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