The Ethics of Hiring a Writer

I’ve occasionally run into business owners who object to hiring a freelance writer on ethical grounds. They find something dishonest in allowing someone else to write for them. They believe they should write their own website, blog posts, case studies, brochures and business letters because otherwise they are misrepresenting themselves.

Ethics are important to me, which is why I will not write anything that I know (or may suspect) to be false, misleading or harmful. How do I justify being a freelance or ghost writer on an ethical basis?

First, writing may not be among the business owner’s strengths. As a result, instead of offering content that clearly states the benefits and achievements of the company, the owner inadvertently slips into false, confusing, misleading or harmful statements through mistakes in word choice, grammar and organization. Everyone loses when bad writing leads to false information.

Second, an outside perspective is often valuable. Business owners may not know what to say to attract customers and differentiate themselves from the competition. Or they may know exactly what to say but not how to say it. Or they may emphasize obscure features of their products while ignoring real benefits their customers need to know about.

Third, a business owner can be a great communicator on many levels and still prefer to let someone else write his or her marketing materials. This is called “delegation” and it is something business owners do when they hire employees and professionals to work for them. No one considers it unethical to have a sales team, help desk, accountant or graphic designer on staff. Business owners could handle everything themselves, down to making their own gasoline from crude oil for the car they drive, but most business owners prefer to concentrate on their core business.

There is nothing about delegating business writing that somehow makes that choice less ethical than delegating any other business function: it can be done well and professionally or badly and amateurishly. I like to write well and professionally.

Professional writers are professionals for a reason. Years of experience and training, plus an instinct for the just right word, make us more efficient and more likely to achieve the business owner’s goals.

I work with a variety of B2B and B2C business owners and nonprofits, in every field from home renovation through clinical trial research and from executive coaching through organic farming. Contact me today and let’s talk.

Your Writing Questions about Content, Tag Lines, Writer’s Block

Today I’m sharing a few writing questions that have come across my desk in the last 6 months.

Q. I have a limited budget for marketing. Should I spend it on website content, a blog, articles in print or online, case studies–where is it best to start?

A. If you don’t have a website, then building one–even three pages–is your first priority. Articles are generally free. If you have news (for example, the fact that you now have a website), most newspapers and online news organs are happy to publish it for free. After that, your priorities for writing content depend on the answers to three questions: who are your customers; where are you in most contact with them (for example, online, in person, in print); and what resources (time and people as well as budget) do you have to dedicate to reaching them? Every business is different.

Q. How important is a tag line?

A. A good tag line gives customers a snapshot of your company. My own tag line is “Our words mean business.” Combined with the name of my company (TWP Marketing & Technical Communications), it tells customers everything they need to know. When you are developing a tag line, consider if it will add information to your company name; whether it will distinguish you from your competition; and whether it is easy to include on everything from business cards to the sides of a truck, if need be. Once you have a tag line, stick with it. You don’t gain more recognition with a half dozen tag lines. You simply confuse customers.

Q. How do I begin writing when I don’t know what to write?

A. Among the services I provide clients are two that help with this dilemma.

The first is the interview, where we discuss your company’s goals, your customers, your personal style, your resources (time, people, budget) and other relevant information, such as geography and competition.

The second is the first draft–I tell clients that I am thrilled if they like the first draft but they should be willing to tear it apart. Often it is easier to know what you want after you see what you don’t want. If that first draft delivers on the “don’t want,” I am prepared to make a 160 degree change and give you a second draft that is everything you do want.

If you need a little DIY encouragement, I always suggest talking to a chair. Pretend your ideal customer is sitting in that chair and explain to your customer why he or she should buy your product, service or solution. What problem will you solve or what pain will you alleviate? That explanation is the content you want to write.

Squelching Fluff in Writing

Fluff in writing is fairly easy to spot. You hold your hand over the contact information for the company website, blog post, newsletter, success story–and then ask yourself two questions:

  1. Do I have any idea what this company is/does/sells?
  2. Do I have any reason to use this company rather than its competitor?

If the answer to both questions is no, you are reading fluff. Sometimes that fluff is generated by the company itself for a variety of reasons (for example, no one on board is a professional writer or the company is frightened that customers won’t understand its technology if more specific information is given). Sometimes the fluff is bought as a package from a content-generating company or from an extremely low-cost writer who relies on imagination rather than reality.

Because reality is what makes content stand out: the reality of your company, your leadership, your relationship with customers, your experience. Think of it this way: if you were hiring a new employee, would you appreciate a resume full of lyrical praise and generalities or would you prefer a resume describing experience, skills and passion clearly detailed and supported by accomplishments? Why should your customers be any different when they are hiring you?

