“Stupidest Question Ever Asked” Spawns 5 Commercial Writing “Facts”

A year or so back, I got an email from an Atlanta gentleman that has to be a top contender for The Stupidest Question Ever Asked. I realize that’s not very nice, and I know “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” when starting out, but still…. In essence, here’s what he wrote:

“I noticed you’re in Atlanta – I am, too. Congrats on your freelancing success. For someone starting out in the same market as a commercial freelancer, that success is a bit intimidating. (Here it comes). Can I safely assume that you’ve pretty much sewn up the Atlanta market, copywriting-wise?”

(Beat). Rub eyes comically. Re-read. Drop jaw. Guffaw. Shake head. Okay, okay, maybe not the stupidest question ever asked, just one from someone with very little understanding of business in general and our business in particular.

My reply: “Joe, think about this logically. I couldn’t sew up the copywriting market in a city of 100K, let alone one of close to five million. Could one attorney, plumber, accountant, real estate agent, or mechanic sew up the market for their specialty? Rest assured, there’s plenty of copywriting business out there.” I’ve been working in this market for 15 years and consistently run across working, thriving copywriters I’d never heard of before.

Sure, as we all know, this business isn’t a cakewalk. 5K jobs don’t fall out of the sky with minimal effort. Lucrative freelancing requires good writing skills and a grasp of business. That said, his question is similar to those I get asking if this is still a good business to get into – given the economy. Questions like these underestimate how much potential work there is AND how many companies know the value of good copywriting (and they overestimate the number of competent, reliable copywriters out there). They fail to see the reality at work:

Fact #1: Every single business has to create written materials either for marketing, advertising, or internal needs. The bigger the business, the bigger the volume.

Fact #2: There are only two ways to create those materials: do it in-house or hire it out.

Fact #3: As long as that company’s in business, those needs won’t ever disappear (if they want to STAY in business), even in lean times, when arguably, they have to do even more.

Fact #4: While many businesses don’t understand the importance of good marketing materials, those are the ones that fail or struggle eternally. Forget ‘em.

Fact #5: Most successful businesses DO understand the importance of good writing as a key contributor to their growth and success, and many of those companies hire it out – especially smaller companies (which can mean $1-100 million+), for whom it’s not usually cost-effective to have in-house creative staff.

Obviously, our challenge is to find those companies, but know, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, that they’re out there.

Until and unless American business undergoes such a radical shift in modus operandi that all business books and schools have to retool their offerings, those five facts, are in my humble opinion, fairly immutable.

Agree? Disagree?

What would you have said to him?

Other comments?

Sucky Writing Skills (in Business World) = Good Writing Opportunities (for Us!)

A column in my local paper this morning was yet one more gloomy drumbeat of many these days about the sorry state of writing skills amongst young people. According to a recent Pew Research Center Study, “64% of teens report that the informal styles often found in electronic communication do bleed into their school work” (i.e., 50% have used informal capitalization, 38% have used text short cuts like “LOL” or “ur,” and 25% have used emoticons).

In addition, The Nation’s Report Card on Writing 2007, while generally showing improvement over 2002, still showed only one-third of 8th graders writing to the “Proficient or higher” level.

Those kids grow up to be the workers of tomorrow, and one can’t assume that their writing skills will suddenly become strong and compelling, minus the shorthand and emoticons. In fact, what’s already happening is likely to continue happening.

A December 2004 New York Times article, “What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence,” discussed a study by the National Commission on Writing, which concluded that a third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training.

And when a company that wants to stay competitive knows that its people can’t write to the required level to maintain that competitiveness, chances are good they’ll turn to those who can. I’ve said this forever: writing skills suck in the business world, and that can only bode well for those of us who have the skills.

What are some of the most egregious examples (actual or recalled) of bad writing you’ve come across?

How has your writing practice benefited from the poor state of writing skills out there in the business world?

UK Freelancer Uses Articles (AND Attitude…) to Land $38K Direct Mail Gigs…

So, there’s this commercial writing bloke in the UK named Jon McCulloch who first contacted me shortly after The Well-Fed Writer came out in 2000. We’ve kept in touch over the years and I’ve had a front-row seat to his at-times painful struggles through myriad challenges – personal and professional. But, those times are long in the past. To say this erstwhile technical writer has found his niche would an understatement of biblical proportions. We’ll get to that niche in a moment…

One of Jon’s key business-building tools is writing free articles for small local publications. After viewing one of his pieces (details below) and commenting on it to him, he pointed out, “Notice how in the article, I tell them what they need to do, but not how to do it.” By way of good, though somewhat elusive content, he’s a master at building the intrigue and curiosity about his services. And according to him, each column he writes brings him roughly a dozen leads.

Leads for what? His different lead-generation packages. But check this out; here’s how he works: His phone is answered by voice mail. His assistant will then set up a complimentary 15-minute chat with the prospective client, just to decide if HE wants to work with them. If that goes well, he’ll let them pay him $697 for a one-hour consultation to get the parameters of the project. If they both agree there’s a fit, he takes them on as a client.

While his different packages vary in their scope, these days, he’s more than likely to push AND land his full-featured direct mail campaign. Which, incidentally, sells for $37,997. No negotiation. No discounts. The components? A direct mail letter, postcards, lead-generation advertising in offline media, press releases, articles, email-responders, squeeze pages, and, he says, “all the advice they can eat… and anything else that really comes up.” It takes him roughly six weeks to execute.

He reportedly has people lined up to do business with him. Talk about building a mystique around what you do. He knows he’s a good writer, but is convinced that his success is as much, if not more, about mindset as it is about talent.

Click here for a blog post of his strategy. Later on in the piece, click on the link that reads: “here’s a copy of April’s column in the local paper I write for every month” to see one of those pieces.

Do you write free articles to generate business and if so, what have your results been?

What role does mindset – about your abilities and the fees you deserve – play in your success?

Where Do You See the Commercial Writing Field Going in the Future?

It’s nice to be appreciated. As some of you know – mainly those in the D.C. area – I’ve been invited back for an encore plenary speech at the annual conference of Washington Independent Writers (www.washwriter.org) entitled: THE WRITING LIFE: “Where We Are and Where We Are Going,” on June 14th. Great conference, by the way. This is a serious writing organization and they do a nice job. The venue is beautiful, the program sessions solid and meaty and the offline networking excellent. There’s still room, so check it out. Besides, I’ll be there. 😉

As an editorial aside, I work pretty hard at conferences, believing that, heck, “I’m here, I can’t be anywhere else, so you might as well put me to work.” Besides, it’s fun. Never quite “got” the attitude I’ve seen amongst many conference presenters, especially keynoters. They blow in 45 minutes before their talk, sit with the organizers at the head table, don’t talk to any attendees, do their speech – often rambling and obviously unprepared – collect their fee, then blow out. Nice work if you can get it. But I truly digress…

I was recently brainstorming a few talking points for this year’s talk with the conference organizer, and given the prognosticating theme of the conference, we got on the subject of the future of the commercial writing field. I have thoughts about my little corner of the world, most all of them positive, but I’m no oracle, and I’m one guy.

I want to hear from you, my fellow “in-the-trenchers.” I KNOW you guys are a veritable fount of wisdom (no kidding), so I’m counting on some good stuff to use in my speech (which WILL be attributed to you if I use it…). Thanks for playing! 😉

Where do you see our field going in the coming decades?
Any trends you’re spotting?
Do you think a slipping economy will help or hurt us?
What will be the attributes of those who thrive in our field in the future?