copy-process

Being a copywriter means more than writing well.

After all, ‘writing well’ means different things to different clients.

Copywriting is really about commerce. Our words don’t need to look nice – they need to incite change, arrest attention and drive sales.

To achieve effective copy, writers typically begin with research.

Before you can write for your client, you need to know:

  • Goals – what does the client want to achieve?
  • Audiences – who will be reading the copy?
  • Results – how will the copy be judged (what does success mean?)
  • And much more…

To achieve a good result every time, it helps to have a process to follow. Having a process is useful because it ensures that you complete all of the necessary steps, and it also reassures the client that they have been heard and understood.

While having a standard process is a useful foundation for any copywriter, it’s not unusual to have to abandon your process because of deadlines, client requirements, or the nature of the project. So you may have to be prepared – and willing – to deviate from the norm.

Suggested copywriting process – from enquiry to invoice

You can work in any way that makes sense to you. What follows is one approach to copywriting projects:

  1. Initial query
  2. Clarification of requirements
  3. Proposal
  4. Deposit
  5. Brief
  6. Research
  7. First draft (partial)
  8. Feedback
  9. Second draft
  10. Complete draft
  11. Sign off
  12. Invoice

Let’s examine these steps in detail.

Initial enquiry


You get an enquiry from a potential client.

If the client and the project are appealing to you and suit your talents, it’s time to respond.

If the project or client are not right, for whatever reason, it’s okay to politely decline the enquiry. If the opportunity looks interesting, consider recommending a friend or colleague.
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Clarification of requirements


Most client enquiries are brief, because they want to make sure you’re available and interested before sending you intimate details of their organisation.

Before you can decide if you’re right for the project, you need to know more.

You might reply by email, or pick up the phone to discuss their requirements (picking up the phone is a great way to start building a connection with the client).

You need to know:

  • Budget (clients rarely have a clear budget – but it can be useful to start talking about your day rate and estimating the number of days or hours the work might require)
  • Deadline – how much time have you got?
  • Quantities – how many pages/words does the client need?
  • Challenges – what kind of research / development will you need to do?
  • Existing resources – what existing copy or content do they have?
  • Stakeholders – who will you liaise with on the client’s side?
  • Sign off – how many stakeholders will be involved in approving the copy?
  • Amendments – will the client want one or two rounds of amendments – or more?
  • Delivery – do they want copy in Word docs or HTML – or something else?
  • Goals – what problem is the client trying to solve?
  • Measuring success – how will the client know if your copy is effective?

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Your copywriting proposal


This should include a statement of the client’s requirements, as well as an outline of your process for creating their copy.

Specify:

  • Cost – fixed price for doing the project – or a day rate?
  • Timescales
  • Assumptions (i.e. what are you assuming that they will take care of?)
  • Payment terms (i.e. do you expect a deposit – and when will the balance be due?)
  • Cancellation policy

After submitting your proposal, your client may need some time to decide.

If they choose to work with another copywriter, the best thing you can do is accept this graciously, wish them luck, and remind them that you’re available if they need help in future.

If the client accepts your proposal, it’s time to get to work.
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The brief – getting it right


By now, you should know what your client wants. But do you know what they need?

Having established the client’s requirements, it’s time to add depth and detail to this framework. You may know that the client wants copy for a brochure, or a website, but do you know precisely what kind of copy they want?

Before you start writing, it’s sensible to explore the client’s needs in detail. And you shouldn’t simply ask them what they want; you should investigate your client’s problems, their goals and their audiences so that you can recommend copy designed to meet these needs.

You may be wondering why the brief is a distinct step, not tied up with the proposal. You could argue that it makes sense to merge these activities, and in some cases it may make sense to do both together.

However, the proposal is a tool to help you win a job.

Even if you win 75% of those jobs, you can see that 25% of the proposals you assemble are a drain on your time that offer no reward.

Because of this, it is wise to hold fire on the real work of the project until you know you’ve won the job. Also, you’ll need the client’s support to explore their underlying needs, so don’t waste their time if there’s a chance they’ll choose another copywriter.

