What to Look for in Freelance Writers

Nov 15, 2011


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Whether you are an experienced digital publishing machine or a novice brand looking for the benefits of content marketing, you most likely need the help of freelance writers to help tell your story. You may find that you need help developing ongoing content - or that you need additional content producers to keep up with the velocity.

How do you go about finding good external content contributors (sometimes called stringers)? Should you look for a good writer and teach them your business? Or should you hire someone who knows your industry and teach them to write? Here are a few tips to consider:

Expertise is helpful - but not a deal killer. Given the choice between a good writer with a personality that closely matches your organization (but short on industry expertise), and an industry veteran that knows how to write but with whom you can't stand to be in the same room with - go with the personality. Chemistry and personality are things that are entirely hard to change; research is a skill that can be taught - passion isn't. If you and your freelance content producer don't have good chemistry together, the relationship will go nowhere fast. And while it might be a strategic advantage to bring in an industry "rock star" to get your content some attention (and there are great reasons to do this occasionally) - unless there's a great personality fit, be very careful that you don't wrap your story into theirs and get lost in the middle.

Hire right - copywriters, journalists, technical writers, oh my! Because you've spent so much time on your strategy and your process, you should be very aware of what kind of writer you're looking for. Understand that copywriters work very differently and have very different sensibilities than do journalists. If you're looking for someone to write blog posts for you, a copywriter is probably not your best bet. On the other hand, if you're looking for someone to beef up your persuasive call to action for all the great white papers you're putting together, then a great copywriter may be exactly what you need.

Develop the right business relationship. Understand what the elements of your business relationship will be and make them clear. For example, will it be one content item per week - and your writer will be paid a monthly fee? If so, how will you handle months that have 4 1/2 weeks? Will there be an extra post that week? Spell out the invoicing and payment terms. Given the size of your organization, you'll either need to make clear the invoicing and payment terms - or understand what the writer needs.

Also be clear on expectations. At this point, you should know your velocity and how long and how detailed the content needs to be. There should be no surprises like blog posts suddenly becoming 300 words, when they're supposed to be 500...or content themes going wildly off topic. Here are some of the things you'll need to communicate to your freelancer:

  • What content they'll be producing and where it falls on the editorial calendar (be very specific when drafts are due)
  • The goals for their specific contributions (especially if it's a custom branded piece versus a piece for your publication)
  • What expertise, or other third-party information they'll need access to (will they be interviewing internal people, bringing in external information, or reworking your existing material?)
  • Your budget (per piece, hourly, retainer or barter)
  • The number of revisions for each piece.

Over the past 12-18 months, we've also seen new models of performance take shape in the digital content world.  Many publishers are adopting the pay for performance model, where a smaller base fee is paid for the raw content, but the writer is paid a bonus for content performance (based on both sharing metrics and search engine placement). New tools like Skyword and Dlvr.it now make this possible. Writers, who in the past were not open to this, are now very aware of this type of model and are more open to it than ever before...but setting clear expectations is a critical first step.

With the amount of writer supply in the workforce, there is no need to start a long-term relationship at first.  Test out a few stories and see how they work.  Is the writing style to your expectations? Do they deliver on time? Are they actively sharing the content via their own social network (this is very important)?

Once they meet your expectations in these areas, then set out on a long-term deal. I've seen too many publishers get their "rock star" freelancers, only to kill the deal a few months later with neither party happy.  Test it out first so you don't waste your time.


Joe Pulizzi's new book, Managing Content Marketing: The Real-World Guide to Creating Passionate Subscribers, is now available. Joe is founder of the Content Marketing Institute, which includes Chief Content Officer magazine and Content Marketing World, the largest content marketing event in the world, held September 4-6, 2012.  Joe can be reached @juntajoe on Twitter.


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