Word count: there’s no magic bullet.

 

You’ve no doubt noticed as a reader that web writing is a different kettle of fish from writing for print. Web content tends to be short & snappy in a manner that would seem out of place (and even unprofessional) if used in print contexts, and the word count you’d except from a capability statement would seem terribly out of place in a blog. So, what’s a business to do?

What's a business to do?

The medium is the message.

Coined way back in 1964 by media intellectual Marshall McLuhan, this phrase still rings true in today’s mediascape.

When a writer crafts industrial copy, the medium plays a major role in determining what the end result will look like:  an annual report will be by its nature very different from how they’d write shorter-form commentary such as a blog. These differences are critical to how companies are perceived by their stakeholders.

You really need to get the word count right.

Word count is an aspect of industrial copywriting that’s unfortunately sometimes overlooked, leading to confusing brand messaging. Whether a writer is laconic when readers expect details, or long-winded when they should be getting to the point, getting the word count right is vital. 

Unfortunately… there’s no one “right word count”.

“How long should a blog post be?” is perhaps the most-pondered question in the world of web writing, and often answered with another question, “how long is a piece of string?” Disagreement abounds, with the SEO experts at Yoast and Buffer suggesting 700-800 & 1600 words respectively.

Really, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  The best length will vary depending on your industry, and what value your words add to your audience.

(Yes, the same also applies to print media, as we’ll see shortly.)

The good news is,  there’s no shortage of great industrial copy out there. Be original, but be inspired by companies who are doing a fantastic job of engaging clients like yours. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Learn from the experts.

We explored two print catalogs by Caterpillar & GE Power:

 CaterpillarGE Power
Page count1278
Cover page1310
Back page4223
Word count158430,429 (excluding appendixes)

Both are excellently crafted, with astonishingly different approaches.

  • GE Power positions itself as a thought leader, offering an in-depth overview of important trends in the power industry, and power’s importance to humanity. This makes a fascinating read for power-sector CEOs (as well as to me – I’ve certainly learned a lot!) However, products are only introduced at page 18, and only take up a small part of the catalog.
  • Caterpillar keep things short but to-the-point, speaking directly to “you”, and addressing the pain points of clients who are often small business owners.

While their word counts differ greatly, every word is intended to add value. However, GE Power is much more in-depth, and while it’s full of useful information, the target audience seems limited to voracious readers in the C-suite. With a plethora of case studies and sometimes-arcane information, at times this catalog reads more like a white paper. While it would fascinate some audiences, it could put others to sleep.

Caterpillar, on the other hand, has taken a less-is-more approach which may not position them as a thought leader, but is clear, easy-to-follow, and to the point. Both catalogs fundamentally have the same goal: brand & product awarTeness, leading to sales. But the hypothetical readers they’re communicating to are clearly different.

What works for GE Power might not work for Caterpillar, and vice-versa. Both are successful companies who’ve clearly taken the time to learn about their audiences, and how to write in a way that’s appealing, not appalling.

Doing web right.

Next, let’s take a look at web content by GE Power & Chevron:

 GE PowerChevron
Word count8871196

Both articles build an emotional connection with the brand, and are relatable to clients and the public alike: from GE’s contribution to a “sustainable, reliable and affordable energy future”, to Chevron’s economic impact on Australia, they’re both written with the goal of demonstrating value to society.

At almost 1200 words, Chevron’s article is more than 30% longer than GE Power’s. However, both fit neatly into Yoast & Buffer’s recommended ranges, and are engaging enough to keep audiences reading.

There’s no magic bullet.

The “right word count” is only right if it achieves its purpose. Can the catalog fascinate readers at length, and convert to sales, or would short & snappy win the race?

Communication is all about the reader. When they pick up a catalog, your reader isn’t expecting the next great Australian non-fiction masterpiece, but writing too briefly can lead to a missed opportunity to build that emotional connection and stand out from the competition.

In short, to get the word count right, don’t rely on magic bullets. As the expression goes, read the room: know your client, and write accordingly.

Bio

Lara Silbert is a Perth-based freelance strategic communications consultant and copywriter.  She specialises in working collaboratively with business clients to find and share their brand story.

Lara also delivers strategic communications seminars at ECU and her alma mater, UWA.

In her spare time, she enjoys travel, reading and cheese.

www.lara-silbert.com

Hourly Rates are Not a Wage

Why are contract writer’s rates not similar to an employee’s wage?

Learn why the convenience of only paying for hours worked and not having employment costs play into the rates for a technical writer.

Salary Versus Self Employment

I’ll explain the above table by starting with the PeopleBank Survey below. I use salary surveys as a benchmark for my pricing.

Current Salaries and Contract Rates

Few companies can afford to employ technical writers. In this day of lean business, writers have become a luxury. Those who can pay for employees, pay lower salaries than 10-15 years ago. (WA Business News, April 2018 https://www.businessnews.com.au/article/WA-unemployment-hits-highest-rate-since-2002 )

Let’s drill down into the salary trends for my market, technical writing. PeopleBank assesses salaries and day rates by role and state. Find the full survey at https://www.peoplebank.com.au/knowledge/salary-guide-australia

PeopleBank Salary Survey 2018

No Budget for Luxury Roles

Business in Perth is slow right now (May 2018). Businesses are serving fewer buyers and buyers are looking for the lowest possible price. The lack of money limits what a business can spend on labour.

As a technical writer, I find the demands for lower priced services dominate the conversation. The negotiations with businesses for technical writing deteriorate to comparisons of the cost of hourly employees to rates for hourly services.

