How to Manage Freelance Writers: Brutally Honest Dos & Don’ts
By Liz Murphy
I know “outsourcing” is a frowned upon concept in the marketing world.
Whenever I hear it, my initial reflex is to recoil -- like when someone says the words “moist” or “carefrontation.” (Gross.) -- But look at how we changed our tune with marketing automation.
First, it was an abomination that threatened to snuff out the very necessary human touch buyers expected from our marketing.
Now, when deployed correctly, the right marketing automation strategy, executed with tools like HubSpot, can be a total game-changer for your marketing and sales efforts.
Outsourcing is very similar in that way.
Depending on how you approach it, it can be a smart move, rather than a necessary sin you must commit, but should never speak of.
This is especially true when it comes to content creation.
Most organizations don’t have the ability to hire in-house writers to create their inbound marketing content. Or, if you do, you probably only have one copywriter on your staff.
Unfortunately, one person -- no matter how awesome they are -- is still a finite resource. Blink your eyes, and they can get tied up quickly with other projects, thus throttling your ability to scale how much content you produce at any given time.
That’s why companies (including agencies) often turn to freelance writers to provide the content creation muscle they need to get projects done.
Of course, the quality of what you get out of your freelancers -- as well as the number of headaches they do or do not cause -- will be a direct result of how well you approach those relationships.
As a content strategist, I’ve managed and collaborated with more freelancers than I can count. I’m also a freelancer myself when I’m not busy burning the midnight oil here at IMPACT.
In that time, I’ve learned -- sometimes the hard way -- what works, what doesn’t, what rookie mistakes to avoid, and what steps you need to take to effectively collaborate with freelancers.
So, that’s what I’m going to be breaking down for you today -- the dos and don’ts of managing freelance writer relationships for inbound content.
Do: Embrace the Role of Managing Editor
When I work with a freelance writer, I do so with the following understanding in mind: I am solely responsible for how good the content is, no matter who writes it -- myself or a freelance writer.
That’s why I never, ever only send a writer the topic or title for a blog post or eBook, along with well-wishes on their researching journey.
Instead, I consider myself their managing editor, because I know their output will only be as good as the level of detail I provide them, when I scope out the assignment.
For example, let’s say I want a writer to craft a barn-burning blog post on why the original Law & Order series is far superior to its successor, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
I shouldn’t have to explain why it’s better, but we’ll just pretend.
I wouldn’t contact my writer of choice and say, “Write 900 words on why Law & Order is better than Law & Order: SVU, and I need it by this Friday,” with no other direction.
At minimum, I would send them the following in addition to the topic (as should you):
- Target keyword (or keywords) for the writer to use;
- Target buyer persona, and why this topic matters to them;
- The type of article (TOFU, MOFU, BOFU);
- Links to any premium content offers we’ll be linking or leading into;
- An outline of points to cover, if any, with as much detail as possible;
- Links to resources -- internal or third-party -- they can use;
- Recordings of any subject matter expert interviews I conducted;
- If we don’t have a content style guide for a project or client, what they need to know about brand voice and tone;
- And finally, a list of anything that shouldn’t be included, such as competitor sites that shouldn’t be linked to or any explicit sales pitches.
I don’t do all this work because I don’t trust my writers. Quite the contrary.
Developing a content piece-level strategy that is in alignment with overall business objectives isn’t their wheelhouse. It’s in mine.
Instead, I would rather use their time wisely by empowering them to focus on bringing those raw materials together to create something magical.
Don’t: Shop with a MySpace Blogger Budget & Expect Chaucer
When I buy shoes from Payless, I know exactly what I’m getting -- a serviceable home for my feet that will probably fall apart at some point in the future.
However, in that moment, as I head off to a networking event I probably don’t want to attend, those little cheap ballet flats will get the job done.
For the most part, people get this concept of, “You get what you pay for.”
