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Working with Writers

Author: John K. Mackenzie
Date:   09-12-02

Getting good writing, from good writers, takes more than just paying the bill. If you employ freelance writers here are 23 tips on getting the most for your money. These suggestions have been developed by The Writers' Roundtable in NYC; a group of self-employed corporate communication writers who meet monthly at the Writers Guild of America.

Despite a few flagrant examples of outrageous self-interest, the following ideas and observations are derived from field-tested, client combat situations. There's nothing hypothetical about any of them.

That's not to say this article covers everything, or applies to all projects equally. But it outlines some basics that many freelance writers wish their clients knew more about; before, during, and after the job.

Before Writing Starts

Do some homework. Think about what you hope to accomplish. Jot down key words and phrases that reflect your needs. Sketch out some goals and objectives. Define your target audience. Obvious? Maybe. But not done as often as you think (sure, your writer can do it for you, or with you; but it means things will take longer and cost more).

Confirm capability in advance. Don't use on-the-job time to validate your writer's credentials. Check references and read samples before work starts.

Don't automatically exclude writers without experience in your particular business. Sure, there are times when subject expertise is essential. But there are also times when lack of familiarity may facilitate just what you need -- a fresh approach.

Don't start too soon. Self-employed writers are often called in too late. But the flip side, a premature start, can be just as bad. Too much air between first meeting and first draft dulls the edge and usually costs more in the long run.

Be sure the writer understands what you're about. Not many of us like to begin a client relationship by saying (in effect) "I don't know much about you, your company, or your products." Freelance writing fees are seldom fat enough to support up-front, unpaid research. So, start things off with a general overview.

Get a reference package ready. Give your writer relevant background info at the first meeting: annual report, product sheets, newsletters, scripts, brochures, videos, whatever. This cuts down the learning curve and speeds completion.

Create a contact resource list. Business communication projects often involve a variety of people and departments. Let your writer know where he or she can get information. This improves accuracy and reduces calls to you.

Get an up-front understanding on the basics. Talk over writing fees, delivery dates, and payment schedules before work starts. Maybe on the phone. You can't always do this, but when you can, it's a good idea. You don't want to go through a 90-minute input session, only to learn that your writer wants more than you care to pay.

Clarify payment procedures. Most writers will bill you the first 30 to 40 percent of their fees as soon as they start. This down payment varies in size, but is an accepted industry procedure; as is a second bill upon completion of the first draft and a final bill on conclusion of the assignment.

Explain your preferred invoice format, i.e. wording, P.O. number, job reference, mail drop, etc. First-time invoices are often returned or delayed because information is missing or incorrectly formatted.

Be candid about problems. Don't gloss over tough situations as "challenging opportunities for change" and then get upset if your writer fails to address them properly. If you've got difficulties, then you've got details. Give your writer the background he or she needs to help you come up with suggestions and solutions.

Avoid generalities. Telling a writer your field force video must be "bright, positive, exciting and motivational!" is a start. But don't stop there. Explain why you feel extended doses of radiant rhetoric are appropriate. Details may reveal alternate approaches.

Get a letter of agreement. This recaps basics about the budget, project specifics, and delivery dates you've worked out with your writer. Unfamiliar ground is often covered during early input meetings. If your idea of what's expected differs from the writer's, find it out before the first draft!

Ask for (and approve) a concept treatment. This can substantially reduce misunderstandings and rewrite time.

While Writing Is Underway

Try not to overdo meetings. Beyond ability, self-employed writers have only one thing to sell: Time. That half-hour meeting in your office may be only 30-minutes for you, but (with travel) it may cost the writer four or five hours that could be spent on your job. And seeking refuge in, "What the hell, I'm paying the bill!" is substituting truth for consequences. Use phone and fax when you can. The time you save may be your own.

Take it easy with script distribution. When you show someone else a draft of anything you energize an instrument obsessed by a sacred mission: "There must be changes I can make!"

Don't rush into having it your way. Precision in policy and products is one thing. But style and staging are something else. There's often a big difference between how something reads during a conference room review, and how it will play during a video or sales meeting. Flexing your veto muscle too frequently only discourages ideas designed to make you look good.

Watch out for extensive, last minute revisions! Most writers expect to provide two (sometimes three) drafts and a final polish. But, when requirements go much beyond that, it can mean something's gone wrong early in the game!

Writers sometimes sell themselves into assignments that aren't compatible with their ability or experience. But problems don't surface until you're well into the job.

Clients sometimes neglect to tell writers about pending events that will distort original specs, e.g. new V.I.P. joining the company; downsizing is imminent; hostile takeover on the horizon; changes in marketing strategy being considered, etc.

Initial orientation, research and planning has missed the mark. It may be no-one's fault. It may be everyone's fault. Energetic finger pointing often follows and the real cause may never be known.

After Writing Is Finished

Keep post-project "secretarial" work within reason. MS Word and friends, along with corporate cutbacks, have given the freelance writer a new role: surrogate secretary. "Can you take the paragraph on the bottom of page 17 and move it to the top of page 11? Then fax us another draft and FedEx a new floppy?".

Okay, writers want to keep their clients happy (or, at least keep them) and post-project changes go with the territory. But this sort of thing can get out of hand, and out-of-pocket, as few writers charge anything for these services.

Dealing With Dilemmas

When we get to Heaven we'll have client/writer relationships that never go sour. Until then, problems will come up that don't always get solved during project preparation. Here are some of the more common:

You don't like the writing. But deadlines required its use and now you don't feel like paying the balance of the writer's bill. The answer to this depends on how clearly you made your concerns known as work progressed.

If your writer understood your concerns, and had time to make changes but didn't, the writer should eat the balance. On the other hand, if you never said anything until the job was over you can't really blame the writer. This can be (and often is) a tough call as no two people interpret "concern understanding" the same way.

Your writer wants more money. As a general rule, clients downplay project complexity; often inadvertently. And even the most experienced writers can't always anticipate the unknown when they agree to a fee. If requirements are clearly exceeding specs covered in your agreement letter, additional bucks may be justified. Most of the time this can be settled amicably with some honest discussion.

The project was canceled after it started. And now the writer is asking for a "kill" fee. If cancellation compensation wasn't in your agreement, or was never even discussed, then it's a matter of ethics and negotiation. Your writer may have turned down work to keep time open for yours. As a general rule, between 35 to 50 percent of the unpaid balance is fair; depending on how much remains to be paid.

You plan to use the writer's work for purposes other than those originally specified. That product profile, video script is going into an interactive CD-ROM for distribution to new customers. And the writer is asking for additional compensation! But you thought you already owned the script! Well, maybe.

You do own the script as it was used for the product profile. But, unless a work-made-for-hire agreement was signed when the job started, there's a good chance the writer still owns the copyright and controls residual uses of the material.

In the past, neither clients or writers have paid much attention to this. But now, with content repurposing for CDs, DVDs, and the Internet, companies and writers are taking another look at this whole area - as well they should!

Copyright 2002 John K. Mackenzie. All rights reserved. See more about John K. Mackenzie at http://www.thewritingworks.com.