“You don’t need a knife to cut a banana.”

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That quote was a favorite of a gentleman I worked with in a previous life. He always attributed it to Yogi Berra, but I haven’t been able to verify that (although it sounds like something Yogi would have said).

No matter who said it, you really don’t need a knife to cut a banana. But you need a lot more than a knife to force your way through solid rock.

But enough about bananas and rocks. The point is that using the right tool(s) for the job is critical to success in any endeavor. And that’s as true for freelance content writers as it is for knives and…blowtorches?

Do you really need a “writer”…or something else?

Freelance content writer” is a very big umbrella, encompassing a variety of skills, experiences, specialities, etc. And let’s not forget rates. The internet is an all-you-can-eat buffet for freelancers writers, and it goes from value-menu prices all the way up to five-star dining. You can find writers who charge everything from .01 per word to $1.00 per word — or even more. The key is to know exactly what you want a “writer” to deliver and then to look where those people are.

Writer

You need a writer if you know exactly what you want to be written and just want somebody to do it for you. This type of writer is a technician: Flawless grammar/punctuation, good writing skills, good SEO knowledge, ability to follow directions, and precise attention to detail.

Content developer

You need a content developer if you have a general idea of what you want to accomplish but need someone who prefers to work independently. Give these writers a headline or title, and they conduct their own research, come up with their own angle, and draw their own conclusions. If you gave five of these writers the same headline, you’d probably get five completely different pieces of content.

For this group of writers, taking initiative is standard procedure, so the more specific your needs are, the more specific your directions need to be. Otherwise you might get something that, while of exceptionally high quality, isn’t quite what you had in mind.

Content strategist

You need a content strategist if you have no idea what content marketing is even about — or, maybe you do, but you want a turnkey solution so that you can focus on your core business. Content strategists deliver the whole package: They tell you what you should be doing and why you should be doing it. If you agree, they make it happen.

The process won’t be completely hands-off for you, though, because content strategists come preloaded with lots of questions.

If you don’t hear questions like these, you’re not dealing with a true content strategist:

“Who is the audience?”

  • Why do they come to your website in the first place? What pain point are they trying to resolve, or what need/want are they trying to fulfill?
  • Where are they in the sales funnel — awareness, interest, decision, or action?
  • How much do they know about your product and what it’s for? Are they experts, novices, or somewhere in between?

“What is the purpose of this content?”

  • What do you want this content to accomplish? Do you want readers to sign up for a mailing list, buy something, see you as an expert, see your company in a positive light, etc.? Or are you trying to grow your own customer base by educating people who may not have otherwise been interested in your product? (Home improvement stores, for example: Teaching people how to DIY is a huge part of their business model.)
  • What do you want your audience to think, do, or feel after reading this?

“Why is that important?”

This is the question that’s the mark of a real pro. Because sometimes the purpose you first identify isn’t the real purpose at all — you need to back up a few steps.

Let’s say you’re a plumber, and you tell your writer that the purpose of a given piece is to tell people why they shouldn’t flush certain things down their toilet. The writer asks you why that’s important. There are probably lots of potential answers, but for the sake of brevity, let’s look at two:

  • “Because we don’t want our customers to have to deal with all the problems a plugged toilet can cause.”
  • “Because it’s unpleasant work with a low profit margin.”

Those would probably be very different articles. That’s because the answer to “Why is that important?” provides the context for the content, even if it’s never explicitly stated.

Here’s another example: Let’s say you’re a guitar manufacturer, and you tell a writer you want an article about ethical sourcing for the wood you use. And you say that the purpose is to educate people about what’s going on in your supply chain. But it’s the “Why is that important?” part that really matters:

  • “Because we want our customers to care about ethical sourcing as a social justice issue.”
  • “Because we want our customers to see us as being socially responsible.”
  • “Because we want our customers to understand that pricing will probably go up due to new regulations.”
  • “Because we want our customers to know that we’ll no longer be able to make guitars using X type of wood.”
  • “Because we want our customers to understand that products may be delayed due to sourcing challenges.”

Again, those are all entirely different articles. That “why” question is absolutely essential for framing your content in the right context.

“Have you thought about…?” or “Yeah, but…”

Content strategists are natural devil’s advocates. If there are pitfalls or drawbacks in your plan, they’ll point them out.

One time, for example, a client asked me to write a blog post about how to prepare for an OSHA inspection. Well…while doing my research, I found out that OSHA inspections aren’t scheduled; they’re “surprise” inspections. So the content, as requested, made no sense. A content strategist will give you that kind of pushback rather than writing exactly what you ask for even when they suspect it will make you look foolish — or potentially cause other problems that would have a bottom-line impact.

Other pushback questions could include things like:

  • “Do you own the rights to these photos? Does the source require attribution?”
  • “Does including that information violate any SEC rules (like insider trading)?”
  • “If you write a blog post about why you don’t like to hire Millennials, couldn’t that get you in trouble with the EEOC?”
  • “What are the liability issues if someone follows your advice and it ends up causing a problem?”
  • “Do you have facts to support these claims?”

In other words, content strategists will see covering your butt as a big part of their job. They don’t provide copy; they provide solutions.

Where to find them

The first half of the equation is deciding exactly what you want from a writer; the second is finding the right one.

While it’s true that you get what you pay for, there’s no reason to pay for more than you actually need.

With that in mind, here’s a general framework for finding the best writer to fit your needs. There will certainly be some overlap, and even superstars have to start somewhere, so you may be lucky enough to find an extremely talented fledgling writer on any of these sites.

Writers

(Hint: little or no direct contact with the writer)

The economy-line content factories typically keep a solid wall between writers and clients (because their revenue comes from facilitating that relationship). Here are a few of the most popular:

Upwork (average project cost of $75)

PeoplePerHour (prices vary, starting at around $15/post)

Constant Content (prices vary, starting at around $20 for one blog post)

BlogMutt (subscriptions start at $89/month for 1 post per week)

Craigslist (prices vary)

Content developers

(Hint: some contact with the writer, although it might be through an intermediary)

You can usually find this type of writer on sites that serve as marketplaces, providing a forum where writers and clients can find and do business with each other.

Because of that business model, prices and expertise vary widely. You may even find somebody who’ll serve as more of a content strategist than a developer. Check out sites like these:

nDash

Problogger

SparkWrite

Content strategists

(Hint: a direct business relationship)

The thing to remember about content strategists is that you may miss them if you’re searching for “freelancers” or “writers.” While I do use those terms occasionally for SEO purposes, I think of myself as more of a business owner or consultant than a freelancer or writer. As far as pricing, content strategists typically charge by the project rather than by the word. Good places to find content strategists include:

Your professional network (for referrals)

LinkedIn

Inbound

Copyblogger (includes only those writers who have completed Copyblogger’s Content Marketing certification program)

And, if you’ll pardon the shameless self-promotion:

Podnar Content Strategy and Development

 

The titles I used aren’t set in stone, of course, so your mileage may vary. The point is that, while you really don’t need a knife to cut a banana, a knife isn’t going to make a dent in a solid rock. So before you start vetting writers, decide exactly what services you need that person to provide – and then look in the places where those people hang out.