Your brief may include details like:

  • Objectives – what the client wants to achieve
  • Tone of voice – how should the client ‘sound’?
  • Measuring success – how will the client know if your copy is effective?
  • Audiences – who will read the copy?
  • Calls to action – what actions are we trying to provoke?
  • USP – what is your unique selling point? i.e. what do you do differently to your competitors? Or: What do your customer love most about you?
  • Competitors – who are your best competitors?
  • Complaints – what do your customers complain about the most?
  • Anything else? – ask the client if they can think of any other pertinent details you should be aware of

After writing up these notes into a brief document, you should send it to the client. You may want to talk them through it, particularly if your recommendations may be surprising to the client.

Make it clear that the brief is a working document. If the client wants to change something – or add something – they can, and should.

Free copywriting brief template
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Research


By now you’ve probably learned a lot about your client.

But you may need to do additional research, such as:

  • Reading their existing website, brochures or blog posts
  • Checking out competitors
  • Liasing with other agencies or consultants involved with the project
  • Interviewing stakeholders, customers or suppliers
  • Reviewing any existing UX, IA or branding research or reports

If the research phase is particularly long or complex it may be useful to share your findings with the client, especially if you draw any surprising conclusions. By keeping the client informed during the project they are more likely to understand, and appreciate, the copy you submit.
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First draft


Now that you’ve finished your research, you can start writing.

It may be tempting to hide away and churn out the entire project, but there’s a danger that you could charge ahead in the wrong direction.

For medium-sized and large projects, you may be better off producing an initial sample of copy to share with the client. Explain your work, and ask them to review this early sample.

This is an easy way to avoid wasting your time on a style or approach that your client doesn’t like. And it gives you a chance to learn more about your client’s preferences.
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Feedback


Invite open and honest feedback from your client.

Listen carefully to everything they have to say. Even if you don’t agree – at first – with some of their comments, try to understand their perspective.

At this stage, you’re likely to have one of two responses to their feedback:

  1. The client is completely wrong. I don’t want to keep their amendments.
  2. The client has a good point. I’ll incorporate their feedback.

Ultimately, the client has the final say on the copy.

After all, it’s their business and they know best.

If you disagree on the client’s feedback, it’s right and proper to explain your contention. As a commercial writer, you are the expert. You should try to explain the rationale behind your decisions, and provide evidence or examples of why you believe your approach would be better for their business.

If you can’t persuade the client, it’s usually best to drop the issue and move on. Focus on the elements that you agree on, and accept the client’s decision.
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Second draft


You can now take on board the client’s feedback and continue writing.

You may choose to deliver content in batches, particularly if you’re creating a lot of copy.

Otherwise you might proceed to write the rest of their copy, and deliver a complete draft.
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Review


Once the client has a complete draft they can begin reviewing the copy.

The client should be checking that the copy is factually accurate, that the tone-of-voice is appropriate, and that they’re happy with the flow of information.

You might ask the client to use Track Changes (if you’re using Word documents) so they can easily add or remove any elements they aren’t sure about.

Rather than simply communicating everything by email, it may be easier – and more productive – to schedule a phone call or meeting to discuss their feedback. This is especially useful if the client has queries about general issues that run through the copy.
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Final draft


Having received the client’s feedback, you should be able to prepare a final draft.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the client will have no further comments or queries – but it means the bulk of issues and questions should be resolved.

Before you submit your final draft, check your copy again for typos and grammatical errors. Printing the copy can be helpful if you’ve been writing on-screen. The change of format can help to highlight errors.
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Sign off


The sign off process may be as simple as an email that says something like ‘this is great, thanks’ – or it could be a multi-stage process involving multiple stakeholders. It really depends on the size of the project and the needs of your client.
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Invoice


For short projects, you may wait until you’ve completed the work before sending an invoice.

For medium-sized projects – such as a few days or weeks – you may want to ask for a deposit up-front. Otherwise you will be waiting a very long time before you get any cash for your efforts. This is particularly true if you offer 30-day payment terms.

For big projects (many weeks of months) it’s wise to ask for payment in stages. The stages may be aligned to dates in the calendar, or to project milestones (i.e. first draft, second draft) but will help to keep cash flowing into your business.
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