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.

  9 Marketing Lessons from 1812

erie-jibOr: “All I really need to know about marketing I learned from Commodore Perry.”

(with apologies to Robert Fulghum)

All I really need to know about how to write and motivate readers to take action I learned by participating in the 200th anniversary re-creation of the Battle of Lake Erie in 2013. (Need a quick history refresher? Check out the 90-Second Know-it-All’s humorous recap of the event.)

These are the things I learned:

  • Use prevailing winds to your advantage by knowing what your customer really needs and wants.
  • Make sure everyone is willing to follow the battle plan before you set sail.
  • Positioning is everything.
  • Great victories sometimes require risk-taking. If choppy waters make you seasick, keep your eyes on the horizon.
  • Don’t give up the ship—though it might be prudent to change ships if the one you’re on is sinking.
  • You can’t change course quickly without good sailors, even if your navy has more ships than anyone else.
  • The biggest competitor can be outmaneuvered by an energetic young upstart.
  • And then remember the Aubrey/Maturin books and their timeless lesson — Lose not a minute!

And it is still true, no matter how many years you’ve been sailing, when you go out on the lake, it is best for all the ships in the line to stick together.

Wednesday, September 10 marked the 201st anniversary of the battle.

  Convincing your client to hire a writer

client-thinking-flippedMany design projects hit a wall when the time comes for the client to deliver the copy. They discover they don’t have the time to do the writing after all, or worse—provide substandard copy guaranteed to undermine your carefully-crafted design.

Whatever the cause, this scenario is all too common: you know your client needs to get a writer involved, but they’re holding back, claiming they don’t have the time, the budget, or whatever. When this happens, convincing them that a writer will be worth the investment can make or break your project. Here are a few strategies that speak to your client’s deepest needs:

Stress the business case

Most clients are concerned about minimizing costs, but what they ultimately care about most is their customers. Draw on what you know about their best buyers when reviewing their current copy strategy and stress how a professional writer’s skills can boost customer response to your project. Convincing them of the potential for better results is the easiest way to help them justify the cost of adding a writer to your team.

Position the writer’s expertise as a solution

The primary skill a writer brings to any project is the ability to communicate clearly to your target audience. In addition, many writers also specialize in specific markets or types of work. When going to bat for your writer, look for skill gaps he or she can bridge in your current creative team. For some clients, it will be enough to take on a professional with basic spelling and grammar skills. Others might be more inclined to hire a specialist if it means working with someone who already “gets” their business—saving them the time of bringing someone new up to speed.

Watch the deadline

Adding a writer saves time for everyone else, especially if writing isn’t a core skill for other members of your team. The closer you get to the client’s deadline, the more compelling this approach can be, though it’s still best to get the writer involved as early as possible.

Speak from experience

Many of the reasons your client will benefit from a professional writer are the same as they are for you. If you have past experience working with a writer, give your client specific details about the advantages you’ve enjoyed. Any hard numbers you can provide about time and cost savings, increased response rates, higher sales, and other bottom-line metrics are particularly effective. Writers know how powerful numbers like these can be in their own marketing efforts, so they may be able to provide them for similar projects they’ve worked on in the past.

Don’t have experience partnering with a writer? Check out the post “Designer + Writer = Creative Dream Team” to learn more about the benefits collaboration can offer—both to you and your client.

If all else fails, try a test

If you’re still stuck, encourage the client to hire your writer for a low-cost experiment. Choose a key sample piece of the copy and have the writer create or re-work it. Some clients respond best by seeing the difference or testing the results, and this kind of low-risk trial can be an effective way to bring them around.

  Designer + Writer = Creative Dream Team

Couple-using-laptopGraphic design and copywriting frequently work hand in hand, but very few creative professionals are masters of both arts. So it’s no surprise that many designers cultivate one or more writers as creative partners and vice versa.

From a designer’s perspective, working with a writer offers significant benefits. Here are five of the biggest:

A good writer will save you time—and maybe your sanity too

Most designers don’t consider writing to be their strong point, and even those who don’t stress about it tend to be more passionate about the design side of their business. Bringing a writer into a project allows you to focus on the design work you know and love best. Someone who works with words full time will also be more efficient at getting the job done, whether they’re creating a completely new message or polishing material provided by a client.

