The Hidden Costs of Hiring a Content Writer
September 28, 2019 | by Timothy Wier
Imagine: someone has approached you to help create a business plan for their startup idea. Since that’s something you’re familiar with and it’s a chance to make some money on the side, you decide it’s worth it to grab coffee and talk it over.
So you sit down over coffee and ask the million-dollar question: “What kind of business are you thinking about starting?”
They reply, “I’m not exactly sure.”
Naturally, you look askance. You try to clarify: “Okay, do you have a vague idea of what you want to do?”
“Yeah,” they reply. “I want some kind of a service business. Probably themed around cats.”
Never mind that you’re a dog person, at least you’ve gotten somewhere with them. So you ask: “What kind of services do you want to offer?”
You notice that they’re starting to get frustrated with you, and their replies are getting more curt: “I don’t know. Maybe something food-related. Or a cat shelter.”
Wow, you probably think to yourself, they really have no idea what they’re talking about. But you’re already here, and your coffee just arrived at the table, so you decide to keep going.
“Can you tell me what kinds of skill sets you have?” you ask.
“Lots of them,” they respond. “I’m good with people, I like to help people out, I really cats.”
Okay, so nothing directly monetizable. And you notice that this person is really getting frustrated. Like really frustrated. So you try and ease the conversation: “What kinds of jobs have you held in the past?”
And that’s when the person literally and figuratively throws their hands in the air. “Look, I don’t think you need to ask so many questions. Can you help me put together a business plan or not?”
At this point, both of you are frustrated. This person just doesn’t seem to get it. So you take a deep breath and calmly explain: “It’s not that simple. I first need to understand what products or services you’re going to offer. Then I need to do some market research to see what the competitive landscape looks like. Then there’s the financial analysis to determine whether the idea is even viable, then there’s–”
And they stop you right there: “No no no, we don’t need to do all that. This shouldn’t take more than an hour to put together. Just sit down and write me a business plan.”
You reply, “It’s actually more complicated than that–”
“If you won’t do it for me, I’ll just go to one of those contracting sites and get someone to do it cheaply.”
You get up from the table, take another sip of coffee, and say:
“Good luck with that.”
Obviously, that’s an over-the-top and ridiculous story. But I wrote it that way to make a point. You wouldn’t throw together a business plan without doing the right amount of research. So what makes you think your writer is going to do the same when creating content?
I get why you want to hire someone as inexpensively as you can. With limited funding in the early rounds and pressure to generate a return on investment as quickly as possible, startups often look for the least expensive ways to get their businesses off the ground. Cheap contractors and copymills can be alluring.
But hiring a content writer, either an individual or through a content agency, still holds to the conventional wisdom of “you get what you pay for.” Think about it. You aren’t just bringing on someone who can put words on a page. You’re bringing in someone who can create information that your audience will find interesting and demonstrate that you’re a reliable and trustworthy resource.
This requires a quality of writing that you don’t get by paying four-cents-per-word.
There are a number of hidden costs that are involved in content writing that go beyond the labor of putting words on a page. This article lays them out so you know exactly what you’re paying for when you’re hiring a content writer.
1. Creating a content plan
When you’re hiring a content writer, you’re hiring someone who can create substantive, helpful content for your audience. This isn’t something they can just throw together. They need to have a plan for how to identify the right topics and comment on them helpfully and substantively.
Even if you aren’t hiring them to build a full-on content strategy, they will still need to put together a plan for how frequently to publish, how the content will get you closer to your business goals and, ultimately, what they expect the ROI to be.
Plus, as the person hiring the writer, you’ll want to understand what they’re working on and prioritizing so you can direct and guide them. A content plan can help establish expectations on both sides.
Here are some of the things your writer will want to know:
- The subjects in which your business wants to establish itself as an expert
- The topics your audience wants to hear about
- The types of things your competitors are discussing and commenting on
The amount of time your writer invests in this process depends. But regardless of how long it takes, it’s a vital part of the process.
2. Interviewing subject matter experts
Often when businesses are hiring a content writer, they expect them to go “do some research” and come back with a well-thought out, industry-smashing piece that will change the perception of your brand overnight.
There are a couple reasons why this just won’t work:
- Your writer won’t create anything original this way; they’ll just be regurgitating what’s already out in the market.
- Your writer will likely draw their research from competitors, which means your competitors are defining the terms of the argument. Your business will merely be reacting to what everyone else is saying.
