Hiring a Copywriter? Learn the 7 Pitfalls

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You just got approval to hire a copywriter for your new direct mail campaign. That was the easy part. Looking at your list of names, how can you tell who's good? You have a tight deadline, and you don't have time to waste training and rewriting. Learn the seven pitfalls of working with a copywriter, and you'll hire the right person every time.


1. Bad writing. When you review their portfolios, don't just look at their samples, ignore the silence in the room and read through several pieces. Ask about audience and objective for at least three or four of them. If the writer can't tell you, there's a red flag. Most copywriters love to talk about their work and can describe all the elements they were balancing to create what you see. As you're reviewing, look for the following:


o Logical thought and flow. It should have a beginning, middle and an end that flow easily and logically from one section to the next. In direct mail, this often takes the format of problem/solution/call to action. Scrutinize the headlines. They should be able to stand alone and convey the message for skimmers.


o Compelling and direct. Look for vivid, action-packed verbs and descriptive adjectives that draw you in. Ask yourself whether the call to action is strong enough to get you to act.


o Grammar and sentence structure. If you trip on words as you're reading, that's a bad sign. Check for problems with grammar, punctuation, spelling and typos. This indicates sloppy work.


o Flexibility. Every client and type of writing has a different tone and voice. If possible, read several pieces from several clients to see whether they all sound alike.


o Level of writing involvement. Select one piece and ask whether they wrote it alone, edited it or supervised the writing of it. You'll find many samples where the writer actually had a secondary role.


2. Poor project management. Every task requires project management. Ask for situations where they've had a tight deadline and how they managed it. Learn what tools they use to stay on top of their work. Ask them about their writing process. If they don't have one, another red flag. If this role will require them to collaborate or supervise other designers or writers, get specific examples of how they've managed that in the past.


3. Being an order taker. When you hire a copywriter, you usually want more than words on a page. You want a new approach, new ideas, new creative thought. Find out what information they will need from you. Many professional copywriters have a written checklist with elements including objective, audience, format, offer, deadline, budget and so on.


Though you may have a general idea of what you want, you're probably looking for someone to fine-tune ideas. Ask about situations where the writer was given minimal direction and how the challenge was met. Get examples of where the project started one way but took a different, better direction.


4. Inexperienced -- they just don't "get it." Usually you discover this when it's too late: when you get the copy and it's apparent they don't understand business, let alone your business or your customers. How do you uncover business acumen in an initial consultation? "Getting it" mostly comes through experience, but you can check for understanding. You likely discussed your business issues and concerns in your meeting with them. Ask them to repeat what you told them.


This not only will uncover communication problems, it'll show how they process information. Ask them what their initial thoughts are. Granted, they will be on the spot, but it will indicate their comprehension of problems and ability to generate solutions, which is what writing is all about. Don't forget to ask for questions. This will give you insight into their understanding and interest.


5. Long response time and heavy workload. Now is the time to get your expectations on the table. If you expect your e-mails to be answered within one business day and have same-day turnaround on minor revisions, say so. The more specific you are, the better. If you see them squirm or hedge, you're headed for trouble.


6. Incompatible work style. Consider your preferences here. If you're a morning person or like to work through lunch, be direct about it. Find out what your copywriter prefers and see whether there is a match. Work style is just as important as technical skill. No matter how skilled a writer, if your work styles are not compatible, you'll get on each other's nerves. This should be fun!


7. Unclear pricing policy. Get a clear understanding of exactly what is and isn't included. Be specific about the number of drafts for the negotiated price. Discuss how to handle multiple rewrites when they didn't understand the point and/or provide you with sloppy drafts.


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