My vision is to provide as-needed work for only the period needed, in lieu of a company needing to hire a employee for my specialist contract services. In my market of Western Australia, the going rate for a Technical Writer is

$480 to $560 per day,
if it’s a full day that’s $60-$70 per hour

Salaries Cost Less – Or Not?

If you’d like to look at only the direct employment costs, this pay calculator matches the Australian Tax Office’s Pay As You Go (PAYG) schedules.

https://www.paycalculator.com.au/

Australian Pay Calculator

What About Office Expenses?

The salary is lower than gross a sole trader might gross. Keep in mind the salaried employee has superannuation (retirement), paid holidays, sick leave, insurance (the Workers Comp I mentioned earlier) … office space, computer, HR & payroll processing, and the list goes on.

Oh, and did I mention the employer has the legal obligation to pay on time, even during holidays?

The rule of thumb most often suggested to me is overhead on an employee (including the above pay burdens) can add 38%-40% more costs to the employer.

A $55,000 to $80,000 per year employee …
… can cost a company $77,000 to $112,000 per year.

The Cost of Convenience

I am a sole trader and my status is a benefit to the companies I work for. They do not have the burden of insurance (like Workers Comp or Liability) nor the obligations of an employee (minimum of 4 hours of work, providing for break times, sick leave, and paid holidays).

What is the cost of only have a service when you need it, and not have the “bum-warming-a-chair” when you don’t?

If I were an employee and my employer could bill for my hours, they would not be able to bill for my holidays. (The actual number of working hours in a year are 2,087.) I’m also leaving paid holidays out of my estimate to keep it simple. For example, a casual employee does not get the benefit of paid holidays.

60 percent billable time

From my years of experience doing “as-needed” work, 60% of my total workdays are used doing billable work. 40% of my time in a year ends up not being billable.

What accounts for the 40% of un-billable time?

20% of my time is un-billable time due to delays, cancellations, jobs I cannot work due to conflicting deadlines, and clients not booking around holidays. And, 20% of my time is spent on bookkeeping, administrative, education, marketing, and sales calls.

Expense of As-Needed Services

Let’s look at the average income I earn instead of the seasonal highs and lows. Averages make it easier to compare an independent contractor’s rates to an employee’s earnings.

Net Income, Wage and Salary

Paying Myself and Other Costs

The expense of paying myself the fair market value work is my biggest cost. My business has expenses are my next biggest cost. My next biggest costs are professional indemnity insurance, software subscriptions (bookkeeping software, MS Office, gMail) and my communications (mobile phone and internet service).

Think about this. The closer I get to maximising my billable hours, the less my costs are!

My expenses are consistent and don’t change even when I have more work. In fact, my costs might be slightly higher when I’m not working because I spend slightly more on phone calls, marketing, and meetings.

My maximum efficiency is working 20 of 20 billable days. At my highest monthly efficiency, 20% of my income is spent on expenses. I give favour to clients who offer long-term, consistent work because this is more efficient than half-days or piece work.

Earning More than Employment

A self employed person would ideally have a consistent income throughout the year. Whilst my tables above look like I’m earning more income than if I was employed, the reality is different.

Monthly fluctuations in income

See my 2015 article, How much should I charge?

Financial Limitations of Work in 2018

I’ve found that seasonal fluctuations in when I work and delays in payments cost me money. Some of the hardest times of year are around Christmas. This means I need to maximise the number of days I work during peak times. I give more consideration to booking clients that pay my full rate and pay on time.

Per piece jobs (5 web pages or 1 brochure) tend to be the most inefficient. I find I need a mix of direct hire and temp agencies to aggregate more income in the time available. The months of March to October are usually the best months to earn income.

In the first 6 months of this calendar year, I’ve had too many small copywriting piece-work jobs. And of those jobs, I’ve had several opportunistic businesses who are slow to pay or who owe me significant amounts of money on mid-size jobs. Part of my issue is my inability to qualify the integrity and financial stability of the companies I’ve sold to.

I listen to my clients and I wanted to address their needs. I spent a year managing a group of independent copywriters. My vision was to fill the gaps in their schedule. I could edit and write during the gaps. The “denser work” benefit all of us.

I learned that managing even a group of people, the clients, and rostering the jobs was nearly a full-time job in itself. My margin wasn’t enough to cover the amount of time needed to coordinate and brief the copywriters.

What’s Next?

I am actively searching for full-time employment.

The cost of running my business (and funding other’s work) has exceeded my threshold. Prospects complain my rates are too high. Where I’ve negotiated a lower rate for a slightly larger scope of work, I’ve been burned by non-payment and late payment. (I can make a better income as an employee.)

I will continue to offer my smaller, as-needed tech writing services until I land a full-time role.

The secondary consideration is that written documents may no longer be needed as technology and business evolve. My search for full-time work has expanded to include sales and business development roles. Companies will need income generating employees more than documentation (except where laws require written documents for compliance).

Related

Workflow Software Comparison

Masts on STS Leeuwin II tall ship in Perth, Australia

In a workflow software comparison — should you start with the tasks, where the content is published, or the accounting? The amount of work you need to track should fit into an easy workflow management system.

Let’s look at how three different types of management tools work:

  1. KissFlow – online forms using a workflow process to manage data
  2. CoSchedule – a tool built for agencies, their content writers, and content managers
  3. WorkFlow Max – an account management tool that connects to Xero bookkeeping

Continue reading “Workflow Software Comparison”