Every so often I'm contacted by a prospect who's had to learn the hard way that freelance copywriters aren't all the same. He or she chose the wrong one, paid for the mistake, and is now leery of paying for another one.
The truth is that there are a lot of "freelance copywriters" running around today, mainly due to a handful of very successful books written in the last twenty years which paint professional business writing as a great way for amateur writers to polevault into financial success. As a result, the market is full of writers ranging from super-qualified ad agency superstars to the barely literate part-timer who never wrote a professional word before opening their "practice".
When you hire a copywriter, you're making an important business investment. You could well be remembered for years based on the words that represent you today, and bad writing has a habit of sticking around; a bad marketing investment can become much more expensive than the price you paid for it.
Choose wisely, and choose well:
First, look for a personality match. I'll tell you right now: if your business primarily involves selling scented candles over the Web, I'm most likely not the best copywriter for you. My best work tends to lean towards informative public relations-style copywriting, and I prefer topics that I can really sink my teeth into. I like simplifying complication. However, there are other copywriters who can sell a scented candle far better than I ever could, simply because they care more about scented candles.
This is absolutely vital: no matter the experience, or the skills, or the talents, or the services, if you and your writer don't understand each other, it's all doomed. Take a long look at what you're trying to accomplish with your project and then take a good look at your writer. If it's not a good fit, go somewhere else. A professional will not only understand, but will encourage you to do it - and might even be able to recommend someone else.
Don't get wrapped up in the rock star mentality. No doubt, there are certain copywriters out there who excel at marketing themselves. A few go even beyond that and bill themselves as God's personal gift to communications. Don't become a copywriting groupie: an arrogant, overpriced, overhyped brand name isn't always the best solution for you, your business or your clients.
Get some samples, but don't take them too seriously. By all means, make sure that you've personally verified that this person can write. Get some samples and ask the opinions of others before hiring.
Meanwhile, though, don't put too much weight on them. First, good samples are hard to come by; copy gets butchered in editing thanks to micromanaging clients (happens a lot), or the writer is unable to obtain a final printed sample (my batting average is about 15%), or for whatever reason the writer is unable to make samples available (confidentiality agreements, etc.). Most of all, though, an example of past work is the product of a particular time, place, client and market - without some sense of context, you have no way to accurately gauge the effectiveness of the copy.
When you read a writer's samples, try to get the backstory. Get some context before judging on appearances.
Always interview, and if your head feels clearer after discussing your project with the copywriter, that's a good sign. The job of a professional communicator is not to sell, but to clear things up. We make things make sense. After you interview your writer, you should have a more straightforward picture in your head of what you're trying to accomplish with your project; if not, there's a problem.
If your writer doesn't listen to you, how are they going to understand your needs? If your writer can't communicate effectively to you, what makes you think he or she can communicate to your audience?
Know the differences between journalism, advertising, direct marketing, technical writing and public relations. I originally come from a technical background - first a software developer in the defense industry, then a UNIX systems administrator in telecom, and all along the way a technical writer; I gradually realized that I preferred the writing to the technical work, and over the next several years shifted into nonprofit public relations and marketing, which led me to where I am today.
At the core, however, I still think like a technical copywriter, because that's where my writing teeth were cut. I like things sturdy and reliable, and enjoy clarifying obtuse and complicated topics; I write lean and direct rather than frothy and saccharine. I believe that the best writing is the clearest writing.
Someone from a journalism background is going to approach copywriting very differently than an ad agency hound. A technical copywriter isn't going to handle a project the same way that a lifelong PR writer would. Take a good look at your writer's background; don't make rash judgments, but instead ask, "How do you believe your writing process was shaped by your background?" Listen very carefully to that answer, because that will tell you much of what you can expect from the relationship.
Keep an eye on business details. One of the most common complaints made about freelance copywriters today is lack of attention to the business end of things.
When will you be invoiced, and on what payment terms? If you misplace or accidentally delete a deliverable document, will your writer charge you for a new copy? How easily can you learn your current month's balance?
Ask all these questions before you hire your writer. You're not just paying someone to write for you: you are contracting a professional to help manage your marketing needs. Make sure your copywriter is providing the full service.
Never sign a contract on impulse. Most bad copywriters rely on distraction to make sales; they're poor illusionists rather than skilled communicators, and almost all of them need you to sign the contract before you notice the slight-of-hand. Just as you'd never hire an attorney on impulse, so should you never hire a writer on one.
Pick a good fit and you'll get good value. Pick a bad one, and you won't. There are plenty of us out there - more than enough for you to find the best words for your audience, and the best service for your money. Take the time. You won't regret it.