Freelance Copywriters: Stop handing in second rate work!

When I’m busy with other work, I sometimes outsource copywriting work to other freelancers.

Working with project partners, I often have to read the copy submitted to my partners by their freelance copywriters.

Here’s the shocker…

More often than not, freelance copywriters hand in garbage.

These are good, professional copywriters, all capable of producing outstanding work.

But the work they submit is rubbish.

Maybe the opening is weak. Maybe the flow just doesn’t work. Maybe there are factual errors, or spelling errors. Maybe part of the offer description from the brief is missing. Maybe the headline is just plain wrong.

Or maybe it’s not terrible, but clearly in need of some more polish, with a second or third draft required.

You think I’m joking? I’m not. I see this again and again. In fact, I see unfinished, unpolished copy more often than I see well-crafted, error-free copy.

The bottom line is – most freelance copywriters fail to hand in their best work.

This is insane, because you will be judged by what you send in to your clients. And it is immensely frustrating for your clients, because they often know what you are capable of, and don’t understand why you would send in anything less than your best.

Maybe you thinking, “Hey Nick, sometimes we send in a draft just to get feedback, before we move on to the final draft.”

That may sound like a reasonable excuse, but I think it’s just that – an excuse.

If you have questions you need to ask your client, ask them. But don’t send them a weak draft, in the hope that they’ll help you make it better. You are meant to be the expert. That’s what they are paying you for.

“But Nick, I have a lot of clients and tight deadlines. I can’t spend forever on each project.”

Well, you won’t have a lot of clients for long if you send in second-rate work.

Let me ask you a question – don’t you have in pride in your craft as a copywriter?

Do you feel good when you send in work that is less than your best? Does it feel OK to do that?

It’s complete craziness. As the saying goes, you are only as good as your last job. And if your last job was second rate, so are you.

Work for fewer clients and spend longer on each job, so you can hand in your best work every time. And as you build your reputation as a copywriter who always submits great work, you’ll be able to charge higher fees.

Fewer clients. Better quality. Higher fees.

Doesn’t that make more sense?

And believe me, with so many copywriters submitting second-rate, unfinished copy, there is a huge opportunity to brand yourself as the freelancer who always delivers his or her best work.

First, figure out what you love to do. Then figure out how to make money doing it.

writers desk in 1979
writers desk in 1979
My desk at home in 1979, including my full writer’s kit – paper, pen, manual typewriter, ashtray, coffee mug, and a small bottle of Bell's Whisky.

I pretty much stumbled into my first job as a copywriter. Up until a few days before I sat down to write my first ad, I didn’t even know that copywriters existed.

I was working as a management trainee at an ad agency in London. That meant I was being shuffled from department to department, so I could get a rounded education in the agency business. I was 22 years old.

After a stint in the media and production departments, I was passed on to the creative department. The creative director sat me down and asked me whether I was a designer or a writer. I told him I was a writer. Sure, I had done a stint at art college, but at heart I had always liked writing best.

Since the day I wrote that first ad – for a forklift truck company – I have been writing for a living. (They stopped shuffling me around, and left me in the creative department.)

I had always loved writing, and at the age of 22 I had found a way to make money doing what I loved. Lucky me.

Today, over 30 years later, I coach a lot of freelancers who seem to be trying to do this the other way around. When I ask them why they want to be a copywriter, designer, programmer or freelancer in some other way, they usually tell me they have heard it’s a good way to make money.

I think that approach makes things a lot harder for them.

I have succeeded as a copywriter and then a web writer simply because I love to write, and I’m fascinated by business.

Back in my early twenties I would work all day, and then spend many of my evenings and weekends writing ads simply as practice. I didn’t have to. I did that because I loved what I was doing. And I became better and better at writing as a result of all those extra hours.

Freelancers receive all kinds of good advice about how to make a decent living. Goal setting. Finding a niche. Marketing. Commitment. Mental toughness. Organization.

This is all good stuff.

But it won’t help you much if you don’t love what you’re doing.

And if you do love what you are doing, all those other elements will fall into place more easily.

So before you leap into your next venture, ask yourself the question, “Do I love doing this?”