You’ll communicate your message faster and more efficiently

Do you have a tendency to ramble when you try to describe what you do? Are your clients the same way? A good copywriter is usually a good listener who can boil down all the information you provide, putting your words into an organized flow that makes sense to someone who’s never heard it before. Allowing a writer to pinpoint your core value propositions up front also helps everything you create later come together more quickly.

You’ll enjoy your own work more

A writer who knows how to work with designers can structure content to give you extra things to play with. Instead of a “wall of words,” you’ll get copy that’s organized with effective headings, subheads, call-outs, bullets, and sections of narrative. Not only will this make your message more effective, it will be more fun for you to work with as the designer. (Need to bring your favorite writer up to speed on how a designer works? Send your scribe a link to this post.)

You’ll get better results

Writers are trained to help you get into the mindset of your buyers by looking at your message from the perspective of your customers. A good writer uses these insights to figure out where your offerings best intersect with the needs and desires of your prospects, crafting the message for maximum customer appeal. Much of this work happens before any writing begins, so it’s beneficial to get your writer involved during the strategy phase.

You’ll be able to offer more and grow your design business

Having an established relationship with a writer or two transforms your design business into a convenient one-stop shop for clients. You can confidently offer to handle copy as an integrated part of your service. Not only does this save time and hassle for your clients, it opens the door to bigger projects. And the partnership can work both ways, allowing your writer to offer design services as part of his or her business.

  2 things your writer MUST know

checklist-icnOne of the first questions designers tend to ask about partnering with a writer is “what information does my writer need?”

While there are probably as many answers to this question as there are copywriters, there are certain fundamental basics most of us would probably agree on. To me, there are two that are absolutely essential:

1. Who are we writing to?

Before your writer goes anywhere near a keyboard, he or she needs to know something about your audience. You can make this job easy by defining your readers as narrowly as possible.

One way to do this is to use demographics, or statistics relating to a specific segment of people. For example, you might say: “We’re trying to reach single women age 25-35 who have a college degree and an annual income of $50,000 or more.”

Another useful tool is psychographics, which slices up market segments based on interests, attitudes, values, or behavior. An example of this might be: “We want to attract a diverse mix of young influencers who enjoy urban living and the arts to our new apartments in the theater district.”

Many creative briefs combine both of these strategies, along with other details that help the writer shape the voice and tone of your message. Even things that don’t directly relate to your product or service can be helpful. What kind of music does your target audience prefer? What websites do they visit? What concerns keep them awake at night? What goals and aspirations do they have? The more the writer knows, the better.

Above all, resist the urge to say “we want to reach anyone we can.” The more specific you can be about your audience, the more focused and effective your writer’s message can be. I try to narrow the audience down to one to three representative profile individuals whenever possible.

2. What do we want them to do?

Every piece of marketing copy you ask your writer to prepare should have a single outcome in mind. Do you want the reader to make a purchase? Visit a website for more information? Call for a free consultation? Sign up for an event? Subscribe to your e-newsletter to get a free report?

Whatever it is, tell the writer up front. This gives the writer the information he or she needs to craft the “call to action” that drives the reader toward the end result you ultimately want.

Is that all?

These two items on their own don’t make a good creative brief. There’s plenty of other information your writer should have, such as the elements of your brand’s character, what type of copy has succeeded or failed for you in the past, what market factors are influencing your business, what the competition is doing, and much more. But without these two critical basics, the copy you get will essentially be a creative writing exercise that’s only as good as your writer’s best guess.

Don’t worry about giving your writer too much information. After all, sorting out what’s relevant to the outcome you want from details that are less likely to influence your readers is part of your writer’s job. It’s far better for the writer to have to do some research and consolidation than for him or her to make assumptions, especially if you already know the answers the writer is looking for. The last thing you want to do is say “oh, you should probably see this other information we have” after you get the first draft.

  Where can you find good writers?

Woman-with-binocularsMany designers are eager to work with writers, but struggle with the process of finding scribes who are right for them. Some have had bad experiences with freelancers who didn’t meet deadlines. Others need copy that requires specialized knowledge in fields like healthcare, finance, or technology. Even when you find a good one, successful firms and solo creatives often have enough projects going to keep multiple writers busy.

While there’s no “silver bullet” solution that will find great writers every time, some hunting grounds offer a far better chance of success than others.

