creative control.

Do you want to mark up the writer’s rate?

Your introduction provides a service to both of the other parties. The writer gets a gig that probably wouldn’t have come his or her way without you. The client doesn’t have to go hunting for a writer or pay someone internal to create the copy. Both of these conveniences have a value, and there’s nothing wrong with adding 10–15% to the writer’s cost to compensate you for your efforts. It’s a lot easier to do that if you’re managing the whole relationship.

Are you willing to take on extra paperwork and responsibility?

Subcontracting your writing talent makes you the one who’s ultimately accountable to the client for both deadlines and the quality of the writer’s work. It also makes you a middleman for the writer’s paycheck, and experienced writers typically expect to get a portion of their fee in advance. If you’re managing the relationship you’ll want to make sure that the writer’s up-front cost is built into the advance you receive from the client.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to what you want most: creative control or freedom from responsibility. Subcontracting gives you more control along with more obligations, while a separate arrangement provides less of each.

  Which comes first, writing or design?

chicken-egg-gsWhile it’s not quite as confusing as the chicken/egg conundrum, the question of “who’s on first?” is always in play when writers and designers work together. The correct answer, as with many creative endeavors, is “it depends.”

Here’s a quick rundown of common options with pros and cons for each:

Design first

In the design-first model, the designer creates the look and feel of the project first, leaving space or Greek text for the copy. This is especially common when a group or series is involved, such as a recurring newsletter, family of brochures, or other template-based pieces.

  • Pros: Great creative freedom for designer, writer has a clear idea of the visual tone and structure.
  • Cons: May require a specific word count for each section (especially in print pieces), requires more revision work if the writer comes up with a great idea that doesn’t fit the existing layout or template.

Writing first

This scenario gives the writer more options for shaping the style and tone of the project. It works especially well if you have a design-savvy writer who can give you stuff to play with like pull quotes, bullet points, sidebars, and the like. It’s also a good option if you or your client don’t have a clear visual direction yet.

  • Pros: Gives the writer more options for tailoring the content to the target audience, can make the designer’s job more fun.
  • Cons: May require the design team to give the writer more briefing, requires a more experienced writer for best results.

Tandem creativity

Is your project blazing hot? One advantage you have over the proverbial poultry is that writing and design can happen simultaneously.

  • Pros: Can allow the creative team to work faster and meet tighter deadlines.
  • Cons: Can turn into a major train wreck if the writer and designer have different visions for the project. Make sure everyone is on the same page before you risk it.

Playing to everyone’s strengths

A hybrid workflow that combines the best of both worlds begins with the designer creating a rough layout, wireframe, or grayscreen prototype. The writer still gets some idea of the desired structure up front, while the design team retains the flexibility to respond to new ideas from the writer when the full design is developed.

This model allows everyone to do what they do best without sacrificing the ability to incorporate cool ideas from the rest of the team. It’s also a stronger starting point in cases where the writer and designer will be working simultaneously by making it easier to establish a shared vision at the outset.

Again, there’s no answer that’s necessarily right or wrong for your workflow. If you hope to build a long-term relationship with a writing partner, consider trying out different options on different projects to see what works best for you.

  When should you get a writer involved?

rough-draft-dueYou’ve landed the big project. The client is savvy enough to know you’ll want a good writer on the team and has built the cost into your budget. They’re ready to get the project moving—when do you call the writer?

The simple answer is it’s best to get your writer on board as soon as possible. Ideally, you’ll be in the type of situation I’ve just described, where you or your client know a writer’s help will be needed before you start the project. Even if you’re not, starting the writer as close to the beginning as possible makes everyone’s job easier.

If you’re bringing a writer in to work on a client project, try to include him or her in the initial strategy sessions, either in person or remotely. This eliminates the need for you or your client to “bring the writer up to speed” later on. How much of a role the writer takes in these sessions will depend on your comfort level (for more on this, see: Should your writer have access to the client?), but the earlier the writer has direct exposure to the concept you want to convey, the better. The next best thing is to record any briefing sessions for the writer to review later.

Involving the writer early on reduces the chance something you or your client take for granted will slip through a crack in the creative brief, only to resurface after the first draft is submitted. The last thing you want to say at that point is “we forgot to mention…” You’ll also get the benefit of the writer’s expertise in the initial stages of the creative process, when it’s easier to make changes or incorporate new ideas. A good writer will be eager to participate in this phase, knowing that it will make the finished product stronger.

In short, calling the writer on day one saves everyone from pain—you, your client, and your writer. Not only will it save you time and frustration, you’re also likely to get better results.

  Should your writer have access to the client?

serious-businessmanDesigners and writers collaborate in different ways, but one of the most common scenarios is for a client to approach a solo designer or design firm first, and for the writer to join the team as a subcontractor. Stated more simply, you—the designer—are working for the client and the writer is working for you.

