Google my Busy-ness

Regular blogging is, we are told, essential for gaining and maintaining search ranking. Not only are we providing more content to help the search engines to find us; we are also showing we’re still a going concern, and talking about our work and our industries.

But what happens when we’re just too busy to maintain a blog? It’s something that never really occurred to me when I was re-starting my freelance career after a spell in employment. I did have time on my hands to think up blog ideas, research them, write and edit them, add images and submit to my Google my Business page.

Then I got super-busy.

Now, being busy is obviously a good thing. It shows something’s working, I’m being discovered in my niche and there’s a trickle of returning clients and new openings keeping things ticking over. But there’s a nagging doubt at the back of the mind: how can I blog when I’m too busy to blog?

Evolution of foxes and rabbits
Foxes and Rabbits (Psion, 1982)

As a self-sustaining online business, that’s like a shop being too busy to hire staff. As soon as one leaves, you’re short-handed, your customers get fed up of long queues and start going to other shops, and it’s the beginning of the end.

Foxes and rabbits

What we have is a system not unlike the “foxes and rabbits” scenario. The more rabbits there are, the more food there is for foxes. So the fox population goes up, which leads to a natural cull of rabbits. But that leaves hungry (read: dead) foxes, which lets the rabbit population start to grow again, and the cycle continues.

It’s Monday morning and for the first time in about three months, I haven’t got a job to do. As someone brought up during the mass foxes and rabbits hysteria of the 1980s, this is troubling. But on the plus side, I’ve got time to write a blog post.

Why it’s a problem for writers

Anyone who wants to maintain a Google profile knows they’ve got to blog. Luckily for most businesses, they can either source internal talent to write them, or outsource the task to freelancers, which I’m very glad about. After all, if you’re making lots of money, you can spend some of it to earn even more.

But when you’re a writer, your blog is also a kind of showcase, a portfolio. It would be very weird for me to start hiring writers to blog about writing, wouldn’t it?

… But luckily, you’re not a writer

The good thing for you is that you’re (probably) not a writer. If you are a writer, I can’t believe you’re reading this when you should be blogging.

But by wisely not being a writer, that means you’re in a position to hire one to build and maintain a professional quality blog with no loss of face.

And now, whenever you see I’ve written a blog, know that there just aren’t enough rabbits to eat, so please don’t make me overturn your bins. Get in touch.

Harry Potter in 500 words: the importance of including research time

Work takes time. Don't just look at the end product.

I’ll never forget the day a client asked me how long it would take to write 500 words of copy. I said it depends on the subject, but generally speaking, we’re talking somewhere in the range of 1 to 3 hours.

“Cool,” they replied. “I want you to summarise the Harry Potter books in 500 words. Three hours sounds about right.”

“Ah,” I replied. “I’ve never read any Harry Potter books.”

“Well, just skim through them and get me a 500-word summary by tomorrow. Otherwise we’ll drop you and find someone who can. Cheerio.”

The truth in fiction

Of course, none of that happened. But the inner truth is sound – the end product of a copywriting job is just the visible part of a much greater task. You can see instantly that reading the seven Harry Potter books’ 4,000 pages would be part of the job, not just the 500-word bit. Some companies get it; others don’t. But unless the time required to fully research a topic is granted in terms of deadline and fee, the end product won’t be very good.

There’s typically a learning curve with new clients. As I get to understand the company’s products, services, clients, tone of voice, goals and industry vocabulary, individual jobs start to take less time. But at the start of a relationship, when I know less than nothing about their business, I’m going to need more time to familiarise myself.

Legitimate concerns

So why not start off charging an amount that will be typical of later work? Why should the client pay for me to learn about its industry? Can’t I then use that knowledge to benefit their rivals if they hire me?

Those are all legitimate points, but unfortunately freelancers can’t take that chance. It’s not unknown for freelancers to have new prospects promising endless work that never materialises. If they’ve given a greatly reduced estimate on the basis of ongoing work, they’ll probably have put in many hours for very little pay.

Having a copywriter who knows all about the business and the industry is surely a good thing for any company. So realistically, it’s an expense that pays for itself over time (compared to constantly getting new copywriters in).

As for knowledge benefiting direct rivals, I’ve personally turned work down because it would mean working for two competing businesses, as I considered it ethically suspect. I’m sure most copywriters would feel the same way. And most clients wouldn’t be happy with private information potentially being useful to rivals, no matter how strong the NDA.

