Tweaking your way to copywriting hell

About once a week, someone contacts me with a letter or ad they want me to “tweak.”

Definition of tweak: “I read a book on copywriting over the weekend and wrote my own copy. It sucks. I desperately need your help, but I’m too cheap to pay you to write something for me.”

This, my friends, is a no-win situation for a highly paid copywriter.

If you tell the prospect their copy sucks, you’ll insult them. If you quote them your full price, you won’t get the job. If you take the job and do it on the cheap, you’ll have a hard time because a) you’ll have to rewrite the copy without it appearing that you rewrote it or b) you’ll have to start from scratch and get paid a fraction of what the work is worth.

How you handle a tweaker is up to you, but here’s what I do:

I ask to look at the copy before I say anything else. If the copy really isn’t that bad, I play along and agree to a rewrite. If the copy is bad, I say so. I quote my price for new copy and let the chips fall.

Will this result in a loss of business? Yes and no. Yes, because if you charge high fees, any time you give a quote, you’ll lose business from someone not willing to pay what you charge. No, because if someone can’t afford your fees, that’s not a client you want anyway. You really aren’t losing anything by not working for those who do not fit your client description.

What if you’re just starting out and need the money? Take the job. Early on, you need experience more than anything. And you won’t have to deal with the “opportunity cost” of working for less than your standard fees because you probably don’t have work queued up for weeks or months anyway as do many top copywriters.

Takeaway: Beware the tweak. For some copywriters, this means more trouble than it’s worth.

I’m curious, do designers and other freelancers experience the tweak too? Are there similar situations in other businesses?

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3 Responses to “Tweaking your way to copywriting hell”

  1. Janice C Cartier on June 11th, 2008 1:18 pm

    Yes. “Beware the tweak” is alive and well in the art business too. It comes from word of mouth initially, someone heard from someone how great it was to work with you. That is wonderful word of mouth. What is not so great is the I don’t want to pay retail ploys that sometimes follow.
    We just need a little help with, fill in the blank with the project of the moment, followed by huge flattery. I give my fees and pay protocol. Enter the sticker shock. (My fees are reasonable BTW ). Then we see back peddling, a sudden third party needed to approve, or a “oh we decided to go another way”. These are all code for, uh uh, I am not paying retail for what they consider a little tweak.
    But all that free time you don’t spend with that kind of client, can be spent with your ideal clients. Finding them, and keeping them happy with fabulous work. More mutual respect in that.

  2. Bob Firestone on June 11th, 2008 5:35 pm

    The point on “Will this result in a loss of business?” is important for everyone who is self employed. If the client won’t pay your rate then they are not a worthwhile client. In my experience the people who come in trying to lowball you are the problem children. They take up all your time and take their own sweet time to pay you.

    If you can refer the customer to someone who needs the work and can do it for the price and will pay you a referral fee. Everyone wins!

  3. Ted Grigg on June 11th, 2008 10:28 pm

    Even consultants get “tweak requests” to review their plans and make a few suggestions to see if they like what you say before giving me the real project. That is code for, “We can easily afford to pay, but we are cheapskates and don’t think anyone else should make money but us.”

    I’m actually going to one of those paid meetings soon. When I quoted my hourly rate (which is quite competitive, by the way), the main client contact said in front of his employees. “OK. But you had better be good.”

    This client makes plenty of money but has been unwilling in the past to do any real marketing. I was hoping she would say I cost too much. But instead she reluctantly agreed. This new client will last a grand total of three minutes and cause me nothing but grief the whole time.

    Just like good copy, there is a cost for entry requiring X effort and time to do a marketing plan correctly. Shortcuts for what we do do not exist.

    Thanks for a much needed post.

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