This arrangement effectively makes you something of a creative director or project manager. That’s great if you want to be the key decision maker on the creative team, but it can also make you a bottleneck when the writer needs information that can only be provided by the client. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself asking if your writer should be able to talk to the client directly.

The simple answer is yes, for three reasons:

It’s more efficient for everyone

Allowing your writer to work directly with the client not only saves time, it eliminates much of the potential for misunderstanding. Telling the writer everything the client told you is a lot like playing a grown-up version of the game “telephone,” with the critical difference that mistakes can lead to costly revisions. You’re also likely to forget something the writer should know, which wastes more time playing “catch-up” later.

The writing will be more on target

Direct communication gives your writer a better sense of the client’s voice and tone. This makes it much easier for the writer to craft a message that fits the client, product, or service. A recording of a talk between you and the client is the next best thing, but this takes the writer out of the conversation and may require you to deal with more follow-up questions.

Stuff comes up

Unexpected questions, missing information, and even events outside the project (“XYZ company just released a similar product!”) can stall the creative process. If your writer can go directly to the client, he or she can respond to situations like this far more quickly, especially if you’re not available at the time.

But how do you maintain control?

Naturally, the better you know and trust your writer, the more comfortable you’re going to be with granting him or her this kind of access. But what if you’re working with someone new, or simply want to maintain control of the conversation without placing too many restrictions on the writer?

First, you can allow the writer to communicate directly as long as you’re involved in some way. If you’re on the call or in the meeting you’ll have the opportunity to focus or re-direct the conversation if it gets off track, while the writer will still be able to make suggestions or ask open-ended questions. It’s also reasonable to ask the writer to CC you on any email communication with the client. You’ll still be in the loop, but with more flexibility than you’d have if you were the writer’s only point of contact.

Second, be sure to make your expectations clear with the writer up front. If client contact can only happen at certain times or under certain conditions, it’s best for everyone to be on the same page (including the client, when possible).

Finally, be aware that the more control you require in the relationship, the more maintaining that supervision is going to eat up your own time. The best-case scenario is for you to build a relationship of trust with your writer. As that trust grows, you’ll become more comfortable with giving the writer the freedom to work directly with the client—leaving you with more time to focus on your end of the project. If you don’t start feeling this way after a few projects, it may be a sign that you need to find a different writer who’s a better fit for your client or your working style.

  Should your writer be a specialist?

Expert-iconWhen I studied journalism in college, I spent less time than you might expect learning the craft of writing itself. That’s not to say the training wasn’t rigorous. Professors in the department were known for handing out automatic “F” grades if a person’s name was misspelled. One was even nicknamed “Conan the Grammarian.” And there was zero tolerance for late homework to drive home the lesson that deadlines matter.

What I always found most interesting, however, was the amount of time I was required to spend outside the journalism department.

Two significant segments of the program were elective-driven. The first was designed to give students a general background in a variety of disciplines, such as political science, economics, psychology, sociology, and history. We also had to complete one or two concentrated areas of specialization, which could be just about anything we chose.

Our advisors and instructors regularly reinforced the message implied by this structure: writing skills aren’t enough. Successful writers typically come to the table with something more, and when it comes to finding work, there are better opportunities for those who choose to go narrow rather than wide.

From a client’s perspective this means you may need to do a bit of homework to find the writer who best fits your project. Writers are a diverse lot whose backgrounds and interests shape the topics they know well and the type of work they seek out. Some are generalists who crave variety and take on a wide range of projects. Others are focused on a specific vertical market, type of work, or area of expertise.

So which type of writer is best for you?

The Generalist

Generalists are typically people who begin their careers with an interest in writing. They often have degrees in journalism, English, or marketing. Generalists are great if you have a lot of production work, a project that crosses multiple disciplines, or want the kind of fresh perspective that an untrained outsider can bring to your business.

A good generalist has the ability to grasp new concepts quickly and identify where your expertise overlaps the needs and desires of your audience. Even if your product or service relies on complex expertise, a generalist can be a great asset to your team if your target market doesn’t share the same background.

In many cases a generalist will have lower rates, though this may not mean they’ll be the least expensive option. And while there are plenty of exceptions, a fair number of generalists are still in the early stages of their writing careers, taking on whatever types of work they can find to fill the pipeline.

There are many diamonds in the rough to be found among generalists, especially those who come to you by referral. If your product or service requires specialized knowledge, however, it may require more time, effort, and cost to work with one.

The Specialist

Many specialist writers are former generalists who have chosen to focus on one or more areas of expertise. This can be the result of personal interest or chance. I’ve done both: I specialize in technology because I find it compelling, and in finance because I happened to pick up a lot of financial gigs early in my career.

Another type of specialist is the expert who has branched out into writing. One of the most successful copywriters I know is a former chemical engineer. He’s built a thriving career writing technical white papers and taking a scientific approach to marketing.

Like any high-quality product, a specialist is going to cost a little more—but it’s often worth it.