If you don’t, pause for a moment and ask yourself this question:

“If I had followed the path of what I loved to do back when I was 22, what would I be doing now?”

Whatever the answer, perhaps you could start doing that now.

When you love what you do for a living, everything changes.

Sometimes you need more than just a second monitor. You need a floor.

documents arranged on floor

I used to work with a single monitor. Then I discovered my productivity made a big leap by adding a second monitor.

And now I have discovered the essential benefits of a large floor.

documents arranged on floor

I am currently working on two big projects, one of which requires putting together a large body of existing content and formatting it into a cohesive whole.

I tried doing this on my two monitors. But I made slow and miserable progress.

Then I decided to print everything out, almost 300 pages of it, and lay it out on the floor under a number of different chapter or section headings.

From the moment I did that, everything changed.

How come? Because I could SEE the whole picture. I could see everything at once – the sections, how much content was under each, and so on.

Also, something changes when you are walking around, looking at each pile of paper. The physical act of walking, of bending down to move a page from one pile to another, makes a difference.

Hard to explain. Perhaps the closest I have come to this kind of revelation is when I first started using mind maps. With a mind map, you can see the entire structure of the full project. And as anyone who uses mind maps can tell you, mind mapping actually changes how you brain works. You perceive things differently. You see and understand connections and structures in a whole new way.

My use of the floor had the same effect on me.

For this project, it was absolutely the right move to make. I was able to work faster and smarter. A barrier had been taken down. A struggle was overcome.

Floors aren’t exactly high-tech. But I think next time I am working on a multi-section project I’ll do the same.

In fact, I think I’ll use the floor for much smaller projects too.

If you want to see something in its entirety, even when relatively unformed, I suspect it’s hard to beat using a printer and some bare floor space.

If you have had the same or similar experiences, let me know.

Note: If you are working on large writing projects, be sure to check out my writing productivity guide, Writing Rituals.

To set smarter social media goals, think like a B2B marketer.

One of the great challenges of social media marketing is to make sure your time and resources are being used effectively.

It’s all too easy to put a huge amount of energy into social media, across multiple sites, and then scratch your head and wonder whether your hard work actually made a significant difference.

Social media activity is always open-ended. There are always more sites you could become active on, and there is no limit to the time you can spend on the sites where you are already engaged.

Hence the need for a strong strategy and clear limits.

If you work for B2C companies, it can be tough to set those limits. And that’s why, even if you don’t have B2B clients, I suggest you create a social media strategy for an imaginary B2B client. Just as an exercise.

For B2B it is somehow easier to set limits.

Let’s imagine you are working for a company in the food services industry that specializes in selling frozen goods to independent restaurants and bars.

How might you help them with social media?

Here are some options I might explore:

– Look for vertical social media sites which serve restaurant and bar owners etc.

– Search for and join relevant groups on LinkedIn and Facebook.

– Create an account on Twitter and engage prospects, thought leaders, food journalists and other influencers.

– Create a geolocation based campaign to implement at hospitality services trade shows and other relevant events.

– Reach out to restaurants and offer to sponsor local, geolocation based deals and offers.

That will do for now.

Each option is fairly clearly defined. Each has a specific purpose. Each is looking to engage with a specific group of people.

It’s this kind of clarity you want to apply to any social media work, especially for B2C clients.

What you want to avoid is goals that sound like this: “Reach out to as many new prospects as possible.” Or, “Use social media to better establish our brand.”

These are very open-ended goals. There are no boundaries or limits. You could spend forever on them, and probably with a very poor ROI.

One way or another, whether you do my B2B exercise or not, create social media strategies and campaigns that address a specific audience, for a particular purpose, within a specified time frame.

Do that, and you’ll be able to apply resources where they matter most, and measure the results you achieve.

Above all, avoid vague, open ended strategies and campaigns that will be a drain on your time and unlikely to achieve tangible results.

The best advice I can give any freelancer.

There is a ton of advice I can give, and have given to freelancers.

But I think the best advice I can give is this:

Always put aside an emergency cash fund equivalent to about two months of earnings.

Why? Because there are always ups and downs in the life of a freelancer, whether you are just starting out, or have been freelancing for years.