The four easiest ways for squelching fluff in writing are:

  • Watch those adjectives. If you load your writing with adjectives like “state of the art” and “unique high-value” and “finely engineered,” you are missing the opportunity to explain why your product or service is state of the art, unique, valuable and finely engineered. You are writing fluff that any company can duplicate, even your least skilled competitor. Throw out the adjectives and rely on verbs and nouns instead.
  • Give the details. Testimonials are wonderful if they are specific. Success stories (case studies) are even better because they show exactly how you helped a customer like the customers you hope to attract. How-to instructions are always helpful to customers. Before and after photos, videos of a project in progress, examples of how your products could be used–they all connect with your customers and distinguish you from the competition.
  • Make yourself known. Step up and give your own perspective on your industry. Share your techniques. If they are the same techniques everyone else uses, be the first to embrace transparency. Share your passion for what you do.
  • Hire the right writer. The right writer talks with you about your goals and the future of your company; researches your industry and your competitors; grows in understanding with each writing project, no matter how far apart the projects are scheduled; and absolutely hates fluff. Whether in-house or freelance, you need a professional writer like that.

Now read through this blog post and count the number of adjectives, check for details, including how-to information, consider whether you have found out anything about my priorities and passion (no fluff!) and then decide if I’m the type of freelance writer you would want to hire to bring reality and passion to your company’s content. I hope to hear from you soon.

 

How Not to Create a Website: 8 Website Content Mistakes

Congratulations! You’re about to update your website or create one for the first time. If you want all your efforts, money, and resolve to disappear fast, do this:

  1. Assign a committee to write the content. Nothing good ever gets written by committee. Committee members contradict each other; they argue over every comma; or even worse, they don’t care about commas, so that your grammar, spelling, and emphasis changes from page to page.
  2. Let your website designer write the website content. Designers are excited by design projects; most designers aren’t excited by writing. Give them a brochure, they’ll plug in the brochure. That isn’t a website. That’s paper copy masquerading as content.
  3. Decide that your website is going to pull in customers you never had before for services you never performed before. A website alone cannot transform your business. The content has to speak to your audience, acknowledge their pain, and provide solutions that you believe in.
  4. Mimic the competition. As with any marketing materials, your website content needs to differentiate you. I’ll never forget the local New Hampshire company that posted photos on its website of New York-style skyscrapers, something with which New Hampshire is woefully under-supplied. I’ll never forget them because I would never trust them. If they want my local business, they have to be honest about being local–differentiation is a selling point.
  5. Say too much. If you pack that first website page with one endless rush of words, your audience will run. At the very least, provide headlines, bullets, and graphics to break up the text. Modern website content tends to be sparse, not overwhelming, but sparse content is difficult to write. It is easy to be verbose.
  6. Refuse help. You may benefit from an objective opinion on your choice of photos. You may believe you are writing clearly when, in fact, you know the subject so well that you are leaving out critical information. You may miss spelling or grammatical or linkage errors because you expect them to be correct. You don’t need a website review committee (see item 1) but you do need at least one reviewer.
  7. Talk to your customers. I’m not advocating talking down to customers. But refusing to answer basic questions (because “everyone knows that” and “no one ever asks that”); turning your website content into a vocabulary test; or writing with lots of acronyms and jargon will all guarantee that you lose your audience. If everyone knows as much as you know, why do they need you?
  8. Keep putting it off. You need to finish writing. The nicest quality about websites is that they can be updated. Content Management Systems are easy to learn and give you the chance to tweak your website over time. But marketing material can’t work until you send it out. Send out the website.

When you need help to start that website, create the content, review it, or finish it, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. It’s what we do.

The TWP Story: Three Words, Three Rules

Words are such powerful, flexible, rich tools for building a link between one person and another. You need millions of dollars, thousands of people, and expensive materials to build a bridge: you need three words to say “I can help.”

I work as a marketing and technical writer because I am passionate about people communicating with people. I want customers to understand where they can find a solution for their problem, whether a reputable building contractor or an expert in regulatory compliance. And, bottom line, I love writing.

I write and edit website content, blogs, newsletters, success stories (case studies), and every type of marketing content for technical and nontechnical companies of vastly different sizes and in vastly different industries. My clients include the MIT School of Science and sole proprietors; Microspec, who needed a website devoted to medical tubing, and resume writers who need proofreading; companies in my hometown of Peterborough, New Hampshire, and companies across the United States, including New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Georgia.

Here are three rules of marketing and technical writing that I never break:

  1. Tell the truth. What use is communicating if you are breaking trust immediately by telling lies?
  2. Keep it simple. It is always possible to find the words to explain something so that someone else understands. Communication is not a contest on who knows the biggest words or the hardest way to explain things.
  3. Find the story. People like stories. If you want to communicate, you need to keep your audience engaged.