Your content writer is likely not going to be an expert in your industry. That’s not a bad thing. You want your content writer to be an expert in, well, writing.
So how does the writer figure out what to talk about? A good writer will start by interviewing the subject matter experts in your company. During the interview, they can ask questions about the topic, how they think it should be approached, and even gather some personal stories to add an authentic touch to the piece.
Your subject matter experts could be your sales team who talks to customers on a regular basis; your product team who’s intimately familiar with product use cases; or your founders and leadership, who’s unique vision of the market is the whole reason your company exists in the first place.
This way, you’re letting your company define the terms of the argument, as well as provide unique insights that no one else is talking about.
3. Researching the topic
Once you’ve given your writer an idea of what to talk about and how they should approach it, then they should go and research the topic.
There are a number of reasons why it’s more helpful for them to research after the interview phase rather than before:
- Validate what your subject matter experts said in the interview
- See what industry experts are saying, not to establish the terms of the argument, but to show that you’re part of the conversation
- Cite experts that support your approach to and opinions on the topic
- Respond to experts that oppose your approach to and opinions on the topic
- Understand how competitors are approaching the topic so they can highlight your competitive advantages–whether overtly or subtly–in the piece
A good content writer will understand how to use not only search engines but also social media to listen to conversations among your customers, competitors, and other thought leaders in the industry.
They can search those #hashtags that are relevant to your business and listen to what the common wisdom is, and what people are finding lacking in current conversations.
The research should provide your writer enough context to address the topics well, provide a unique spin on them, and show that your business is actively engaged in the conversation at large.
4. Outlining & structure
Once your writer has interviewed your subject matter experts and compiled external research, then it’s time to organize all that information in a way that makes logical sense.
Not only that, but they have to present it in a way that’s engaging and tells a powerful story, one that will captivate your audience.
Structure is crucial to a good piece of content. Without it, the reader will be confused and likely stop reading before they gather all the information there. To make sure that the structure is sound before they begin writing, your content writer will put together a detailed outline.
In the outlining stage, your writer will get a handle on what your main points are, and then organize all the information around those points. They’ll cut out information that doesn’t support those points. They’ll add in information where it’s missing. And as the outline takes shape, the overall flow of the article will become clear.
The outlining phase may seem extraneous, but trust me when I say that it’s easier to make substantive changes to an outline than a fully written piece of content.
By making sure the structure is sound in advance, your content writer will save both themselves and you plenty of time in the long run.
5. Writing copy
So now we’re on step five of the content writer’s process, and we’re just now talking about putting pen to paper and generating the written content itself.
That’s because writing the content is the tip of the iceberg. When you’re paying for a content writer, you’re paying not just for the labor of writing, but all the preparatory work that goes into it, plus all the editing that comes after it. It’s a lot.
But that’s why you’re paying a creative professional to do it. Just about anyone can put words on a page. The real skill comes when someone can intentionally put those words on a page in a way that answers a question, makes a compelling argument, or tells a story.
When you hire a writer, you’re hiring someone who has the skill set to go through all these steps quickly, efficiently, and effectively–and at scale.
They live and breathe this stuff, this is where they shine.
The better the preparation, the better the copy.That’s because generating copy isn’t just about putting sentences and paragraphs together, or good grammar and punctuation, although that’s definitely important.
But the quality comes when you write in a way that’s clear, authoritative, and consistent with your brand voice in a way that resonates with your audience.
This will vary from business to business. You may prefer a more informal writing style, but there’s the risk that people won’t take you seriously. You may want to write more formally, but then you’ll come across as pretentious. Most good writing lies somewhere in the middle. A skilled content writer will be able to find the right balance.
Your content writer will also consider the channel. If they’re writing a blog post, it’ll be different than a long-form pillar page or eBook. A video script will read differently than a podcast script, or a social media post.
A skilled content writer will be able to write for the channel, creating content that’s customized to the specific experience of the user on that channel.
Once your writer has drafted the actual copy, the real work begins. It’s time to edit and re-edit and re-edit the copy until you have a piece of content that’s ready to go out into the world.
Just like copywriting isn’t just about grammar and punctuation, neither is editing. This is where you take a critical look at what you’ve written and figure out “does this make sense?” or “how could we say this better?”