It doesn’t matter whether you are just doing OK as a freelancer, or you a superstar. You will always have an occasional month that doesn’t deliver the money you need to cover the bills. Or maybe one month you have an unexpected expense. Or maybe you are sick and can’t work.

You need to have a cash reserve to make up for those months. This is a simple business practice. It’s called cash flow management. Every company, large or small, has to manage its cash flow.

When you have good months, you put some money aside for your cash reserve.

Why is it so important? Well, the first and obvious answer is that you need to pay your bills. But, just as important, you need to KNOW you always have enough money to pay your bills, and have some extra cash left over. You need to FEEL relaxed about your money.

When you are short of money in your business, or even coming close to being short of money, you will feel the stress and become distracted.

As soon as you feel stressed and distracted, your productivity will suffer. You may also start making bad decisions about which jobs to take on – simply because you are feeling desperate.

That feeling of desperation will then undermine your ability to do a good job estimating for projects. You will submit low estimates, just because you need some cash coming in quick.

When you estimate too low for jobs, you undermine your feelings of self-confidence, and undermine your brand.

Suddenly you find yourself in a downward spiral, low-balling on your estimates and having to work even harder to make enough money.

Yes, this is a bad place to be.

For this reason, it is essential you create that cash reserve. Do it before you pay off your credit cards, before you buy the flights for your next vacation.

As soon as you have a cash reserve, everything changes. You dip into it during bad months, and build it up during good months.

Most important of all, you never feel desperate for work.

This means there will be no negative pressure on your productivity, and you can always remain focused on building your business, and seeking out the best, high-paying engagements.

If you don’t have a cash reserve yet, make it a priority, and start working on it today.

Websites are looking more and more like children’s books.

Maybe you remember the first time you picked up a book and – oh my – there were no pictures!

Maybe you put it right back down. Or perhaps you bit the bullet and read your first text-only book, and discovered that a good story helps your imagination create its own pictures.

Switching over to the web, we seem to seeing that process in reverse.

Fifteen years ago most site pages were all text. The images that were included tended to be small, primarily to accommodate slow dial-up connections.

Then broadband came along and we discovered we could not only add more and bigger images to each page, but we could also include multimedia.

There is an important point there: we COULD include more images and multimedia. There is no requirement, it’s just something we can choose to do.

But if you look at today’s websites and blogs, you might be excused for thinking that it was a requirement. No blog post seems to be complete without an image, even if the image in boring and barely relevant.

You know the kind of image I mean. Someone writes a post about working from home, and then they go to an image bank and grab a photo of someone sitting on a beach with a laptop, jumping ecstatically into the air with a blue sky background, or holding wads of cash with a stupid grin on their face.

These images don’t add any real value or meaning to the post. They are visual clichés, and merely decorative.

If an image doesn’t work for you, how about a chart or, even better, an infographic?

Yes, sometimes charts and infographics can add real value. But often they don’t. They are added to the page as eye candy.

Or how about forgetting the text altogether, and shooting a 7-minute video?

Again, for some topics a video can communicate your point more effectively than text. But very often they are used for the wrong reasons, and are either too amateur, or too slick and over-produced.

We can argue about the relative benefits of text versus multimedia, and we probably should.

But regardless, am I alone in seeing a dumbing down of web content?

I’m guilty of this myself, in so far as I deliberately write online content in a way that makes it easy to read.

But are we perhaps going too far?

In our attempts to attract and hold readers, are we making everything too simple and too easy? Are we underestimating the intelligence and attention span of our readers?

I ask, because, as I noted at the beginning of this article, websites are becoming more and more like children’s books.

Lots of images and multimedia, and not too much text.

After all, we can’t expect the poor dears to stay focused if we fill the pages with too many words.

BTW – Before you respond, I do know that images, infographics and video can add enormous value when done well, and used in the right circumstances. And I do know that adding other elements to a text-only page can give you some SEO brownie points. And I do know that multimedia can be a big draw when promoting your pages through social media. I know that stuff.

But even so, I resent having to search far and wide to find a quality writer who has taken the trouble to write a high-quality page.

As with that first book without pictures, a well written text-only web page can stimulate your brain into making all the necessary connections without any extra help.

No pictures of happy, leaping people required.