Relationships matter

All of the above emphasises the benefit of forming lasting relationships with your suppliers. They might occasionally make mistakes or produce work that the client isn’t enthused by, but that foundation has genuine value. Nurture it and reward it, and the collaboration will blossom.

Immersion

Immersion is the process of gaining an understanding of a new client. You’re immersing yourself in their business, letting it percolate through. You’re learning about products and services, USPs, picking up buzzwords, discovering news sources, getting to know the personnel. If the client intends to retain the services of a copywriter, or anyone in the marketing or PR industry, it pays to hire them for a few hours or days for immersion at the start of the relationship.

Think of immersion as a sort of boilerplate briefing, which applies to every future job, and you’ll see the benefits. Some of my clients and I have relationships measured in decades, and we’ve reached the stage where briefing individual jobs takes five minutes. Obviously if it’s a one-off job, it just needs to be briefed well, but that’s for a different blog post.

Specialist copywriters

Look around copywriters’ websites and you’ll often see writers who have specialisms. It could be fashion, engineering, travel, science, art, kids – anything that’s improved by learning and experience. Choosing a specialist copywriter is a good way of speeding up the immersion process. Ideally, the “being able to write” and “knowing your industry” boxes will come pre-ticked, so you can concentrate on your business’s USPs, voice, audience and personality. But don’t take expertise in your industry alone as justification for throwing them in at the deep end.

Ultimately, looking at their work and seeing how well they communicate your offering will end up being beneficial in the long term. If you’re selling a product to the public, there’s often a case for hiring someone without skin in the game, as they might be able to understand the public’s ignorance of the subject better than an expert would. It might not work so well with B2B, but as with any marketing operation, analyse their output and RoI to see how effective they are.

In short, using specialist copywriters is a very good idea, as long as they are competent and not complacent, and understand the audience. But some general copywriters will do a fantastic job too.

Success appreciates time

Work takes time. Don't just look at the end product.

Whether you’re building a relationship with a copywriter or hiring them for a one-off job, giving them enough time to do the job is a sound investment.

Tempting though it may be, don’t think of the size of the final product, think of the value of it. Don’t look at 500 words of copy and think “This took a day to write? I could knock this out in five minutes.”

A writer who has been given the time to get under your company’s skin and also understand its audience will produce harder-working copy. And if they’ve had a few days to leave the work alone and come back to it afresh, you’ll also see better copy. They’re probably already busy. Don’t make them rush more.

Don’t forget also that writers and designers will probably produce a few drafts before they send you their preferred one. It’s all part of the process of improvement, and it all takes time.

No matter how small the final product, give them time, pay for it, and everyone benefits.


Image: Yifan Liu

When does proofreading become copy editing, and editing copywriting?

All proofreaders have been asked to perform a quick proof, only to realise the job is more than correcting apostrophes. And all editors will have edited a job so much that a re-write would have been better. I’ve already covered the differences between proofreading and copy editing, but what happens in those grey areas?

When proofreading is actually copy editing

We established in the linked article that proofreading and copy editing are similar but different.

  1. Proofreading is quality assurance, whether that’s with reference to a style sheet or to a general sense of “rightness”.
  2. Copy editing allows for more flexibility, interpretation and re-drafting, while keeping the essence of the work intact.
  3. There’s a bit of editing in proofreading; and there’s a lot of proofreading in editing.
  4. Proofreading should be one of the last jobs before publishing; editing should be one of the first.

Difference number 3 is pertinent here. When you’re proofreading, you might find yourself doing a bit of editing. That is, you might see something that would look better written another way and change it (or query it). If the owner of the work says that’s OK, everyone’s happy. But if this happens more than once a paragraph, you could be getting close to copy editing territory.

If you’re finding yourself changing every sentence – not just correcting, but changing – then you are definitely doing the work of a copy editor. There are some proofreaders who will happily make sure all the full stops and possessive plurals are correct and be relaxed about the fact that the copy is not very readable. By the letter of the job description, nobody can complain. But if you’re one of those who simply can’t let confusing, inefficient copy get the green light, you should be prepared to upgrade your service.

When editing is actually copywriting

The difference between writing and editing is much starker. Copywriting takes ideas and concepts and makes fresh copy out of them. Editing might involve re-writing and re-ordering, but the ideas and concepts should already be formed into a logical story.

But what happens if you are given a job to copy edit, and after the first few paragraphs you realise it’s not really making sense, no matter how much you re-work it? That’s when it might be best tackled by a copywriter.

