While I was at the playground with my kids recently, a local dad mentioned he was looking for a freelance writer. He’d hired someone to write marketing copy for his business and thought he might need to bring in a replacement. Did I know anyone who could get the job done next week?
I understood his plight. It’s not easy to hire someone outside of your own discipline. I’ve struggled to find people like accountants in the past because I didn’t know how to evaluate them the way that someone in their own field would.
If you’re new to hiring freelancers and need some help, here are some suggestions, based on what I’ve figured out in my nearly two decades as an assigning editor.
1. Experience trumps everything else. I try to hire freelance writers who’ve worked in their field for at least four or five years and ideally, at least a decade. Why? By this point, they will have been edited often enough to know the general standards of quality in our field. I don’t want to end up working with someone who doesn’t fact check an article or thinks it is okay to turn in a 2,000-word version of a 600-word assignment. I also look for folks who know the subject matter well. If it’s a small-business article I’m assigning, I’d rather bring on a writer who specializes in this niche than, say, someone who usually writes dance criticism. Specialists will know what else is being written in their field and bring something fresh to the table.
There are other reasons to turn to folks with experience: They will typically be able to look at a project from the outset, come up with creative ideas I may not have considered and spot potential minefields to avoid. They will know to speak up before the last minute if something is going awry with a project, so we can regroup. They will have excellent work habits and know how to meet deadlines, even in trying circumstances. If there are budget constraints on a project, they will be able to think of creative alternatives that achieve the result we want. (“Maybe we only need one high-quality blog post a week to boost traffic on the website, instead of two.”)
Typically, I look for freelancers who have worked for big clients with high standards or have word-of-mouth referrals from others I know and trust in the field. If you need a freelancer in a creative field but have no contacts there, I’d go through a well-established media industry site like MediaBistro to find talent. Look closely at where the freelancers have worked. Folks who have been in business for 20 years but only done work for unknown companies may be stuck at that level because they can’t deliver high quality work or have poor work habits.
2. Don’t “shop” by price. It might seem like you’re saving money by hiring a freelancer who charges $20 an hour instead of someone who charges $100 an hour. But you probably won’t be. Why? Someone who charges $20 an hour is probably still learning his or her craft and will not be able to work as efficiently or well as a seemingly higher priced competitor.
Say you’re hiring a freelance writer and researcher to help you write a proposal for a book aimed at professionals in your industry. A top reporter in your field will immediately know which expert to call to get insight on a new trend you want to mention–and gather it in a half hour phone call–while someone less seasoned might have to call 10 people before finding the right expert and therefore spend the entire day on research. And the seasoned pro will likely turn in a highly polished draft that needs only a few tweaks, while the lower-priced competitor will deliver a draft that would be considered very “rough” (and possibly worthless) at the publishing houses where you plan to submit it.
When I hired a web designer for a client, I turned to the best person I knew–who charges $150 an hour–because he’d been designing sites with the look and feel the client loves for years. He knew how long the project would take him–which turned out to be just a few days–and stuck to his estimate. Hiring him was ultimately a bargain. Traffic on the site has skyrocketed, in part because of his insights on how to improve its navigation.
If you are on a tight budget, ask each freelancer you’re considering for a written estimate of how much a project will cost. You may be surprised to find that a project that a “lower-priced” freelancer estimates at 12 hours will take an experienced pro 2 hours.
This brings me to blogging. Often, small companies look for someone who will write posts for their blogs for $50 or some other token amount. I’ve had people tell me they don’t care much about quality–they just need to get something up. They are trying to put up a certain number of blog posts a week to improve their Google rankings. The problem is that someone who charges $50 a blog post is probably not a compelling writer. They will not know how to write the kind of intriguing headlines and copy that pull people to the blog and cause readers to forward articles to their friends. The blogging budget ends up being money down the drain. It’s better to invest in hiring someone great to write a smaller number of blog posts at $300 or $400 that customers really read and enjoy, so you really do raise the visibility of your brand. There are plenty of other strategies you can use to improve your Google ranking.
3. Start with a small project. The only way to truly find out if a freelancer is a good fit for your project is to work together. Most editors I know will hire a freelance writer who is new to them for a very small project to see how things work out. This gives them a chance to see the quality of the freelancer’s work, if the writer makes the deadline and how easy it is to work with the freelancer. If the project goes well, the editor will offer a bigger project the next time.
I’d recommend the same approach to you. Before you contract with a ghost writer for your book, hire him to help you create a post for your blog at his normal hourly rate. Try out a web designer by paying her to design the template for a single page on your website. Ask for an estimate on the project and see if the freelancer sticks with it. You’ll know everything you need to know after you receive that first project.
Start very early–not a week from when you need the project to be completed. You don’t want to get caught in the lurch if a freelancer can’t meet the deadline–or pulls a disappearing act.