Ask for referrals

Referrals are by far the best way to find a great writer. Someone who’s already worked with a particular writer can tell you firsthand what the experience was like. Ideally, they’ll be able to advise you about the writer’s ability to stay on schedule, the quality of the work, how well they responded to change requests, and the response from the target audience.

Another reason to seek referrals is writers, like many creative professionals, don’t like to spend a lot of time doing self-promotion. This is especially true of good writers who get really busy—referrals are often the only way to find them.

Start by asking your professional colleagues—creative directors, designers, marketing directors, and others who might have worked with outside writers or in-house people who’ve since gone solo. Friends and acquaintances can provide leads as well, but consider these character references rather than skill recommendations—they’re less likely to have worked with the writer directly.

You can cast a wider net by tapping into your LinkedIn network. Start with a status message, but understand that only the people on your contact list can see it. You may also want to let LinkedIn Groups for like-minded professionals know that you’re looking. Ask members to contact you privately with recommendations.

One resource that isn’t as obvious: other writers. Many established writers have a network of colleagues who they refer when they’re too busy to take on new work or when a client would be better served by a different skill set than their own.

Professional organizations and industry events

Copywriters in search of new business are often attracted to groups and functions that cater to marketing, publishing, and design. Experience levels will vary—you’ll find everything from industry luminaries to rising stars—but in general a writer who’s willing to make the investment in membership fees, conference admission, or travel expenses is likely to be a cut above average. The majority of these writers take a professional approach to their craft, treat it like a business, and are actively seeking to improve their skills. All of these traits are to your advantage.

A few good places to look:

  • The Creative Freelancer Business Conference, part of HOW Design Live, is an annual event that attracts high-caliber solo professionals.
  • The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is the world’s leading independent organization for data-driven marketers. Many writers who cater to this industry are members or attend DMA events.
  • The Specialized Information Publishers Association (SIPA), now part of the Software & Information Industry Association, is the international trade association dedicated to advancing the interests of commercial information providers. As with the DMA, many copywriters join to get access to potential clients. Writers who attend SIPA events are more likely to specialize in the needs of specific niche markets.
  • You may also find smart writers hanging out at your local AIGA meeting or other places designers congregate.

Beware low-cost websites and random searches

You can always find someone cheap on websites that cater to the lowest bidder. Writers on these sites tend to be inexperienced, and can introduce costs to your project that far outweigh their “low” fees. That’s not to say you can’t find diamonds in the rough, but understand that you’ll have to do some expert hunting. Most good writers raise their rates and move on from bargain sites once they recognize their value.

Similarly, using a Google search to find a writer is a lot like spinning a roulette wheel. A writer who’s lucky enough to be the top hit in a search engine may have won the SEO lottery that day, but that’s no guarantee they’re easy to work with, able to meet deadlines, or the right fit for your job.

Test, test, test

Whatever method you use to locate writers, it’s best to try them out on one or two small projects to see how well the relationship works if you have the opportunity to do so. It’s a bit like dating—a writer should be on best behavior when you start forming a relationship. If it’s a struggle to get a small, low-stakes job done when you’re just getting started, things aren’t likely to get better when you have something bigger on the line. Look for writers who treat even your small test jobs with professionalism.

Happy hunting!

  How do you know what to write about?

crackedpencil-icnMany creative professionals tell me they’d like to do more content marketing, but they don’t because they’re not sure where to get great subject matter. The good news is if you know your audience well enough, they’ll effectively tell you what they want to read.

Put yourself in the shoes of your best buyers and forget about yourself for a moment. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do my buyers need?
  • What do they want? (And is that what they really need?)
  • What challenges are they struggling with?
  • What keeps them awake at night?
  • What would make their lives easier?

The answers to these questions will point you in the right general direction and suggest the kind of topics your audience will find compelling.

And if you can’t answer questions like this quickly, you probably need to get to know your readers a lot better.

  Dream-powered copywriting

sailingWhile vacationing in Michigan a few years ago, I had the opportunity to go sailing for the first time. I was fortunate that our host, a lifetime sailboat enthusiast and racer, was generous enough to let me take the tiller for more than an hour while he showed me the ropes (no pun intended).

There’s an incredible sense of peace and contentment that comes over you out there. Imagine the experience: pure blue water stretching in every direction, the wind filling the sail and ruffling your hair, and all the time in the world to just relax. No wristwatch, no cell phone, no worries. (And yes, mom, I wore sunscreen.)

Got that image in your head?