Unfortunately, there seems to be a blind spot in this logic when it comes to hiring freelance writers.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched other marketers and clients insist on taking a financial shortcut with content creation, and then be surprised when they receive lackluster results.
It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into the strategy development of a piece of content, or how much you serve up to the writers on a silver platter to get their work done.
If the writer doesn’t have the chops, or you’re not paying them enough to care about putting the effort in, your jaw shouldn’t hit the floor when they send back a draft that makes you think to yourself:
“Why did I even bother paying them?”
If you want quality, you have to pay for quality.
If you want to collaborate with a writer who you don’t have to teach the fundamentals of storytelling, you need to make an investment.
This is particularly true if you’re dealing with complex subject matter and/or a challenging audience.
Writing that is persuasive and compelling may appear effortless, but the talent required create that experience through words takes time to develop.
If that doesn’t convince you, here’s the business case for not being a cheapskate with content creators:
- If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Use some sense here; if a writer is promising work on par with Homer’s The Odyssey for the low, low price of $50, you’re getting bamboozled, my friend. (Maybe intentionally, but more than likely it’s because the writer isn’t as good as they think they are.) In those cases, you might as well set your money on fire.
- What you don’t pay for now, you’ll pay for later.
You know why I’ll pay a little extra for a writer I can trust? Because I know I won’t have to waste my time (which is billed at a higher rate) fixing the work they’re going to send me. Because if I spend $50 for a blog that I then need to spend an hour or more fixing, I’ve essentially spent $200+ for one blog draft.
Of course, there are always going to be writers out there who overcharge, so you should never mortgage your house for your company’s content.
All I’m saying is to be reasonable in your expectations.
Being a Scrooge can come back to haunt you in the form of crappy work or good writers who phone it in, because you haggled them in a way that shows you don’t value what they do.
Do: Know When to Send a Draft Back
There’s a big difference between me getting work back from a writer and having to take five minutes to put a little polish on it, and looking at a draft knowing a lot of work still needs to be done.
For my fellow content managers and editorial nerds, I don’t need to coach you on the fact that this is the point when you send stuff back.
But for marketers and other pros out there who may not feel comfortable pushing back on subpar work -- especially if there’s a fear they’ll ask for more money for the trouble -- I’m going to pull back the curtain on this one.
Below are the rules I follow for myself, and what I coach other marketing strategists on, when they’re faced with a piece of content they’re not sure they should tweak themselves or ship back to the writer for revisions:
"When Should I Send It Back to the Writer?"
Deciding to keep or send back content is often a judgment call that strikes a balance between not driving up costs with unnecessary revision cycles with a freelance writer and making the best use of your own time.
Take five minutes to review a first draft from a writer.
Skim, do not edit, at this phase.
Your goal is to get a feel for the piece to determine whether or not it is successful of meeting the requirements of the strategy you provided to the writer, as well as their attention to detail.
Use the following best practices as a guide:
When to Return Content to the Writer
- The writer did not follow the instructions you laid out in the assignment, and thus did not meet your expectations.
- The focus of the article is correct, but the overall quality is subpar or lacks the polish that is to our standards.
- Any edits you would consider undertaking yourself involve massive reworking or restructuring of the piece.
When You Should Edit Content Yourself
- The writer has done a good job delivering against the assignment, and the piece only requires minimal spell checks and tweaks that would take less than 10 to 15 minutes to complete.
- If applicable, your subject matter expert has provided minimal edits or comments that can easily be implemented or resolved in less than 10 to 15 minutes.
Basically, you send assignments back to the writer for more work if they did not meet the expectations you believe were clearly laid out in strategic overview of your assignment.
(And you shouldn’t agree to pay for extra work in this case, unless they can clearly demonstrate that what you’re asking for is outside the scope of what you asked them to do initially.)
There’s no magical formula I can share of number of typos or a litmus test for quality. What I can tell you is to follow your gut.
