Pssst… Now for What your Client Really Thinks

Updated December 13, 2011

Doc Sheldon

Linotype hot-type machineI started my copywriting career in the days of dragons, wizards, hot-type and later, Compugraphics typesetters. Most of you weren’t born yet. In fact, many of your parents were probably still virgins.

My first weekly column was in a weekly tabloid magazine in Texas, and part of my job was to set my column on the Linotype the night before they went to print.

Compugraphic typesetting machineWhen they invested in a new technology called the Compugraphic typesetter, that portion of my job became much easier. So much so, in fact, that I sometimes composed my column “on the fly” (which drove my editor nuts!)

After nearly a year, I was invited to do feature articles, which is a different style, entirely. The audience was different, the subject matter was researched rather than opinion and the editorial scrutiny was, to say the least, intense. 

But some things remained the same, as far as my relationship with the editor and publisher. Both of them, of course, were experienced at handling writers, whereas I was still wet behind the ears. Early on, they gave me their rules (paraphrased, as well as I remember them):

  1. Write the way you’re told. We’ll give you the slant and talking points. If you think you have a better idea, keep it to yourself. We don’t care.
  2. Deadlines are called that for a reason. You don’t want to miss one!
  3. Don’t make us use our blue pencils, correcting your work. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t enjoy having to edit. We especially don’t appreciate spelling or grammar errors. Every time we have to pick up that blue pencil is another nail in your coffin.
  4. Don’t argue with us. If we want your opinion, we’ll ask for it.
  5. We are always right. Even if you don’t see it. Don’t question it, just remember it.
  6. Never submit the only copy of your work to us. We’ll just lose it, crumple it up or write our editorial on the back of it. Keep a copy!

As you can see, it was a warm and friendly environment that I cut my teeth in. That I even survived my first month was nothing short of a miracle – the editor actually made me buy him a new box of blue pencils after a couple of weeks.

However lacking the camaraderie may have been, though, expectations were always crystal clear. And to be fair, they were realistic. Every word of mine reflected upon the magazine, and if it was misspelled or trod on some reader’s sensibilities, there were immediate repercussions, both internally and on the street. So although I may have told my editor he was being anal, the truth is, he was doing what was absolutely necessary. Readers expect nothing less than perfection, and they’re very vocal about shortcomings.

I was paid peanuts for my first column. I get more per hour now than I made per month back then. When I graduated to feature writer, I thought I had really hit the big time. My earliest monthly paychecks had barely reached three digits, and suddenly I was a four-digit-wonder. I had access to both a photographer and a company car, my own desk and someone else to set my articles. Life was good!

As I said, some things didn’t change. I made more money, but more was expected from me, in return. I had some perks, but I also lost some freedoms. And the basic expectations remained the same.

Follow my editor’s direction, be on time, be correct… those were the biggies. I argued from time to time (I never won – refer to Rule # 5), but the rest of the rules were not only deeply ingrained by then, I’d even embraced them. I remember smiling when I handed my editor my proofs once, and he put his blue pencil down before he took it from me. Before, he’d always picked one up first.

Fast forward over thirty years… no more blue pencils, no more cold type and now I’m on the other side of that editor’s desk. I’m in the same boat he was, though. How did that happen?

My clients expect nothing short of perfection, too. And not just in spelling, grammar and readability… now they expect that hiring the Clinic to do their copy will also catapult them to the top of the SERPs.

Fair enough. That’s part of what SEO copywriting is supposed to do, even though it should do it invisibly, as far as the readers are concerned. Of course, since nearly a year ago, I could no longer handle the increasing workload. So I started looking for good freelance writers, making the transition to agency, and that’s when I found myself on the other side of the desk.

Which brings me to the point of this post – responding to Lisa’s last post. She listed five factors that writers hold dear – all of them reasonable issues. But most issues have a flip-side (that’s a reference to bygone days, for you youngsters that weren’t around in the “good old days”).

1)   Pay Rate: Yup! Still number one. I worked for a top female Realtor who always said, “Price overcomes all obstacles.” Now, she was implying that if your house backs to a busy street, dropping the price low enough will get someone to buy it. In our case, you can get and keep a good writer with a great pay rate. If your writer seems to have too many clients on his/her plate, up the price. If you have a topic that no one wants to write about, up the price. If you need a faster turnaround than normal, up the price. You’ll get what you want.

