The message they can’t delete

Post_itTrue confession time: I love paper.

I love the way it looks, the way it feels, the cool artistic effects that talented designers can achieve with rough, organic textures or slick, shiny finishes.

But what I love most about paper is its sticking power. I’m not talking about the glue on the back of a post-it note, but the physical presence that only paper can give to your message. And as any printer will tell you these days, there’s a lot more room in your snail-mail box than there used to be.

Say what you will about email, websites, blogs, and social networks: paper remains the only communication medium that can’t be vaporized instantly with the click of a button. Even if you take it directly to the recycling bin (you are recycling, right?), there’s still a good chance that you’ll LOOK at it. In that moment, I have a golden opportunity to communicate with you.

So what’s a business to do if it values sustainability? Here’s a few tips to get the most out of paper and still minimize your impact:

  • Go paperless whenever you can, especially for administrative stuff like invoicing, memos, and communication with clients.
  • Don’t print anything you don’t have to. When you do, be sure to recycle it when you’re done.
  • Reduce the default margins in Microsoft Word to a minimum. Do you really need an inch and a half of white space on every sheet? This sounds like a little thing, but I find that it cuts the number of pages in just about every document I prepare. It also helps my clients use less paper without even knowing it!
  • Watch out for invisible lines at the end of documents too. It’s amazing how often these will add an extra page at the end that no one notices until an extra sheet gets wasted.
  • If you must print, use every feature your printer offers to save paper. I have a default setting that prints double-sided with two pages on each side, cutting my paper use by up to 75%.
  • Master the commenting features in Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat, and other applications you use so you can edit documents without printing them.
  • buy paper from companies committed to sustainability, and know the impact of what you’re buying. For example, responsibly-produced virgin paper is sometimes a more sustainable option because of the waste generated by recycling. (I’m not telling not to use recycled paper…just know the pros and cons of the products you’re using.)
  • Ask your printer about their sustainability practices. Are they certified by the Forestry Council or the Rainforest Alliance? Do they still use alcohol-based inks or other harmful chemicals? If they don’t have a green agenda, find one that does. (Want a really clean printer? Here’s mine. Be sure to tell them I sent you.)

I’m looking for more ways to reduce my paper footprint, but I still haven’t found anything else in my toolbox that can outperform it. Have you? If so, please drop me a line.

  7 questions creatives should ask before investing in SEO

Yellow-pages-SEOA generation or so ago, a certain type of business owner made it a priority to choose a name that started with the letter “A” (or preferably multiple “As”) so that they would be listed first in the Yellow Pages. Thus were born a host of companies with names like “A All-Valley Plumbing” (yes, that’s a real business in my home town), “AA Financial Enterprises” (ditto), and one of the best-known examples: “AAA” (the American Automobile Association). How much this strategy contributed to their success is open to debate. Some of these companies have survived for decades, others haven’t. Meanwhile, many businesses that don’t start with “A”, “B”, or even “K” are thriving, including alphabetically-challenged firms like Wal-Mart, Verizon and (though to be fair, Zappos succeeded well enough to be purchased by A-list giant

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the modern equivalent of this marketing ploy, albeit a far more complicated and expensive one. The moving target of SEO is to “own” certain search terms so effectively that you show up first — or at least on the first page — when a user types in the magic keywords.

There are compelling arguments for certain brands to invest heavily in SEO, but is it worthwhile for a solo creative professional or small design firm? Here are seven things to consider before you dive down the SEO rabbit hole:

Is quantity or quality your goal?

Fans of SEO are quick to point out that it generates more web traffic. But is it the right kind of traffic? A “successful” SEO strategy can end up wasting a lot of your time if it simply spawns a lot of low-quality leads. People who search for creative services using nothing more than a Google search are often looking for the lowest price or the quickest fix, and frequently fail to recognize the value of a professional’s talents, experience, unique perspective or specializations.

Can you compete against companies with deep pockets?

If a solo creative’s SEO efforts can be compared to a fishing rod, the corporate equivalent is a fleet of trawlers operating further offshore. Stated more simply, if the search terms you’re angling for are also coveted by a big-budget brand, you may not be able to afford the SEO game. Big companies have big bucks to invest in paid search ads and can afford to hire dedicated SEO teams. You might be able to beat the big guys by selecting your keywords carefully. Maybe. Even words like “freelance”, “designer”, “copywriter” and “independent” are being played by web services that want to be the middleman between companies and solos, so you may need to start your keyword search somewhere else.

Are you faster than Google?

Google’s search algorithm changes 500-600 times a year — sometimes as often as 2-3 times a day — to keep their search results as relevant as possible and foil those who try to game the system. This makes many SEO strategies vulnerable to change at any time. What gets you on page one today may not work tomorrow, or even later today.

Can you entice search engines without discouraging buyers?

Remember those radio ads that mentioned the product name five times in 60 seconds? I don’t either, because this kind of “numbers game” mentality handicaps even the best copywriters. SEO methodologies can create similar risks by shifting your writer’s emphasis from persuading a potential buyer to persuading a search engine. This can be particularly damaging if the result is unreadable by the people you want to reach most, because even if they find you they’ll move on just as quickly. Never forget that you’re writing for humans.

Are you willing to do the follow-up work?

Counting hits, opens, likes or whatever isn’t enough. You’ll need to track the quality of your SEO results. Is your SEO campaign attracting the right customers? Are they just clicking, or are they actually reading, sharing, using and best of all buying as a result of your efforts? If you don’t have a way to follow this data or the time to commit to tracking it, you’re leaving most of the value of SEO on the table.

Are you willing to keep up with technology?

As the web becomes increasingly mobile and app-driven, consumers are loosing patience with the need to tap text into phones and tablets. That’s already driving big innovations in voice recognition, photo search, and anticipatory computing systems like Siri and Google Now. Facebook recently acquired voice-recognition start-up for the same reason, anticipating more voice recognition demand not only in phones and tablets, but in vehicles, appliances, and smart homes. These trends are likely to spell changes for the SEO game in the near future.

Are there better investments for your time and money?

Whether you do it yourself or pay someone else to manage it for you, SEO is probably going to cost you time, money or both. The cost may be worth it, but consider the value of other options before you commit. Is SEO likely to be a better value than targeted or localized content marketing? What about networking at events that attract high-potential prospects? Consider too, the very best SEO strategy, recommended by Google itself: posting useful, highly-relevant content on a regular basis.

  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.


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.


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,


  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.