I would never ever suggest to my clients that they pay me per word. By its very nature, it encourages quantity over quality. Plain and simple.
I can waffle for England when I want to; anyone who reads these blogs will know it’s very easy for me to go off on a tangent. But being both eloquent and concise are the signs of a good copywriter. Why say something in ten words, when three will suffice?
So if you’re paying a copywriter by the word, you’re arguably encouraging them to cram in as many redundant clauses as they can to maximise their profit.
Less is often more
And if you flip this on its head, some of the finest pieces of copywriting come from just a few short lines, or even, a few simple words.
Take one of my favourite examples: the six word novel. One story holds it originated as the result of a bet between Ernest Hemingway and other writers, about creating a story in the fewest words possible. Hemingway, submitted this:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Six words that bring a wealth of emotions, questions and concern to the reader, letting their imagination create their own story.
These six words arguably say more than a thousand ever would.
And that’s why both copywriters and businesses looking to hire a content writer should avoid an agreement which pays by the word, and why they should both steer well clear of content mills that churn out copy at pennies per word.
Why copywriters would be selling themselves short charging by the word
I recently had some experience with Copify and did some research into them and other cheap content sites that charge clients by the word. It was as I expected. They’re bad news for copywriters.
1) Speed becomes the most important skill
Straight off the bat, the fact that these content mills have a timed test to verify your capability tells you all you need to know about the type of work they’re looking for. Emphasis is placed largely on speed; other skills take a back seat. Taking on contracts that are paid by the word encourages fast writing, a spasm of typing and verbal diarrhoea.
The quote “Show me a person who can write twice as fast, and I will show you a person who writes half as well” springs to mind. As an aspiring copywriter, you won’t be doing yourself any favours trying to write super fast.
2) You’ll struggle to make a living
For any of these content mill websites, you will have to work incredibly fast to earn even just the minimum wage. Knocking out 200 words for the rate of 1p per word, which some copywriters have been paid, and you’d have to write a piece every 20 minutes to earn just £6 per hour. That’s less than the National Living Wage.
Even if you doubled the wage you were paid to 2p per word, you’d still only earn £12 per hour – IF you could cut research to a minimum and keep your writing pace up consistently. Sure, you might earn some extra pocket money, but at what cost?
3) You won’t be developing, learning or showing off
Working on these quick turnaround, low quality pieces of content fodder won’t be doing your writing skills any favours either. You will just become like a machine, churning out the same things over and over again.
You won’t be focused on learning new skills, developing techniques or pushing the boundaries of what you’re capable of. You won’t be interacting with clients and showing others how good of a writer you are.
Without the ability to create any portfolio pieces or get bylines to credit you for your work, your time would arguably be better spent in an unpaid internship.
4) You’ll be undervaluing yourself
No matter which way you swing it, you will be selling yourself short, because you are worth than more than 1p, 2p or even 10p a word.
A builder would never charge by the number of nails he uses; a surgeon would never charge for the number of incisions she makes; so why should you get paid for the number of words you write on a page?
If you are charging by the word, should you charge more for longer words? It takes longer to type them, so surely it should work on the same principal of a garage charging more for a larger tyre, or a car wash increasing their fees for bigger cars?
Should you be charging for unusual and obscure words, because they are like gold dust and hard to come by? And how about those commas, full stops and exclamation marks? They can make or break a sentence and add a wealth of emotion to a piece, so what’s their value?
Why businesses should always avoid paying a copywriter on a per word basis
It isn’t just aspiring copywriters who should avoid content mills and charging by the word. Businesses should steer clear of paying for any piece of copy on a per word basis too.
I personally had experience working with another company who used a ‘content agency’ to get some articles written that they were in desperate need of. They got a good price, and the work was turned around fast. The copy in the articles was OK.
But that’s just it; it was OK, not great. It was never going to be. The writers were not experts in the industry, and they weren’t professional copywriters; they did very basic research and wrote the pieces are per the brief, but nothing more. So ultimately, the company I was working with never used these articles.
It was money down the drain. And this sums up paying by the word for generic content pieces.
1) Length is rarely better
When you commission a copywriter on a by-the-word basis, you’re encouraging them to write as many words as they can to get the most money from you. All good copywriters know that longer is rarely better.
