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Why hire a writer? (And how to do it.)

By Jerry Karp
© 2002 Jerry Karp. All rights reserved

You know your press material and your web site content are important tools in your efforts to connect with your audience, gain increased media exposure and land more prestigious and better paying jobs. But expenses are tight, you're an OK writer-or your cousin is-and well, people only care about your music, not reading snazzy copy on your press releases or web pages. So what's the point of hiring someone to do your writing for you? And if you do decide to work with a professional, what should you look for?

OK. Here's the first five million dollar question. How much better is a professional writer going to make your material than you could make it on your own? Remember that we're talking about how you, as a professional musician, communicate with other music industry and media professionals. So you have to weigh the immediate monetary cost of making that hire against the potential professional cost of sending a less than first-rate press kit or web site out into the world.

A professional copywriter, if he or she is any good, is someone who's experienced in the craft of developing and presenting ideas via the written word. That may sound high falutin', but it's what writing is really all about. It's not just pulling some slick words together. It's understanding the best ways to organize and present information, and then pulling some slick words together to make that happen. There's skill and craft to it, just like there's skill and craft to making great music and producing great CDs.

Think of it this way: would you let someone produce your recording that didn't really understand the technical end of production but sort of knew what sounded good? Here are some of those points of craft I'm referring to, along with some things to consider if you do decide to put together your own material:

Articulating your vision What sets your music and your artistry apart? What makes you worth noticing and writing about? What's unique about your style, your sound and your inspiration? It's hard to imagine that someone else would be able to articulate these ideas more precisely than you can. But if music is your medium rather than copywriting, someone who is adept at expressing ideas via the written word may in fact be able to explain your vision and describe your accomplishments accurately in ways that wouldn't occur to you. The key is to find a writer who knows the artistic process, loves music, and is willing to sit with you at length and really understand what you're all about.

Audience Your bios, releases and web pages are most effective when written in the style best suited to connect with the people who'll be reading them. That means using a voice they'll appreciate and including all the information they will need (but not too much extra). It's not just "What do I want to say?" but also "What will be most useful and interesting to my audience?" A professional writer should have the experience to know how to create that voice, and know what does and doesn't belong in your material.

Organization Have you presented your story in the most effective order so your readers can get all your information quickly and easily? Your ideas should flow logically and the most important information should appear first. It's not a murder mystery, so don't save the good stuff for the end. Someone who stops after a couple of paragraphs should already have learned the most crucial elements of your story.

Clarity and accuracy Are you expressing your ideas as clearly and effectively as possible? A big part of this equation is the clarity of each sentence, including grammar and punctuation. Remember, journalists are writers; poorly constructed sentences or misused punctuation will trip them up and make you look like an amateur. It doesn't have anything to do with the quality of your music. I know this, you know this, and the journalist knows it, too. It's a matter of perception and professionalism.

Overall, we're talking about style. Is the writing engaging enough to be read all the way through and the information acted upon? We're not talking about getting fancy, here, but if the writing is stiff, the syntax tortured, the information confusing, or the vocabulary redundant or jargon-laden, your reader is going to become resentful or is simply going to give up. Remember that you are not doing your audience a favor by presenting your message; your audience is doing you a favor by reading it.

Some things to look for when hiring a writer If you're taking the step of hiring a professional, you want to make sure you get the best writer for your project. Here are some rules of thumb:

Experience. Obviously, you're not hiring anyone until you've seen their work. Check out portfolios. See if their style seems close to the voice that fits your music and your audience, or if they seem versatile enough to handle any style. You want someone who's written about music, or at least about the arts.

Personality. You may be working with this person for a while. Look for a writer you think will be easy to work with. Be sure you're getting someone who understands that the bottom line is giving you what you need and delivering your message.

Ask about their process. How do they handle their projects? If all they want to do is look at the material you're already using and rewrite that, be wary. How do they know that everything you need to say is included in your old releases? Look for someone who will spend time with you, interviewing you and your band members in depth and finding about as much as possible about your inspirations and influences. Someone like that may think of things to say about you, and ways to say it, that you'd never have thought of yourself. That's a big part of what you're paying for.

Ask about rewrites. Most professional writers have some sort of a satisfaction guarantee. You shouldn't have to pay more for a round or two of rewrites, assuming you're not changing what you're asking for in the middle of the process.

How do they charge? There are many different opinions on this, but for many people, it makes more sense to charge by the project rather than by the hour. That way, everyone's clear up front on what the costs are going to be. If the writer is going to be spending significant research and/or interviewing time, he or she will figure that into the fees.

Get a written agreement. Another way to be sure everyone's on the same page regarding the cost and scope of the project is to ask the writer for a written agreement outlining exactly the work that's going to be done, the timelines, and the fees that will be paid. This gives all concerned an efficient blueprint to work from.

Having your press kits/releases, web content and marketing material written professionally may be a one-time cost that pays off handsomely in the long run with additional work and enhanced media coverage.

Your press kit and online content help tell the world who you are, what you're music is all about, and how you see yourself. A journalist thinking about interviewing you, a reviewer considering your CD, or a club manager with a date to fill takes a look at your press material or your web site and sees . . . what?

Jerry Karp is a freelance writer whose articles have recently appeared in Jazz Steps, San Francisco Reader, Auditoria, and Through his business, Rocket Words, Jerry helps artists and arts-related businesses attract new audiences with high-quality web content, press kits and marketing materials of all kinds.

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