All of the people I work for are skilled in their area of expertise. After more than 20 years of experience in Fortune 500 companies and as a freelancer, my area of expertise is clear. I write. Copy writing involves research, interviewing business owners and their customers, editing, proofreading, and rewriting–and I love every minute of it.

Whenever you find yourself struggling to say what you need to say, please remember TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. I have the words: I can help.

Finding & Telling Your Marketing Story: Part III

In my last two blog posts, I spoke about telling your marketing story by appealing to the senses, using visuals and incorporating characters. There are other techniques that great story tellers use to draw in their audience, but in this Part III post I’d like to address how to find your marketing story.

I’ve given some hints along the way but here are a few details about the best sources for writing unique marketing stories:

  • Your former customers are the first and best source for marketing stories about how you helped them. Often customers aren’t forthcoming if they are speaking directly to the business owner or the business owner assumes the answers to basic questions instead of asking or the business owner feels awkward about taking on the role of interviewer. If you have any of those problems, the solution is to ask someone else (a freelance writer like me, for example!) to handle the interviewing for you.
  • Your staff is an excellent source of marketing stories about tricky jobs they’ve successfully tackled or advice they wish they could give to customers or tips and techniques they have used. Let them share their advice and their triumphs in a newsletter or blog or in articles. They don’t need to be great writers, just good talkers.
  • Your current marketing content can provide clues to marketing stories. Do you use “state-of-the-art” techniques or equipment? Why are they state-of-the-art? Do you offer “the best customer service”? What makes it the best? Are you “an industry leader”? How did you achieve that position? Your customers don’t know; they aren’t mind readers. Every time you come across a vague statement in your marketing copy, you’ve found a story that needs detailed telling.
  • Every customer wants to know if you can solve their problem. A great marketing story exists in your approach to problem solving and the standards you apply to make sure a problem is solved to the customer’s and your own satisfaction. You are an expert in your field. If your customers were experts, they wouldn’t need you. Share some of that expertise by writing FAQs, Q&As, articles or blog posts.

When you find your story and write it, you are making a connection with customers that is more powerful than any stark list of tasks or services that you provide. Stories create a bond that no amount of facts can equal. I would be proud to help you find and write your story.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications has helped business owners find and tell their marketing stories in the technical, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, construction and service industries.

Finding & Telling Your Marketing Story: Part II

In a previous blog, I wrote about the importance of appealing to the senses and using visuals (photographs, videos) in marketing stories. In this blog, I’d like to focus on another aspect of great story telling: characters.

All stories have characters, even if the only character is the narrator. But as a business owner you have access to a slew of characters:

  • Yourself
  • Your staff
  • Your former customers
  • The audience you are writing for (past, future and/or current customers).

As I’ve often mentioned before, the most powerful phrase in marketing is “we can solve your problem.” That one phrase includes two strong characters, the “we” (the business owner and staff) and the “you” (the customer). Give that “we” more personality by writing blog posts or articles or online biographies that introduce you and your staff. Let your character shine forth in Q&A (FAQ) pages. Even if they aren’t customer-facing, let your staff make their presence known in photos and Meet the Team pages.

As for your former customers, they are truly “well rounded characters” and a great source of marketing stories, especially case studies and success stories. Please interview them! When I interview customers for my clients, I am always amazed at the generosity of the interviewees in sharing their time and their experiences to help another business. They recount experiences that make more positive, more detailed and more compelling stories than the business owner could have imagined.

Every story benefits from characters that seem to step right off the page; and your customers, staff and you are just such characters. Let your marketing story benefit from characters that lift your dry recital of facts to another level, where people are communicating directly with each other. I’ll be happy to help.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications provides freelance writing services for companies in New Hampshire and throughout the US.

Top 10 Reasons for Hiring a Freelance Writer

After 16 years as a freelance writer, I have discovered that there are 10 pressing reasons why business owners hire a freelance writer, regardless of the business owner’s industry, years of experience or overall marketing expertise. Over and over, business owners have shared at least one of these concerns and usually several:

1. I don’t have the time to write.

2. I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to say it.

3. I don’t need a full-time writer, but I do need someone dependable to handle writing jobs when they come along who appreciates my business.

4. My products or services or solutions are complicated and/or highly technical, and I need a better way to explain them to potential customers.

5. I’m constantly dealing with the same questions by email and phone; I’d like to standardize the information and make it easier for customers to find on their own.

6. Our proposal (or report or manual) writing process is complete chaos, with everyone editing everyone else and important information left out entirely. I need someone to take charge, sort out the problems and unify the content.