Sometimes, your writer realizes that a particular example or story doesn’t leap off the page, so you have to cut it. Or there’s a better way to word a particular sentence so the main point gets across better. Or they think a customer won’t understand something so your writer has to realign it to make sense to them.
Generally, there are five types of editing a writer will do before publishing a piece of content:
- The Consistency & Accuracy Edit. Before anything else, the content has to make sense. So the first stage of editing is making sure it makes sense internally (consistency) and externally (accuracy) by checking arguments and fact claims.
- The Customer Perspective Edit. The article may make sense objectively, but if it doesn’t make sense to a customer, then it’s not going to have the impact you want. That’s why your writer should read from the perspective of the customer, anticipate where they’re going to raise an eyebrow and, if necessary, make changes to it’s clearer to them.
- The SEO Edit. Anything you post on your website needs to be optimized for search engines. Part of this is making sure you focus on a single topic and link back to your pillar page. But there are technical edits your writer needs to make to ensure search engines pick it up and recognize it as an authoritative piece on the topic.
- The Grammar & Punctuation Edit. Only after you have an edited piece of content can you do a grammar and punctuation edit. This is where attention to detail is critical; I usually find reading the piece aloud to be especially helpful at this point.
- The “Vomit” Edit. I recommend one final edit that I call the “vomit” edit. This is the edit that happens when the mere thought of looking at the piece makes you want to vomit, hence the name. If you aren’t a creative, you probably don’t understand that impulse. So suffice it to say that it’s the final edit to make sure everything is pristine before you move to the next stage.
Once your writer has completed these five stages in the editing process, they’ll present something to you that you can review and determine whether or not it’s ready for publication.
7. Incorporating your feedback
At this point, your writer is ready to send the piece to you for feedback. It’s critical that this happens after the final round of edits is complete so that you’re reviewing a finished piece of work. That way, you have to actually take the time to provide substantive critiques, not “this word is misspelled.”
It’s during the feedback phase where the dollars start to add up. Your writer may include one or two rounds of edits included in their fee, but anything that’s not included, you have to pay for. So be efficient in how you provide feedback.
Bring everyone on your team who has an interest in the piece together and collect feedback from them. Then compile it, and send it back to the writer as one package, rather than copying the writer on a “reply all” thread that has no definitive end.
A note when it comes to feedback, and this is something that every creative person understands and we wish that executives and marketers would understand as well:
The thing you create is never going to be as good as the thing that existed in your head.
This has nothing to do with the skill of the writer or the clarity with which you communicate your expectations. It’s going to look differently than you expect. Rather than let that fuel disappointment, accept the thing that was created and use it as what it is: a tool to generate excitement, engagement, and interest from your audience.
When you give feedback to your writer:
- Stay professional, and never attack their skill or work ethic when you’re disappointed in something they created. Instead, offer substantive feedback that opens the door to a solution. If you do that, it’s very likely your writer will know exactly what’s needed to fix it.
- Understand the value of their labor, and that the more you ask them to change, the more they’re going to charge you for it. Be discriminating in what “needs” to be changed, versus what you “want” or “that would be nice.”
- Never let perfect become the enemy of good. The ultimate metric of quality is your audience’s response. That’s it. If you have something that will generate a positive response among your audience members and brings in business for you, that’s when you know you’ve created something of value.
The more focused and efficient you are in giving feedback, the less you’ll have to pay your content writer.
8. Repurposing content for other channels
Okay, this last point is a little self-serving, because at FEARLESS we don’t charge for content repurposing: it’s included in the normal charge for our services. So when you do business with us, that’s yet another thing you’re paying for.
But whether it’s included or not, repurposing content is an important tool that content writers have to give you, the executive or marketer, the most bang for your buck.
There are three methods for repurposing content:
- Smashing a long-form piece into smaller pieces of content, like taking a blog post and turning it into a series of social media posts.
- Crashing shorter pieces together to form a long-form article, like turning a blog series into an eBook.
- Changing channels so you can take a blog post and turn into a video or podcast, or taking a podcast transcript and turning into a piece of written content.
Hopefully, this article has given you an idea of what you’re paying for when you’re hiring a content writer. It’s not just someone to put words on a page: it’s a creative expert who can take your expertise and understanding of your customers and turn it into something valuable and effective for your brand.
Are you considering hiring a content writer? That’s where FEARLESS can help. Take a look at our product offerings and see if one of them provides what you need for your business.