If you’re writing a book, then great; you want lots of descriptive words to set the scene. But if you’re telling someone something, say it in as few words as possible. Why explain an important point about the way a sentence should be copywritten in twenty-four words, when you can say it in three? Less is better.
Take a look at some of the most famous straplines in advertising: Nike’s – Just Do it; Tesco’s – Every Little Helps; and McDonalds’ – I’m Lovin’ It. Do you think these companies spent 3p to develop these slogans?
2) Speed isn’t efficient
If you read my blog on applying to join Copify’s ranks, you’ll see from my experience with the speed test that it’s clearly not the best indicator of skill. You cannot determine a copywriter’s quality based on a one line brief and a timed exercise. You are always encouraging speed over skill, precision and content.
By promoting someone to work fast, you’re stopping them from focusing on what they’re delivering. You’re valuing quantity over quality.
3) There’s more than one definition of unique
Fast, cheap and cheery content is not unique. Sure, it might pass unique content tool tests like Copyscape, in that word-for-word it isn’t on the internet in this exact form, but that doesn’t mean that is offers unique value to a reader.
There’s no time for research if you’re working at the pace required to earn anything close to minimum wage that these types of sites require. A copywriter will simply be churning out basic information from the top of their head.
And the result for you, the business, will be the creation of pointless content that you’re throwing into a landfill of other, very similar content. It will never help you stand out or make a difference, and the impact on your sales will be minimal.
It’s like pouring a bottle of water into the ocean. And it certainly won’t get you to that #1 spot on Google.
4) You get what you pay for
As with most things in life, this saying largely holds true for copywriting. Are you paying for people who are just dabbling in writing for a bit of extra cash, or are you getting those who are experts in their field and devoted to their craft?
You might get lucky; you might find someone who is down on their luck and turned to these sites in hard times, or you might pick up a fresh gem of a writer who is just starting out and has a fantastic natural skill. But what are the chances of this? Generally, you won’t get a professional copywriter.
“Pay peanuts, get monkeys.” Another of my favourite phrases. Any work, copywriting included, that is cheap and quick is, by inference, low quality. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally this holds true.
Instead of throwing money down the drain, invest in someone who will understand your brand, get your business, and help with your goals. The long term results will be so much more worthwhile, and ironically, you’ll likely find it cheaper in the long too.
Responsibility lies with the companies themselves
We shouldn’t blame companies like Copify. They are a business, and as such are out to make a profit for themselves, as any business would. They are merely exploiting a lack of knowledge filling a gap in the marketplace.
There are many other businesses like them: Textbroker; Wait; ContentWriter; and HireWriters to name a few. They are sites that fill a need, a need for words. And many, large, legitimate and well known companies use them to get pieces of content written.
Those writers in need of money, and perhaps experience, turn to them and can just about get enough to scrape by. Arguably, this is better than some news sites like The Guardian or The Huffington Post, where journalists write for free to earn a byline. This is no way to earn a living; you wouldn’t ask anyone else in any other profession to work for free.
But whilst sites like Copify aren’t to blame, they are somewhat responsible. They are in a unique position to make a difference and influence the marketplace. So this is my challenge to them. At the moment, they’re delivering cheap words, but they could deliver promises and results.
They could deliver a unique craft to businesses; they could sell proper copywriting.
They are in a position to educate and influence businesses. They should be selling the virtues of high quality, skilled writing, the kind that really affects sales and has an impact on the bottom line. And they could be increasing their own profits too.
It won’t happen, but it’s wishful thinking.
Here’s my own commitment too; for any copywriter starting out who needs some extra advice and support, I’m here to help. I already work with some junior copywriters and pass them work whenever I can, and I will always do the same to anyone else who wants to succeed in the business. It won’t be every day work from the start, but it will be good quality, well-paid work, that gets you recognition and portfolio pieces.
That’s a promise.
About the author: Ben Hampson
Ben grew up devouring words. He could read before he could walk. You’ll never find him without something to read by his side: a book; a magazine; a newspaper; a flyer. Absolutely anything. And not far away, there will always be a pen and a notepad.