The Innovative Marketer's Blog

3 Ways to Get Freelance Content Writers to Do a Better Job

Posted by Matthew Cook


“Where do you find your writers?”

I brace myself for this question any time I’m called into a meeting with prospective clients of my inbound marketing agency. It’s what anyone who has tried inbound marketing for any significant length of time wants to know.

Maybe this experience is familiar to you?

You hire a writer who claims to have years of writing experience. They come highly recommended from other HubSpot users you met at Inbound or your local HUG. They may even have some decent samples to show off.

But then, when your highly-recommended, highly-experienced writer’s first blog posts start rolling in, you’re disappointed to discover:

  • They don’t speak in a voice you know will resonate with your readers.
  • They don’t sound like something anyone in your business would say.
  • The writing is too formal, or not formal enough. Or it’s awkward. Or just plain boring.
  • You have to spend so much of your time fixing the copy, you might as well have written it yourself.

So when I tell prospective clients I think my agency could do better, I understand when they’re a bit skeptical. If they haven’t found that elusive source of writers who will write compelling, readable, error-free blog posts about any industry, no matter how esoteric the subject matter or how tiny the niche, how could I?

The Bad News: There Is No Magical Source of Great Inbound Writers

If there is a super-secret fount of low-cost freelance writers who can churn out post after post of flawless content with little-to-no effort on your part, I haven’t found it.

I assemble my agency’s writing team from the same hodgepodge of sources you’ve tried: Craigslist ads, writing agencies and marketplaces, personal contacts, and referrals.

The truth is, there are plenty of bad freelance writers out there and plenty of good ones. And, unfortunately for us, they don’t all congregate in the same place. Finding a good one is always going to involve some testing, trial, and error.

The Good News: You Can Get a Decent Writer to Write Great Blog Posts

In an upcoming post, I’ll tell you how I test writers to make sure they’re qualified to write the kind of content I want them to write. But I’ve found that, when businesses are unhappy with their freelance writers, it’s not always because they are unlucky enough to keep hiring duds. What you get out of a writer has a lot to do with what you put in.

With the right kind of direction, you can get decent writers to write great blog posts. If there is any secret to getting freelance writers to do what you want, this is it.

Here are a few methods I recommend for getting quality content out of freelance writers.

1. Be Specific and Expect Compliance

If the full extent of your directions to a writer are, “Here is the title. Go write me an article,” your writer will be forced to make their best guess about what you want. Sure, some writers are better guessers than others, but you can save yourself a lot of wasted time and money if you don’t make them guess in the first place.

When you work with freelance writers, be as specific as you can about every aspect of their assignments: length, tone, how much research you want them to do or not do, when to be creative and when to follow instructions. If you have time to do it, outline the whole post for them.

Once you’ve given your writers specific instructions, hold them to it.

If I ask a writer for a 600-word blog post and they give me a 1,000-word draft, that’s not a bonus. That’s a failure to follow directions.

I could very well have had a reason for wanting a 600-word post. Maybe I know the readers are looking for quick answers and don’t have much time to read. Now I have to spend a half hour or more of my own time trying to find 400 words to cut from the article.

Similarly, if I tell a writer to rely on certain sites for industry information and I get back an article that draws heavily from five other sites, I don’t applaud the writer for using their initiative — unless that’s something I had asked them to do.

Maybe those five sites contained biased information. Or maybe they’re competitors my client doesn’t want to mention. Now I have to weed them out.

When you give your writers specific instructions and hold them to it, it gives you something more concrete to say when you fire them than, “It just wasn’t any good.”

2. Create a Writing Style Guide

I could, and probably will, write an entire post — probably an entire series of posts — about how and why to create a writing style guide for your business’s blog. I’m working on a style guide for my agency now, and I’m sure I’ll learn plenty along the way.

A writing style guide will help you encapsulate your business’s thinking on what makes (and doesn’t make) great writing, preventing endless arguments among coworkers over comma placement. But more than that, it will save you the trouble of having to repeat your specific instructions over and over again as you work with new writers.

A style guide is the place for your business to enshrine your ideas about:

  • Voice and tone.
  • Words to use and words to avoid.
  • Your reader personas.
  • Your preferred approach to grammar. (Is a preposition an OK word to end a sentence on? And what about starting a sentence with a conjunction?)
  • Format and length of blog posts.
  • Approved research resources.
  • Examples of blog posts you consider “great.”

As I create my agency’s writing style guide, I’m working from this helpful HubSpot blog post. I suggest you do the same. And subscribe to this blog for further updates on my own style guide project.

3. Use Quantifiable Standards

Specific writing instructions are hard to give because so much of writing is so subjective — but not all of it. You can’t beat numbers for specificity. So as you create your writing style guide, any time you can quantify your standards, do it.

For example, I like to use the Flesch-Kincaid tests to measure the readability of my own writing, as well as that of the writers I work with. At first, I was skeptical a single number could tell me much about the quality of my writing, but I’ve found that, in almost every case, the higher I make that number go, the clearer my writing is.

Here’s another number I use to quantify my writing standards: three. That’s the maximum number of sentences I allow in a paragraph. Online readers, especially mobile readers, have trouble digesting long blocks of text, so I encourage my team to keep it short.

There are plenty of other ways you can quantify your writing standards, depending on the style you’re going for:

  • Maximum number of words in a headline.
  • Maximum number of paragraphs before inserting a subhead.
  • Number of outside sites to link to.
  • Number of internal posts to link to.
  • Minimum and maximum length of a blog post.

Can you think of other ways to provide specific instructions to freelance writers by quantifying your standards in a writing style guide? I’d also be very interested in learning from you how you get writers to do your bidding.

Let’s talk about it in the comments section.

3 Things You Should Know

Topics: Inbound Marketing, Blogging