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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  The “problem” of more work than you can handle

HelpFinding enough work to fill your pipeline can be a challenge, especially in the early days of your freelance career. But if you do your marketing work consistently, provide great service, and eat your Wheaties long enough, your business will eventually reach a point where you’re pushing the limits of your capacity.

This doesn’t mean you’ll break free of the “feast or famine” cycle. That will always be a risk, and your best defense is to keep your marketing machine running even when you’re crazy busy.

No, the milestone I’m talking about here is when you realize that taking on additional jobs that you handle personally is no longer a viable way for your business to grow because you’re stretched to the limit—or beyond.

Read the full story on the Creative Freelancer Blog.

  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.