Before You Hire a Writer

by Tiffani Jones Brown

Matt and I are lucky, because every time one of us runs into an obstacle with our business, the other gets to learn about it. One obstacle we’ve come across lately is people who come to me for web writing or copywriting, but who really need strategy, IA, and design help.

Strange gripe, considering that most the time we run into the opposite problem—people who think a good design can solve all their business problems, even though there’s no content (or content strategy) to support it.

Fortunately, investing in solid, web-optimized writing can do a lot for your website: it can make it easier to navigate, more appealing, increase your readership, and help your audience connect with your message. But just like design, IA, or content strategy in isolation, good writing is not a magic tool for generating sales or refining your brand.

When it comes to the web, cohesion between your business strategy, writing, IA, design, and functionality are required to tell the perfect story. That said, it’s still very important that your site be professionally written. If you’re in the market for a writer, here are a few things to think about:

Before You Hire a Writer.

Editors, Writers, and Content Strategists do different things (even though some people do all three). If you’re pretty confident with the writing you have and just need someone to nip/tuck or make it a little more web friendly, an editor who knows the web should be fine. If you need someone to define high-level messages that will drive the content on your site or write content from scratch, start with a web writer. If you need someone to create a long-term plan not just for the static content on your site, but also for the content you plan to publish in the future (blog posts, articles, etc.) then a content strategist would be helpful.

However, if you need someone to help you figure out what your business model is (aka, what kinds of things you offer or what your brand attributes are), it’s not time to hire a writer yet.

There are many kinds of Content Strategists. Some Content Strategists focus on keywords and metadata. Some focus on SEO. Some focus on optimizing the back-end technologies you need to publish your content. Some focus on defining what channels your content will be distributed across. Some focus on defining what messages you’re trying to communicate on your website, and how.

Don’t expect that any one Content Strategist will be able to address all these issues. And if you need someone to address all these issues, hire a multi-person firm that specializes in Content Strategy, like Brain Traffic or Eat Media. See Kristina Halvorson’s article in A List Apart for more.

Copywriter doesn’t always mean Web Writer. In theory, web writers should understand how to create marketing copy, and copywriters should understand how to write for the web. In practice, this is not the case. If you need content written for your website, don’t assume you’ll get good results by hiring a seasoned copywriter—only a good web writer who’s familiar with UX, IA, and how people read on the web will do the job right. If you don’t know whether your copywriter understands the web, take a look at the design and writing on his or her website. This should give you a good indication.

A linear processes is not always best. Usually, a redesign process goes something like this: content strategy, copy and web writing, information architecture, design, templates, programming. You might find, however, that you don’t need a complete content strategy, that you need to generate more copy after you’ve finished IA, or that you have to rewrite a lot of your copy so it harmonizes with the visual design. No matter how good a planner you are, a linear process in which each phase is rigidly locked after it’s finished does not necessarily produce a great product or project experience. Plan for an organic process, and expect that all your web specialists will need to talk to one another.

To see just how “organic” things can be, check out Nishant Kothary’s visualization of the process we followed during the MIX Online Redesign. (Read his wonderful article, The Anatomy of a Web Design, too).

A website is like a book in at least one way. If you remove an entire chapter from a book or rearrange its chapters, you’ll have to spend time rewriting it in order for it to make sense. If you change the thesis statement that the book is based on, the writing will have to be adjusted accordingly. Likewise, if you completely rethink a site’s information architecture or remove or condense pages, the messages and writing will have to be reworked accordingly. And if you change your web strategy (from “this site is oriented around my public speaking” to “this site is oriented toward my company’s portfolio,” for example) mid-stream, you will have to go back to the drawing board with copy.

Like a book, most marketing websites have a certain narrative quality—one page/thought should lead naturally to another, and the whole thing should work together to tell a great story. If you rethink one part of your story, it’s likely that another will be affected.

Writing and pictures are in love. You should not think of copy and design as mutually exclusive. Much of what makes the copy on your website on-tone, on-brand, and on-message depends on how well it harmonizes with your visuals, and vice versa. A great design/copy combination is the best way to tell a great story—and the best way to tell if your strategy and messages are working.

I’ve written about this before.

A well-written site is not cheap. Prices for good web writing span a wide range, but don’t expect it to be cheap. $25.00/hr is not enough, unless you’re hiring someone to edit your footer. Content Strategy will be even more expensive than web writing. Like good design, great writing is an investment that takes lots of research and revisions to get right.

Common sense is gold. Do not go rushing out to hire a content strategist just because everyone on the web is talking about content strategy. Do not spend 60k rewriting and designing your site until you have a good idea of why you’re doing it, with a rationally prioritized list of goals you’d like to accomplish. Before you hire someone to tell you what your goals are, sit down with a piece of paper and work them out yourself. Don’t hire anyone whose services you do not have a basic grasp of. Et cetera.

Don’t hire a writer if you don’t understand the value of good writing. No writer wants to work with a grumbly client who doesn’t see the value of her work. No client wants to work with someone he didn’t want to hire in the first place. To understand the value of good writing, start by doing some research.

Know your goals and business, first. I’ll say it again: no amount of copy, design, or organization will save you from a bad business model, a poor understanding of your business and audience or lack of a web strategy. If you don’t know these things, it’s probably smart to hold off on hiring copywriters, content strategists, or web designers until you’ve worked out your business plan. Because the most beautifully designed and written website in the world will fail if there’s not a solid purpose behind it.

The Case for Cohesion.

Everyone’s hot and bothered about content strategy and web writing right now, but that doesn’t mean that a good content plan or writing alone can solve all your problems. In fact, no one service can make your website successful. It takes a cohesive, thorough, and artistic combination of all these things, plus a deep understand of your own business model, to do that.

My suggestion is to take a practical, thoughtful approach and hire web specialists who work well together and understand one other’s disciplines.


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We packed up shop in early 2011 to work at Facebook. Tiffani now works at Pinterest and Matt is working on secret projects. To keep up with us, check out the Brown Blog or follow @brownthings and @ticjones!