All might not be lost with the original work. It is no doubt the fruit of much knowledge, understanding and research, and will be an important resource for the re-write. But if it’s difficult to follow for its intended readers, no amount of swapping sentences around will help – it’s a copywriting job.

Why it matters

The main reason it matters is down to time. Copywriting 1,000 words might take 3 hours (or a week – it depends on the subject). Copy editing the first draft might take an hour, possibly two, depending on how much it needs changing. But to proofread 1,000 words should take no more than 20 minutes.

Time and money

Time taken has cost implications, in two ways.

First, whatever you’re charging per hour, if the job takes longer than you expected when you first accepted it, you’re either going to have to raise your fee or leave yourself out of pocket. Of course, some clients are happy to pay more if you take longer than quoted; but others aren’t.

Second, the rates for copywriting, editing and proofreading are all different. Copywriters tend to charge roughly twice the rate of a copywriter per hour, whereas proofreaders charge about 70–80% of the rate of a copy editor. If the client is only paying for proofing when you’re actually editing, you could (and should) be earning more.

It’s unlikely (in my experience at least) that the client is trying to rip you off. It’s more likely that they either don’t know the differences between the roles (and why should they?), or they don’t recognise how “bad” the work is from an outsider’s perspective.

Skills required

Above all, proofreading, copy editing and copywriting are all very different jobs. Just because someone is an accomplished proofreader with an eye for errors doesn’t mean they’d be good at editing. And someone who can re-jig a few sentence might not be good at research and structuring a story. It can be like a defender replacing an injured goalkeeper – they do similar jobs on the pitch, but something ain’t quite right.

It’s the same in-house

If this is all written from a freelancer’s perspective, that’s because it’s where I’m coming from right now. But even when you’re working in-house or at an agency, it’s just as important to know how long work will take and what skills are being used. Somebody is being billed for it, and your estimate will determine whether that’s your employer or their client.

Avoiding misunderstandings

The best way to avoid any conflicts is to skim over every job before you accept it and quote for it. Read a few random paragraphs and you’ll quickly get a feel for the quality of copy on offer. With the size of the job in mind and this instinct for how much work it needs, you should be able to come up with a quote you can stick with.

Whether or not you charge more per hour for the various services, an accurate quote will keep your client happy and ensure you’re paid for the time you put in.


Image: Amir-abbas Abdolali

Back to Freelancing

As far as I was concerned, I was a freelancer. Sure, I’d had 9-to-5s before, mainly in darkrooms. But when the traditional photographic industry started to get some outside pressure in 1998, I turned to my love of reading to become a freelance proofreader. I built a website straight away, and fortunately managed to collect a small number of clients who kept me busy. Within a year or two I was copy editing and writing.

And that was that until 2013 – fifteen years’ worth of making contacts, winning, retaining and losing clients, and writing millions of words of copy. One day I would be working from home; the next I’d be in a briefing in Manchester; then I’d be travelling to London or Edinburgh to be briefed; and overlapping the small jobs, I’d usually have a big project on the go, a big edit or a ghostwriting project. It was definitely who I was.

An opening from a marketing agency

But in 2013, one of my clients, a digital marketing and development agency, tweeted that they were looking for a full-time writer. After cursing them under my breath for their sheer CHEEK, I applied, was interviewed next day and within two weeks I was there full time.

Self-doubt did afflict me before I started. Would I be able to cope with the daily commute? The regular hours? Talking to other humans? And being a relatively new father, I was sure I was going to miss nipping off to Dunham Massey to feed the ducks. Sometimes I’d even take our child. And yes, impostor syndrome, and the accompanying fear of being found out, were there too. But I have to say, I took it in my stride. I worked on a few award-winning campaigns, made some good friends and learnt a lot about digital marketing and SEO. And I got to experience freelance life from the other side of the fence when I had to hire the feckless wastrels for projects we were working on. That was a useful experience.

Freelancing beckons

But in April 2018, it all had to end. Things had changed both in the company and in the industry, and we amicably parted ways.

Over the five years, I had never fully given up freelancing. I still had a few clients that sent me work, and my website remained live and would occasionally spawn a new one-off job. But obviously it was limited. I was ready to throw myself fully into it again. I ditched my old domain, gpuss.co.uk (don’t ask) and relaunched under my own name, with this domain. What happened in the following year I’ll be writing in another post, but things came to a sudden halt and I had to face a new challenge. But for now, I’m back. And ready to write.