7. My website and marketing collateral no longer reflect what my company actually does, but I’m not sure what direction I should take. I need a collaborator who can clarify what I should be writing and then write it for me.

8. I’m writing a blog and I’m out of ideas for posts.

9. I need more publicity online/in print but I don’t know how to go about it.

10. I hate writing.

A professional freelance writer is adept at clear and accurate communication, organizing information, collaboration, addressing customer concerns and priorities and providing creative content. If you recognize yourself in any of the top 10 reasons why business owners hire a freelance writer, please contact me. At TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, our words mean business.

5 Steps in Hiring a Freelance Blog Writer

You recognize the importance of a website in drawing people to your business, keeping visitors engaged and interested and ensuring that potential customers can find you. So you recognize the importance of a blog, which helps attract, educate and convert visitors into customers. But a blog takes time. Hiring a freelance blog writer makes sense if you take the following key steps:

1. Make sure the blog writer is a native writer and speaker of the primary language of your customers. If that primary language is English, then your blog writer should be a native English speaker and writer. Otherwise, you will be constantly editing the blog to correct errors in grammar, idiom and assumptions. For example, I was hired to write blogs for a high-end interior design company in the US when the previous off-shore blog writer submitted a post on breaking up old CDs to create a mosaic tabletop. The concept of “high-end” was simply different on different sides of the ocean.

2. Insist on seeing examples of the blog writer’s work. Some blog writers have a single style or viewpoint that might fit with your business or might not. Others are able to capture the exact tone of different businesses and write blogs that sound as if they came from the individual business owner. Some blog writers specialize in one industry; others write for several industries. By looking at examples, you can better decide if a particular writer is a fit.

3. Ask if the blog writer will perform related tasks. For example, for one of my clients, I enter the posts online, create tags and summaries, schedule the posts and then copy them for an industry newsletter that re-publishes the posts as articles. For another client, I research and suggest topics; interview staff and customers for information; and research and add photos to each post.

4. Discuss fees and schedules up front. If you cannot afford daily posts, you may be able to afford weekly or bi-weekly posts. One of my clients uses me to edit her posts, asking me to write posts myself only when she is overwhelmed with work or on vacation. She depends on my skills to put her thoughts in order, with keywords that make sense.

5. Contract for a trial run of posts. Usually, it takes a few posts before the writer becomes attuned to your goals and way of thinking. But it should quickly be evident if the writer is unable to meet deadlines; completely fails to grasp your business; or can’t achieve the quality you expected.

You will be able to build a strong relationships with a freelance blog writer if you select one who understands the language of your customers, has examples for you to review, is able to handle related tasks, partners with you to find a cost-effective solution and provides a trial run. The stronger the relationship, the more confidence you will have in the writer’s ability to represent you and your company.

Sharon Bailly founded TWP Marketing & Technical Communications in 1999 in Peterborough, NH, to help business owners reach their customers with clear, accurate and passionate writing. At TWP, our words mean business.

 

 

6 Biggest Writing Mistakes

1. Turning your writing into a vocabulary test. Most small words have more energy than big ones and communicate faster. While some multi-syllable words can’t be avoided (“multi-syllable” being a good example), many of them are simply barriers to clear, passionate writing–for example, utilize, capability, and actionable.

2. Forgetting your audience. You have a goal: to write about everything your company can do and has done, so that the world will be impressed enough to beat a path to your door. But your customers are not looking for a company that does everything for everyone; your customers are looking for a trustworthy solution to their specific problem. When you write, write to meet your customers’ goals.

3. Giving your audience too much credit. If your customers were as knowledgeable as you are, they wouldn’t need you. You have skills, experience, and tools that your customers lack. Slowly guide them to understanding what you offer, using words, pictures, examples, and comparisons they can easily grasp.

4. Failing to recognize the power of pictures. Use graphs, illustrations, videos, and photographs whenever you can to replace paragraphs and pages of description. A great layout can add just the right emphasis and eye-candy to attract customers; a professional graphic designer is well worth using.

5. Overlooking the need to organize. Websites are divided into pages; blogs into posts; white papers into sections; manuals into chapters. Each of those divisions should have a single subject. If, for example, I shifted gears mid-way through this blog post to explain how to write a press release, you would be justifiably confused. It’s okay if your first draft is a brain dump. But then you have to organize the material so that it flows–and delete what doesn’t belong.

6. Falling in love with your own words. Set aside anything you write for at least 24 hours, then proofread, proofread, proofread and edit, edit, edit. Until you examine what you wrote with a fresh eye, you have no way of knowing if you truly communicated.

Sharon Bailly is the founder of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications which helps companies reach their customers online and in print. Our words mean business.