Helping a Copywriter Get Your Message Across

Besides being a marketer, I am a parent and a teacher. You’d think these responsibilities would make me fairly skilled at giving instructions.

You’d think. So, why did my son wear the same shirt for three days? (“Because, Mom, you said put on a shirt, not a clean shirt.”) And why did my three-year-old daughter draw lovely crayon circles on the new pine dining room table? (“Because you said to go color something while Mommy works.”) And why do my adult-education students get their staff members and interns to write their take-home midterms? (“Because you didn’t say we had to complete the assignment ourselves.”)

The fact is, even if we think a job is crystal clear, instructions get muddled, especially when asking a copywriter to do something as subjective as produce brilliant web copy. A few of the web copywriters I’ve heard from since starting this column have asked me to discuss the fine art of working with a copywriter… and getting the product you want. Since I usually sit on the client side of the desk, I’ve asked some writers to offer their best tips.

Don’t rely completely on email to communicate what you want. Take the time to pick up the phone and discuss the assignment, especially if you’re new to electronic media. Be open and willing to learn from an experienced web copywriter who can offer insights into the differences between print material and web material.

Review the superlatives. If you’re marketing a product, let the writer know the essential points of differentiation. For example, if you’re the best bank in town, tell the writer why. Is it dynamite customer service, quickie no-questions-asked loans, or solid stability? No matter what the key benefits, share them with your prose master. Also, if you have several points of differentiation, let the writer know the order of importance.

Provide background materials. Writers love the written word, so give them something – anything – that can provide a little insight. Press releases, brochures, or memos are of invaluable assistance. It doesn’t have to be finely crafted, just informative enough to give your wordsmith a running start.

Prime the pump. If the writer has to interview someone, contact the subject beforehand. The writer will get a warmer reception – and better interview – if you provide the preliminary introductions.

Set a preferred writing style. Copy comes in many forms – humorous, all business, informal, formal, etc. Let the writer know your preference upfront. However, watch out for excess corporate speak that sometimes passes for “formal” (see last week’s column), and try to remember that informal writing typically works well for web sites. (See my September 26 column.)

Be clear on the format. If you have specific formats for how you want to receive the text, tell the writer in advance (HTML, text, etc.).

Set the parameters. Writers want to know the number of words, pay structure, deadline, and rights for publication. Have a standard, easily understandable contract that can be faxed to the writer.

Expect rewrites. Rewrites – at least one more go around – are expected by the writer. A second pass is usually needed to refine a few details, correct facts, and insert that point you forgot to discuss with the writer in your initial interview. Writers also understand that in most organizations their copy will churn through an approval cycle of marketing directors, vice presidents, etc. Very little copy goes through the process without a few red-ink battle scars.

What if you’re just not satisfied with the copy you receive? Talk to the writer and clearly explain where the problem lies. Most writers do not want to give you unacceptable work. Above all, resist the temptation to “just do it myself.” (Admittedly, I’ve done this too many times and have found myself missing critical deadlines in the process.) And before you turn the job over to another writer, review your initial instructions on the project. Could it be you just weren’t very clear in explaining the assignment? (Remember, impossible clients quickly earn reputations.)

In writing as in life, relationships take time to develop. Finding a copywriter who clicks with your style may require some extra work on the front end. But if you learn how to give instructions well, you’ll have wonderful content. With bad instructions, you risk copy as unpleasant as crayon-stained pine or a smelly shirt.

P.S. Special thanks to Joe Flood, Greg Mischio, Lillian Wall, and Erica Manfred for their tips.

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