Push -- respectfully -- with your writers to get the work right, if they fall short of what they should have delivered. In fact, this may surprise you, but your writers want you to do that, especially if you’re looking to build a lasting relationship.
Using myself as an example, I challenge those I work with to rip apart my work when I first start collaborating with them. I do that because I know that first content project is also a “getting to know you” project.
I know I’m talented, but I’m also aware that I don’t know what I don’t know about someone’s preferences, likes, dislikes, how they communicate, etc.
The more you teach and guide, the more they’ll learn what you’re looking for, which translates into fewer massive revisions in future.
Just make sure that, when you ask for more, you’re specific and constructive in your feedback.
Don’t send back their work and say, “Yeah, this isn’t right. Try again,” leaving them to figure it out.
If you don’t like something, tell them why. Is it preference? Is it a detail about your industry they weren’t aware of?
If there’s a larger vision they missed the first time, give them more detail. Ask them questions, and prompt them to ask you questions, as well.
Finally, Don’t: Let the Writer Manage You
Out of anything people screw up most in working with freelance writers, this is probably the most common.
It’s also the one that will cause the most problems.
When it comes to freelance writers, you are their client. Period.
While they will come to you with their rates and their general best practices, if you don’t set clear expectations -- and have signed documentation to back it up -- don’t be blown away when you get let down.
For example, let’s say you hire a writer to do work for you.
They tell you it will take seven business days for a first draft. Totally reasonable, right? But what if on the seventh day, they say they’re running a little late, and then they don’t actually end up getting the work to you until day 10?
Maybe they have a great sob story or reason why the work was late, but how would you feel about paying full price in that scenario?
Especially if the project resulted in a superior or a client coming down on you because their failure put you on the hook for lack of delivery?
Services like Scripted can mitigate a lot of these types of issues. Using the example above, those services have account managers who will proactively reach out if something is going to be late, and they’ll discount the final price for the inconvenience.
If you’re not working with a service like that, the first thing you need to do with a writer is have them sign-off on a written agreement that covers the following:
- How will pricing be determined for work overall? (Is it a word count rate or will it be scoped out project by project?)
- How pricing will change if work is delivered late; Is it a percentage for each day or a lump sum deduction?
- What will happen in the cases where you believe the work was below the quality it should have been?
- What will be the service level agreement (SLA) for response time for both parties?
- What will be the SLA for when writers can expect your approvals or revisions?
- How and when should they invoice you?
- When can they expect those invoices to be paid?
- What protections will the writers have in cases of nonpayment?
- Under what circumstances will either party have the right to terminate work on a particular assignment or overall?
It doesn’t have to be a big formal contract.
I don’t care if you talk about it in a conversation and then send it as a follow-up email in writing, or if you simply lay all that out in an email and have them reply with “I agree.”
Hashing these kinds of details out may seem like overkill -- or a great way to start a relationship off on the wrong foot -- but it protects you and your writers in the long run with very clear expectations about how the relationship will work.
As an added bonus, having this kind of conversation before you get down to work can suss out writers you don’t want on your payroll.
Here’s why: I don’t know of any freelance writer who’s worth their price tag who would have a problem with discussing any of those questions in detail. In fact, it puts them at ease, because it makes it clear you know how to manage this type of outsourced collaboration.
So, if someone bristles at money talk or being held accountable, that should be a big red flag to take your content work elsewhere.
You Don’t Get to Outsource Responsibility
Content creation on the whole is kind of like a ball of Christmas lights -- as I’ve written about before, most people don’t want to deal with it.
It’s part of the reason why there’s such a market for freelance content nerds to create inbound content for businesses. But just because you pay someone to do that kind of heavy-lifting for you doesn’t mean you’re absolved of responsibility, in terms of quality.
So, if you ignore everything else I’ve written, please let this one thought stick in your brain:
Even when you outsource the writing of your content, you’ll still need to work to make it great. If you’re not willing to do that, it won’t be the writer’s fault that you feel like you’re wasting your money.
Wondering where to begin?