We’re all familiar with the old saying, ‘you get what you pay for’. In my opinion, being stingy with a good writer is just as foolish as paying $2 each for articles from some Bangladesh village. You may get better grammar, but you won’t get better writing. Talent isn’t cheap, and neither is passion. When you find someone that can deliver both, pay them what they’re worth. Of course, the other side of that is that if you’re accepting pay for a job, give it all you’ve got. That will get our attention, and believe me, we know when our writers are delivering all they’ve got. 😉

2)   No brats: Again, I know. This time, however, I am not referring to kids but, rather, to you. The clients. Believe it or not, this is very high on the list that writers use to evaluate clients. We may put your work on the backburner or drop you altogether if you are rude, cranky or just plain not nice. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. It’s a well-known fact that you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar, right?! Maybe that doesn’t figure into your business world, but freelance writers left that world, remember?!

This sword has two edges. We want to work with writers that are professional and pleasant to work with. If you’re the kind of person we might avoid around the water cooler, you can bet you won’t be on our writers list very long.

3)   Explain Yourself: It seems utterly ridiculous to say this, but give clear instructions. Tell us what your keyword is, who your intended audience is and what the overall purpose of the article is. We do not want to steal your keyword or niche or ideas or backlinking techniques or anything else. Writers need to know the background to help understand what tone and style will work best. The creative juices get flowing and words start to form in our little heads the more information you give us. And, please. If we really wanted to steal your ideas, we’d just Google the article once it was indexed and work backwards from there, right?! Not interested. Too many clients lining up.

The other side of this is to ask questions about anything that isn’t crystal clear. NEVER assume! It’s important to us both that we understand each other and that we both know exactly what the client wants.

I’ll expand on it a little, though. It really gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling that I’m talking to a professional writer, when you hit me with a series of questions about the target audience.

Age, gender, educational level, specific cultural characteristics, income level… these all can affect the way a piece is styled. When you ask us these things about a new project, it tells us we’re not dealing with some noob that just got themselves an internet connection and is ready to start making money online.

4)   Customer Service: Everyone knows that there is more than one type of customer. In a sense, writers are one of your internal customers, right?! Are you offering good customer service when you Skype them every 5 minutes about an assignment that they just accepted the previous evening? Are you offering good customer service when you insist on a 24-hour deadline for a 1,000 word article on mesothelioma and factory workers exposed to asbestos in the 1960’s?  Are you offering good customer service when you receive work and then turn around and ask for it to be re-written from a completely different angle, for free, because you misunderstood your client?

Yep – each of us is a customer to the other! So if you’re having a problem hitting the mark with the project or meeting the deadline, let us know as soon as possible! Unlike wine, bad news does not improve with age. The sooner you let us know, the sooner we can help, whether that help comes in the form of more information or more time. Don’t wait until the work is due, to tell us it’s going to be a couple of days late. When you agree to a timeline, we believe you, and probably passed it on to the client.

5)   Money again: Pay on time. Pay immediately. Pay before the due date. Bug us for an invoice, instead of the other way around. Use PayPal; writers hate people who don’t. And, when you send your PayPal payment, fill in that little message box with a “Thanks for all your hard work” or a simple “You’re awesome”.  When all else fails, send chocolate. OK, that part is just me, but feel free… 

There’s certainly nothing I can disagree with there. Pay well, and pay on time! Not much I can add to that, and there isn’t really a flip-side to it.

So, in the end, we’re pretty easy to please, too. Even though it may not always seem like it. 😉


  1. I’m new at this, and I share the same sentiment. It has to be a win-win situation for both client and writer.

  2. Buy Plots Near Mumbai says:

    Yes, agreed to Jim, for both is the equal situations.

  3. Neil Ferree says:

    Doc, so you know and can leverage it more in the future. I found your site via a G+ post in my stream. What caught my eye was the reference to “content strategist”. After reading a few of your articles, I put together a series of screen shots that I think will help others get a better feel for what and how to develop a content creation plan for 2012. Going to whip up a short video tutorial on this and thanks to your insights, I think it will be a helpful piece to my readers to include some of these techniques in 2012.