The most important thing to remember as a freelance writer or copyeditor is to follow directions. It’s as straightforward as that. Yes, you should have developed a talent for writing, and you should really be adept at researching content effectively to find those golden nuggets of information to utilize, but beyond all that…follow directions.
Simply put, you’re getting paid to write exactly what someone else wants. Even with a modicum of creative control, you’re still obligated to adhere to certain parameters within each writing assignment, which should be given to you upfront, before you begin working on anything. Because each assignment will be different, it’s important to clarify your client’s requirements and ask the right questions to avoid having to do multiple rewrites before you can mark the project as final. Here are the specific areas I always ask about when getting a new writing assignment.
These are the essential pieces of information that I need as the writer, but a client who isn’t familiar with writing might not think about sharing automatically. Logistical pieces such as word count (or even a range is helpful) and subhead preference are both important pieces to have before getting started. If my client is unable to provide a word count simply because they just don’t know, I let the type of piece I’m working on be my guide. For example, if I’m writing a blog post or article, then 500-750 words is what I aim to provide. If I’m working on web copy, I try to keep the word count at 500 words or below, and make sure I’m using very short paragraphs so the information is easy to digest. There’s not always a subhead preference, but I know they help with SEO, so I like to have at least two of them in my pieces.
That brings me to the next must have, keywords. This is all about SEO and providing clients with online content that will bring people to their site. Of course, this is unnecessary if I’m working on content that won’t be online, like if I’m writing copy that will be emailed, but I’ve found that asking for keywords helps hone in on what the key topic of the content really should be, which is helpful no matter what type of content I’m creating.
The only other item I typically ask for that I’d group as a “must have” is any piece of standard company copy. This could be a particular sentence to describe the company that should be worked in or even a prewritten tag line or boiler plate to use at the end of every content piece. Having this information in advance helps me make sure I’m properly talking about the business and that I’m aligning with other existing content.
While style will vary for each piece you create regardless of whether it’s for the same client, there are a few key details that will remain the same per client which are important to know. Firstly, understanding grammatical style preferences is essential. Make sure to ask which style guide they use, if any. The Associated Press (AP) Style Guide and the Chicago Manual of Style are two more popular choices, but there are others like MLA you should be familiar with using. Ask if they use the Oxford comma or not and confirm that they follow the one space between sentence style that’s most often used today (when I was younger, everyone put two spaces.)
Secondly, get clarification on product spellings and capitalization preferences for words unique to the client. The company name, products you’ll mention, how job titles are written, etc. Your default style may not be the same as what the client prefers, so it’s important to work all this out at the start of a project.
Another style piece that some people may not think about digging into before they begin writing is tone. You may get the subject you’re supposed to write on, but how should that piece sound when it’s done? Should it be casual or professional? Informational or funny? Are anecdotes okay? Knowing the tone ensures you’re going to give the client what they’re looking for without a lot of rewrites.
TIP: When I have a client who’s struggling to impart their tone to me, I often ask them to propose a headline or two for the piece I’ve been asked to write. This can help add clarity to the project and set things off in the right direction.
While I do offer my clients my services as an excellent researcher, it’s always helpful to be given leads to at least a few sources before getting started. This can be as basic as a link to an article that should inspire the piece or a few URLs containing the same type of information I’ve been asked to write about. One of my clients always requires me to have at least two sources when working on a content piece, and it’s a rule of thumb I’ve followed when working with others. I always include the source URLs that helped me generate my copy and will cite places when appropriate. Oftentimes, clients will have a specific style for how to cite other Web content as well, so keep that in mind.
It’s also a good idea to ask if there is any source material to avoid. Getting at least one example of a bad source will help you be more efficient in your research as well as ensure you don’t include incorrect information in your piece. This can be helpful if you’re working on more volatile content where differing opinions can clash.
Getting these three areas covered before you begin to write will help you have a more seamless experience as a freelance writer and content creator. It gives you the essential foundation to take an assignment and run with it, not having to stop along the way to ask questions and possibly back track to make adjustments. If you know your client before you begin, you’ll be able to do the one thing all freelance writers much be proficient at — following directions.