Even if you’ve never been sailing, or don’t think you’d enjoy it, I’ve just given you a glimpse of a moment of perfect contentment. Your thing may be hiking, sitting on a beach, going to a movie, reading a book, riding roller coasters with your kids, making an heirloom quilt, or just having time to putter around the house. Whatever it is, it has the power to motivate you and your prospects.

Many marketing people today are hooked on the concept of “pain points,” which is the current buzzword for the fears, frustrations, and worries that encourage buyers to try a new product or service. I get notes on drafts like “more pain here” or “let’s slam down harder on the fear and greed pedal.” That’s one way to sell stuff—once—but it rarely seems to satisfy. Opening the door to your reader’s deepest desires, however, gets pulses pounding and creates repeat business.

The next time you need to create marketing copy, think about what the people you’re writing for really want. What’s going to bring them peace, contentment, happiness, and joy? Can you give it to them?

  5 Ways to Stay on Deadline

deadline-clockThe task of managing deadlines is one of the leading causes of stress for many writers. Even seasoned professionals struggle with them, especially when they start to pile up. While there’s no “silver bullet” for eliminating deadline stress altogether, I’ve learned that a few simple management tricks keep me on schedule while keeping my blood pressure low. (By the way, they work just as well for designers and other creative pros too.)

1. Track all your deadlines in one place.

Using a system that allows you to see all your deadlines at a glance gives you a complete picture of what you’ve committed to. It also minimizes nasty surprises by reducing the chance that something will fall through the cracks. Whether you choose to go high- or low-tech depends on your personal preference. What matters most is that your system be easily accessible and flexible enough to make quick adjustments easily as priorities change.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with 3×5 cards in a pocket board, digital calendar programs, and an Evernote “hot list.” My current favorite is Wunderlist, a versatile app that synchronizes across all my digital devices and allows me to add and rearrange tasks easily.

2. Practice “The Great Deadline Deception”

Here’s a secret your editor doesn’t want you to know: the “official” deadline isn’t always the real deadline. Flaky writers often assume that this gives them a little extra time, but that strategy can backfire in a big way when the deadline turns out to be the deadline.

Instead, practice the same technique on yourself by assigning deadlines that are earlier than they need to be. If the client says the project is due Friday, mark it on your schedule as being due on Wednesday, or even earlier if it’s a big project. This may not seem like a very effective method since you’re fully aware of the game you’re playing with yourself, but believe me, it really works. Less than a week after I started using this method, I forgot that I had built this buffer into my schedule. I was about to stress out over a project that was going to take an extra day until I realized that I had two extra days built in. Not only did the client never know about my anxiety, they still got their job a day early.

3. Break big deadlines into smaller ones.

Big deadlines can be overwhelming, but small ones are so easy! If you have something huge looming over you, break it down. Say you’re designing a website. Instead of one entry that says “everything for the website needs to be done by date X, create smaller deadlines based on key milestones. For example, you may decide that wireframes need to be done by date X, copy draft 1 by date Y, and so forth.

4. Work ahead.

Believe it or not, if you don’t wait until the last minute to start working toward a deadline, it will be far less stressful. Sounds simple, right? Yet strangely, most creatives struggle with this one.

The key to this strategy is to prioritize your list from step 1, then start working on your tasks in that order. The most obvious way to prioritize is by due date. Getting the most pressing item out of the way first allows you to move on to the next hottest item, and so on.

If you regularly write similar scheduled pieces, such as blog posts or newsletters, it’s also helpful to have several extras loaded ahead of time. For example, I’m currently working with a graphic design partner on a new monthly newsletter. Part of our strategy was to write the first three months of content prior to launch. Not only did this give us a comfortable buffer to work with, it also made us aware of how different our newsletter topics will be. Some, for example, will more image-heavy than others. That was valuable information for the designer to have as he created the newsletter template.

Having a few months’ worth of content in the hopper doesn’t prevent you from being current or topical. If something big happens in your industry that you need to comment on right away, you can always slide something into the content schedule and push the “evergreen” pieces back.

5. Write in batches.

Getting started is often the most difficult part of the writing process. Whenever I have a lot of similar content to create, I try to write at least two or three of them in one session.

This practice will save you time by leveraging your momentum. It also improves the connections between related pieces. This can have significant value, whether you’re writing a series of blog posts that focus on different aspects of a larger topic over time or a set of brochures that will appear together in the same display.