Copywriters are like actors. They have to adopt your voice. Your face. Your manner
A week ago, I signed a deal with a new customer. If you asked him, “What should you expect from a copywriter?” you’d get a good answer because he’s a marketing pro and he’s learned what copywriters should do for their clients. Sometimes, he’s learned the hard way. I just sent him the first draft of my first piece of work for him. The message that went with it included this:
Okay, please take a look at this. And let me stress: this is very much a draft. Everything I send anyone, ever, is a draft and open to review and change, but that’s particularly true in the early dealings with any new customer. I don’t know your voice, or the face you’re looking to present to the world. I sometimes think copywriters are like actors – every time we move from a job for one customer to a job for another, we have to don a different wig, different make-up and different accent. If this is close to what you’re looking for, tell me. If it’s a million miles away, tell me. I can do anything anyone wants – but I have to know what it is.
That’s very similar to what every new customer gets from me, and a message I repeat throughout the copywriter/customer relationship (even when it lasts for years, as it can) is: “This is a draft. Tell me what changes you need, and I’ll make them.”
It’s in my mind at the moment, because a little while ago I parted company with what had been a regular client. She ran an online marketing agency and I did all their copywriting – so much so, that she actually had my photograph and my bio on her website where she described me as “our copywriter.” And then it was over. No big deal from my point of view, at least on a commercial basis; I’m not short of work, and yesterday I signed a contract with a new customer (not the one I sent the draft to), so my working day is still full. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at the reason for the breach.
It’s a draft. Ask for changes
The ex-client never took me up on my repeated statements that, “This is a draft. Tell me what changes you need, and I’ll make them.” She would tell me by email that, “I made a couple of alterations and the customer loved it,” and when I looked, I’d see that, yes, she had changed a couple of things – small things – and that’s no problem, because lots of customers don’t feel they’ve taken ownership of something until they’ve changed a word here and inserted a comma there. I assumed that, if she needed bigger changes, she’d do what I’d asked and tell me to make them.
I was wrong. The first problem came when I agreed to write some product descriptions. I hate doing that, and it’s a job I would only take on for good customers. In this case, it was even worse, because the end customer sells janitorial supplies and I found myself having to think of 60 words to say about a galvanised mop ferrule. And they have 52 products in their toilet paper range alone. Have you ever tried to find 60 words to write about a toilet roll? And then a completely different 60 words about another (very similar) toilet roll? And so on, 52 times? I consider myself a creative writer, but once you’ve got past, “Brings up your ass like glass,” I can’t think of a great deal more to say about toilet paper. It’s hardly material for a user manual, now is it?
Nevertheless, I had accepted the job and I was fine about doing it. I heard nothing from the customer for quite some time. Then came an explosion. She’d looked at the product descriptions, found them unfit for purpose and spent five hours rewriting them herself. Five hours, she made it clear, that she didn’t have free. Five hours, she also made it clear, during which she had stoked her fury with me, for having done such a lousy job.
Now, I could have asked why she hadn’t simply batted them back to me and said, “Sorry, but would you mind doing this again?” I had said so often, “If you don’t like it, tell me what you need and I’ll change it.”
Other people have asked for rewrites from time to time and I understand it – and I do the rewrite, no questions asked. But I didn’t ask that because it was as clear to me as it would have been to anyone who has read psychiatrist Dr Eric Berne’s book, Games People Play that I was dealing with a stamp collector. And you can’t win with stamp collectors; they store up slights both real and imagined and, when the pages of their stamp collecting books are full, they explode in righteous indignation. It could be anyone in front of them at that moment – if it happens to be you (as it was, in this case, me), all you can do is cut your losses. Arguing isn’t worth it.
She went on to tell me (though she had never mentioned this before) that some clients had been dissatisfied with my work. One had said that I was too opinionated, which I took to mean that I have different opinions from his.
And it’s true, I do have opinions. And those opinions are as subject as everything else to the rule, “Tell me what you want me to change and I’ll change it.”
I don’t mean that I’ll pretend to believe something I don’t believe, or know things I don’t know, or plagiarise someone else’s work, but subject to those limits I write whatever the client wants me to write. And I had always made that clear, but stamp collectors take no notice of those admonitions because doing so would remove the opportunity for a righteous explosion and stamp collectors need those.
The reason I recount this story now is because sometimes someone takes on a freelance copywriter and either doesn’t know quite what to expect, or doesn’t feel able to ask for what they want. Here’s some advice:
- Choose a copywriter who, like me, makes clear that the fee includes a first draft and, should they be necessary, two complete rewrites;
- Make your brief as clear as possible, so that there can be no misunderstanding about what is wanted and what you will accept;
- Take extra time when working with a new copywriter, because the copywriter’s job is to be you – to say what you want to say in the voice, style and way that you would say it – and it can take a while for a new copywriter to “get” your voice. My contract says a first draft and up to 2 rewrites, but for new clients I’ve been known to do three or four rewrites at no extra charge, because I want to get it right and that’s more important than the fee; and
- Stand by the brief. If the copywriter sends back something that doesn’t meet what you asked for, don’t be rude about it, but ask for it to be changed.
If you’re looking for a copywriter, send this form and I’ll get back to you.