Category Archives: Getting It Done

Why Experience Matters…and Doesn’t

Anyone in business knows what it means to compete for customers. You’ve had to put your goods, services, or know-how up against a competitor’s and strive to emerge the winner — the one the customer buys from or the client chooses to work with. Many times, prospects are looking for a vendor with experience doing the same type of project as theirs. But is that really the best evaluation method?

My take is, it’s one evaluation method, but not necessarily the best.

I recently talked with a woman looking to hire a writer to “fix” the copy for a Web site describing her newly organized and unconventional non-profit organization. She found me via a writer colleague of mine, who was too busy to take on this project for her, his longtime client, and recommended me instead.

The potential client wasn’t happy with the copy as it stood. I agreed — I found it not only didn’t clearly explain the new organization, it actually gave me the wrong idea. As I listened to her describe the organization, I asked many questions, trying to zero in on how I would describe it so it would make sense and convey the unique, creative nature of the organization.

The client, gun-shy over having been burned once on the copy, kept expressing her desire to make sure the site had the right voice. That she hired the right writer who “got it.” She seemed uncomfortable with my probing questions, actually saying that many people she described it to just immediately understood what it was all about. (But obviously not the person who wrote the initial copy.) Along the way, she asked to see samples of my work (more than what’s on my Web site) and reiterated that the site needed the “right” writer.

In the end, she decided to let the agency who had designed the site handle the selection of a writer. By that time, I was a bit relieved — the project seemed to be more trouble than the 10 or so hours it would consume.

But it made me think, again, about the value of experience and the importance of “fit” when hiring a writer.  Here’s my take.

  1. Ask for recommendations — and believe the people you ask.
    Certainly, you should ask people whose opinions you value whom they would recommend and why they think that person is a good choice.  I believe any writer who comes recommended in such a way could do the job, particularly if both recommender and recommendee have been in business awhile.
  2. Ask if the writer has done just what you’re looking for — but don’t be afraid if he or she hasn’t.
    In many ways, commercial writing is a process. The writer studies the subject in advance, asks probing questions, gauges the appropriate tone and feel of the finished piece, produces a draft, and refines it based on feedback from subject matter experts and other reviewers. Whether the topic is product packaging or hedge fund fraud or why-my-law-firm-is-better-than-yours doesn’t matter. When it may matter is if your subject is highly technical or highly industry-specific; then it may make sense to hire a specialist in that area to avoid a steep learning curve. But even then, your subject matter experts can often inject the “insider” perspective your writer may lack, and a good writer will quickly learn the industry and lingo.
  3. Most importantly, trust your gut.
    Do you get a good feeling when you talk with the writer? Does he put you at ease that he understands what you’re looking for? Does she come recommended by someone you trust? Is she willing to meet your budget and schedule constraints? Does he ask smart questions that make you think? All of these are likely more important than seeing “your project” reflected in the writer’s portfolio.

My potential client, who decided to let someone else choose her Web site writer for her, probably didn’t get the gut feeling that I was right for the job. And that’s OK. Our interactions also convinced me we weren’t a good fit. Working together may have changed both our minds, or it may have been an exercise in frustration. More than I trust my 20 years of writing experience telling me I could do the job, I trust my40+-year-old  gut telling me it wasn’t meant to be. My advice is to trust yours, too — more important than whether your prospective writer’s experience matches your needs is your gut feeling that he or she is right for the job.

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There is no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep
to be able to tell what mutton tastes like.
It is enough if he eats a cutlet.
~ W. Somerset Maugham


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Make Your Writing Dollars Count

Not everyone has worked with a professional writer. Some small businesses are used to handling everything themselves; some subject matter experts haven’t been involved in developing marketing materials or writing byline articles. If you’re new to working with a writer, here are some ways to make the most of your writer’s time and skill, stretch your budget, and ultimately create a polished, professional finished product.

1. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions. “I’m not sure how this works,” some of my new clients confess. “What do you need from me? Where do we start?”

I almost always start in the same place, whether the goal is to write a fact sheet about a product, develop a brochure or Web site, ghost-write an article, or create a presentation: I start by asking a lot of questions. If I had a dollar for every time a client told me “That’s a great question,” I’d probably have…I dunno….a thousand dollars? (I once worked with a client who was a former Navy fighter pilot — he told me I could have had a great career in Naval Intelligence interrogating people. I was highly flattered.) The goal is to get what’s in your head about the topic into your writer’s head. He or she will likely never have the knowledge you do about the subject, but needs to absorb enough to put together a credible draft.

If your writer isn’t asking enough questions or the right questions, take charge and cover the points you feel are important.

2. Gather source material in advance. Source material is gold to a writer, and you can save time (time = money) by pulling it together for your first meeting. What, if anything, have you already written about the topic? What have others (colleagues, competitors, the media) written? What do you like or dislike about what’s been done? Do you have samples of other pieces you like, even on unrelated topics? Is there a template or “house style” the writer should follow? Writers appreciate any and all such information as we take a crash course in the topic and gauge your needs and preferences.

3. Follow up on to-do’s. Often the first meeting will result in some assignments. You might need to let a colleague know the writer will be calling to gather info, or you might have to track down answers to questions that came up. Your prompt follow-through will again save time and money.

4. Review with care. Depending on how involved the project is, your writer may come back to you with an outline, or move directly to a first draft. Your keen eye and subject matter knowledge is critical to see if the work is on track and to offer your insights. It’s quite a time-waster (and I’ve had this happen) to approve an outline you haven’t really read and then find the draft isn’t organized the way you want.

Direct, specific feedback is most helpful (think, “I’d like to include more product features here and discuss maintenance tasks before service procedures.” rather than “I don’t really like how this flows.”) I also like it when my clients dive in and use Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature to make edits.