To begin with, a specialist is often a better value because you don’t have as much training to do. This is particularly valuable if you work in a field like healthcare, technology, or finance where critical concepts can’t always be explained in one or two phone calls. If you’re also marketing to expert readers, you may need a specialist out of the gate.

A good specialist stays up to date on current trends in your industry, and may bring expert insights that can enhance your project. The longer a specialist has focused on your field, the greater this perspective is likely to be.

The Best of Both Worlds

A great specialist gives you the best of the generalist’s skill set too: bringing a solid foundation in expert knowledge to the table without loosing touch with humanity. A writer like this is worth paying a little extra for, because you’ll make your investment back in saved time and superior response from your buyers.

Whichever option you choose, your writer should be able to communicate in language that generates response from your target audience—which may or may not be your preferred strain of gobbledygook.

  13 traits of a great ghostwriter

Ghostwriter's-keyboardOctober is the month of goblins, ghouls, and my favorite phantom—the “ghost” writer. While skeptics dismiss them as skeletons in the closet, ghostwriters are in fact friendly spirits who bridge the yawning chasm between people with great ideas and the arcane craft of writing.

If you’re contemplating a pact with one of these ghostly scribes, the best way to avoid getting spooked is to be mindful of these 13 observable phenomena, which separate merely grisly phantoms from the ranks of the supernatural.

  1. Discretion—Responsible ghosts respect the privacy of their clients before, during, and into the afterlife of your project. While they may advertise ghostwriting services, they won’t reveal Secrets Men Were Not Meant to Know unless they have prior permission to do so. Your best hope is to seek referrals from those who’ve had prior encounters.
  2. Versatility—Your ghost should possess the ability to write in your voice, adapting his or her style to match your own. A skilled ghost will eventually develop a paranormal ability to channel your style—to the point that you may wonder which of you actually wrote a particular passage. (Whether this qualifies as ESP remains open to debate.) Wise apparitions recognize that a key part of this process is a willingness to respond to constructive criticism without losing one’s head. If the two of you disagree, it’s okay for the ghost to make a case for her way, but ultimately you always have the right to say “no, never in life would I say such a horrid thing!”
  3. Humility—Ghosts work from the shadows, leaving their clients to bask in the bright light of day. If the ghost’s name appears in public at all, it’s in smaller type below the client’s name. This is the nature of the business, so anonymity shouldn’t give your writer chills.
  4. Initiative—You don’t need to be haunted by the responsibility of keeping your project alive. Look for a self-starting specter who will keep it moving relentlessly forward until it meets its ultimate fate.
  5. Follow-through—Many clients who use ghostwriters are “idea people” who work best with partners who excel at execution. Your ghost should have a proven ability to meet dead-lines.
  6. Curiosity—A ghost who takes an interest in the mortal world will be more open to the ideas and perspectives of others, making it easier for them to see things through your eyes (figuratively, that is). It’s a good sign if your ghost asks a lot of insightful questions, such as: “What types of beings do you wish to make contact with?”, “Did you always want to be a vampire?” or “Is this haunted room actually stretching?”
  7. Interviewing skill—Professional ghosts have a knack for putting you at ease while they unearth details of interest to your readers that might not have occurred to you otherwise. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to reveal Secrets Men Were Not Meant to Know—if something comes up that could threaten the world as we know it, inform your ghost that it’s off the record (see item #1).
  8. Category experience—If your publication requires specialized or technical knowledge, it’s helpful to have a ghost who’s already somewhat familiar with your specialty—or at least a Jack-O’-Lantern of all trades who’s dabbled in your field. For example, if you want to write a book on the use of lightning to animate artificial humans crafted from the bodies of the dead, the process will take much less time if your writer already has a basic understanding of anatomy, meteorological phenomena, and common laboratory equipment.
  9. Organizational skill—Assembling thoughts and ideas in a compelling way is a useful skill for any writer, but it’s especially important for ghosts. It can be a frightfully complicated task to reassemble the many items of lore from the various notes, interviews, and other sources your writer will spend hours poring over in his lair or local coffeehouse.
  10. Judgement—Ghost writing requires a good sense for what will lure your readers and what should be left unsaid.
  11. Respect—Working with a ghost requires you to entrust someone else with your voice and reputation. That’s a grave responsibility that can easily leave you feeling vulnerable. If the thought of revealing your personal thoughts to a particular writer leaves you with a sense of lingering dread, it’s probably a good idea to try a different ghost. (Hint: Pay close attention to the background music.)
  12. Self-awareness—Truly objective apparitions must recognize the difference between their own ideas and opinions and those of their clients. When the two conflict they must be willing to take the client’s path, even if it seems a bit otherworldly.
  13. Enthusiasm—Don’t settle for a hazy revenant who just goes through the motions. Your project should excite and inspire your ghost, encouraging him or her to manifest the true spirit of your ideas.