Most popular of 2016: #2. How to commission a writer

The second most-read post on Content Desk this year was full of useful advice – lifting the lid on best practices and things to bear in mind when you’re looking for that perfect writer  

This piece was originally posted on 5 February and is written by Penny Rance, features editor of economia magazine

You have an idea for an article, and need to find a writer. Commissioning one might seem like a simple task, but get it wrong at this first stage and you could easily hit the skids down the line – you don’t want to be left with unsuitable, or unusable, copy when deadlines are pressing. Added to that, if you get the brief wrong, you’ll have to pay for the copy even if you can’t use it.

So what should you keep in mind when you are commissioning top copy?

Know your audience: Who are you aiming the article at? How knowledgeable your audience is will dictate the type of writer you need. If you intend to publish an article on the minutiae of Mifid 2 for an audience of bank compliance managers, the writer needn’t waste text explaining the basics – they will, however, need to have a good grasp of the subject matter to write confidently and accurately. Conversely, a general audience will appreciate someone who can write intelligently, opening up the subject for them and explaining the fundamentals in a compelling, accessible way.

Research: It’s best to test the premise of an article before you commission a writer. An article on the safety of e-cigarettes might sound like a good idea, but there may be a growing body of research that says otherwise. Look at both sides before you pick your premise. At the same time, find out whether similar stories have been published elsewhere, and if there’s anything new to bring to the debate.

The tone: The tone of an article will be dictated by the subject matter and its audience, but it’s always best to be explicit with the writer up front. You don’t want them lunging into a stream of consciousness while writing about stress limits on concrete. Consider whether the article should be general or specific, light-hearted or technical, discursive or polemic. And ensure that the audience will feel neither patronised nor baffled.

Format: Given the ubiquity of digital text consumed on small screens, traditional running copy is becoming less desirable. Consider commissioning shorter articles – opinion pieces, talking heads and numbered lists. Break up chunks of prose with pull-outs and side panels. That way you can get the most from your writer, present a large amount of information in digestible ways, and ensure your content is suited to the different platforms it appears on.

Length: It’s vital to provide a word count, not least because most writers expect to charge by the word. For hard copy, work out the space you have to fill, and use dummy copy to give you an idea of how many words you’ll need. If you’re publishing online, think about the tolerance your readership will have for scrolling through a longer article, and whether you want it to fit in a single screen or frame. Ideally, ask for 15% more copy than you think you need so that there is scope to expand the article, or cut anything you think is irrelevant. It’s easier to cut than to fill, and you’ll get a sharper, more focus finished product. Finally, be realistic about what you want the writer to cover, and in how much detail, and whether they will be able to cover it in the given word count.

The brief: Brief by name needn’t mean brief by nature. The point of it is to give the writer the best possible springboard into the story. It should include details of tone, word count, audience and format. Let them know what the article is intended to achieve – working headlines can be useful for this, as is presenting the yes/no sides of a debate. If you have a list of contacts or interviewees you would like the writer to speak to, list them in the brief – and state whether you would like them to find additional contacts of their own. Include the results of any research you want quoted, such as statistics from white papers or company research, and make sure the writer can access the originals. If you are asking the writer to cover a lot of ground, then explicitly state how many words you would like them to devote to different sections of the article. This is particularly important for break-out boxes and additional information, to ensure a good balance and flow to the content.

Ultimately, the quality of the article depends on the quality of the brief. Don’t assume the writer is a mind-reader, and will know exactly what you want without being told. Avoid providing briefs that are open to interpretation. Equally, if there’s scope for them to put their own spin in it, tell them. If the requirements of the article should change after it’s been commissioned, let the writer know as soon as possible. Chances are they won’t have started writing, and will be able to use the research they’ve already done to fit the new brief. If it changes after they file the copy, don’t expect them to rewrite the whole thing for free – but they should be willing to make a few tweaks.

Don’t forget to check out our companion piece: Top tips for briefing freelance writers.

Editor's pick

Most popular