In many cases, a first draft will have gaps where further information is needed, or might include questions from the writer.  Obviously, you’ll need to address these. If multiple people are reviewing, appoint one person to be the gatekeeper who will consolidate feedback and make the call on conflicting requests.

5. Share drafts as early as appropriate. You may not want to share a first draft with your boss or another higher-up approver, but it’s important not to wait too long before gaining that person’s input and buy-in. Waiting until you feel the piece is “done” can backfire into considerable rework if the power-that-be doesn’t agree with the direction or content.

6. Be persistent. You deserve to be satisfied with the finished product, so don’t hesitate to question areas of concern or to ask for rewrites when something doesn’t suit. A certain amount of back-and-forth is expected and should have been factored (and preferably specified)  in the writer’s estimate.

7. Be open. At the same time, take advantage of the fresh perspective your writer brings to the topic as well as his or her experience writing for various audiences. While something might not be worded “the way we always say it” (or even the way you’d say it), that might be a good thing.

6. Close the loop. When the draft is final, it’s time for your graphic or Web designer to take over and turn the raw copy into a finished piece. (Unless, of course, you are simply submitting an article for publication.) It may be tempting to take your writer out of the loop at this point. But keeping your writer involved in reviewing the layout helps assure the information is presented to best advantage and heads off general proofreading and typographical issues.

I’m sorry to say I’ve written many pieces that I will not include in my portfolio (no matter how much I like the writing) because layout or proofreading problems weren’t corrected before the piece was published. I don’t like sloppy work, and I’m always surprised when clients are willing to accept it for their business. A thorough review and proofing — if not by the writer, then at least by someone with good editorial skills and fresh eyes — is a small but crucial step to presenting the polished, professional image your business deserves. And isn’t that why you hired a writer in the first place?


When something can be read without effort,
great effort has gone into its writing.
~ Enrique Jardiel Poncela

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The Right Way to Write by Committee

Most of my projects involve some form of “writing by committee.” Despite the bad connotation, it doesn’t have to mean writing that takes forever, is watered down, reads poorly, and ultimately doesn’t do the topic justice.

Unless my client is a one-person shop,  I might have two, five, or a dozen people giving up-front input before I write, reviewing drafts, and providing feedback. Even when I work with a client one-on-one, the graphic designer often weighs in on content issues. Having the benefit of multiple perspectives, different areas of expertise, and various levels of subject matter knowledge can lead to a stronger finished product…if you follow a few ground rules.

Every committee needs a Chair — appoint one. Divergent and conflicting opinions and feedback are common when multiple reviewers are involved. To keep the project moving — and keep the peace — one person needs to have final say. That may be the person with the most subject matter knowledge, the most seniority, the most marketing experience, or the most stake in the project.  The important thing is to have someone responsible for making the call (who isn’t afraid to make it).

Set and keep deadlines. More people involved means more opportunity for individual schedules to get in the way of the project schedule. Make it clear that people need to provide their input on time, not only to keep the project moving, but also to avoid having last-minute feedback undo work that’s already been done.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. No, it’s really not all small stuff, but some of it is. Someone doesn’t want to use contractions, another prefers to have this paragraph come before that one, one person out of five doesn’t understand a sentence or like a wording choice. Issues like these are best left to your writer to manage. We’re used to dealing with tone, grammar, style, content structure, and the like, and will be able to make the right call.  If it turns out to be politically necessary to accept certain feedback, just let us know — we’re used to rolling with that reality, too, and can help ensure the need to be PC doesn’t result in bad writing.

Agree to disagree. Writing, like art, is subjective. One person’s Treasure Island is another person’s so-so book about pirates. Someone is probably not going to like some of your choices. That’s fine, as long as the majority of reviewers think the writing is effective and the project is on track. Unless, of course, the unhappy “someone” has the power to pull the plug. In that case…

Head off the eleventh-hour veto. Projects often take on a life of their own. The team gets busy, works hard, and produces a draft, then another, then a “final.” Then it goes to the power-that-be for sign-off. Waiting to get a thumbs-up at this late stage is risky — I’ve seen projects derailed and a lot of effort wasted because someone at the top is surprised by the way something turned out.  Better practice is to avoid a late-stage veto by getting buy-in up front and maybe along the way as well. A quick conversation to discuss an outline, share a first draft, or confirm a change of direction can go a long way to avoiding problems later on. Sure, the boss is busy — that’s why he or she delegates to you — but most bosses I know hate wasted effort (and time and money) more than they hate the occasional “just wanted to check in” interruption.

Keep the momentum going. Getting the words down on paper is a big step, but not the last step. This is where the graphic designer comes in, takes the raw text,  and creates a layout. For those on the team who don’t create marketing materials all the time, this is also where the Word doc finally starts to make sense. Writing and design go hand-in-hand. It’s important to keep your writer involved at this stage — we had a vision for the content structure from the beginning and need to be able to work with the designer to ensure the design supports the information. Whether the full committee stays involved at this stage is your call — designing by committee is as tricky as writing by committee. But surely many of the same ground rules apply — the Chair manages feedback, the designer has final say on design issues, the power-that-be needs to be on board before the design is final.

Celebrate the birth. When you have the finished product in hand (or in PDF, as is often the case these days), acknowledge the committee’s contributions and thank them for their help. It’s a simple way to set a positive tone for the next project — and it’s always the right thing to do. Oh, and one last thing. Before you archive the project folder, jot down any lessons learned — was there a glitch that caused delays, a process that could have gone better, a procedure that worked really well? Set yourself up now for a smoother collaboration next time.


No passion in the world is equal to
the passion to alter someone else’s draft.
~ H. G. Wells

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