Are You a Businessperson/Writer or a Writer/Businessperson?

Put another way, is your business “a series of jobs” or a “profession”? (And yes, I know how most of the commercial freelancing pros who weigh in here would answer, and I’m counting on that…).

Success as a commercial writer begins in the mind.

I know, typical positive-thinking mumbo-jumbo, right? And not even terribly profound. But hang with me here.

I was thinking about how I started in this business of lucrative commercial copywriting 15 years ago, and realized that how I viewed this business and how I entered the profession has made all the difference. A dear writer friend of mine who does mostly magazine work likes to say, not unkindly, that I’m a businessperson first and a writer second. She’s not implying I’m not a good writer (perish the thought…), just that if I were a “pure” writing animal, I’d probably be writing feature stories or novels. Or would at least have started out that way. Fair enough.

When I discovered this field back in the early 90s after stumbling on Bob Bly’s, Secrets of a Freelance Writer, it was an epiphany. You mean companies actually hire freelance writers to execute many writing projects and pay them far more than typical “freelance writer” rates? Who knew? I’d wanted to be a writer, but wasn’t willing to starve at it. Proof, perhaps of my friend’s gentle charge of “businessperson/writer” not the other way around. Anyone who was a pure writer would relish starving – at least for a few years anyway.

But, not me. I looked at it dispassionately. I enjoyed writing, knew I was good at it, but I didn’t live and breathe it (remember: NO writing background, experience, or paid jobs before I started out). Nonetheless, I had long been on the lookout – perhaps unconsciously – for a way to turn that aptitude into a career. Once I read Bly’s book, I was hooked. This was how I was going to do it.

I know many of you have heard this story before, but the point here is this: Right out of the gate, and with zero starving-writer experience under my belt, I looked at this field as a true pay-all-the-bills career. It wasn’t a hobby. It wasn’t a lark. It wasn’t a supplement to other less-lucrative writing. It was my profession.

As a result, from day one, it wasn’t playtime. It was serious. And I think that’s made all the difference in how it’s turned out. But, that was MY path. There’s not a thing wrong with coming at it any other way, but I say the initial foundational perception of your business may have a lot to do with its outcome.

Many who come to this field were writers first, and came to this field as a way to make more money, crafting a mix of both jobs. I’d never say they’re not as serious as I am, but am curious as to their perceptions of how it unfolded for them.

I’m not 100% sure of the point I’m trying to make here, but my gut tells me it’s a good conversation-starter… 😉

How did you come to this field, as a businessperson/writer or a writer/businessperson?

If the former, what impact did that initial perception have on your ultimate success?

If it was writer first, and you’re successfully established now, was there a point at which it became more serious?

And what advice would you give other “pure writers” about making this a serious career instead of just a series of jobs?

22 replies
  1. Tammy Cook-Matranga
    Tammy Cook-Matranga says:


    I have been working as a corporate writer in some capacity or another for about 20 years. In May, I decided to form my own company and have now attracted two good clients, both in healthcare. I plan to focus on white paper writing as I have been in the IT field for most of my corporate life, writing white papers, specification pieces, and RFP work along with the standard promotional newsletter articles to create “buzz” about new project work, new technology, etc. I am definitely approaching this as a businessperson/writer. I do not like starving, or even feeling like starving, so I am looking carefully at the best markets, the best prospects, and tailoring my approach to suit these areas. This may seem cold and calculating to some “pure” writers, but this is a business first, and a writing pursuit second. If things work out the way I hope, I will be able to pursue my interests in creative writing, but I need the business work to support myself and my family. I do technical writing, so it is not an easy writing field by any means and it is not always fun, but I find it is rewarding to do work that people use on a daily basis and really need. So, I am proud to be a businessperson first and writer second. It helps both me and my clients in the long run. And – a big thank you to your and your collegues for putting on the Copywriting Success Summit – the information you are willing to share is overwhelming and extremely helpful to those of us just starting out.

  2. Wendy Sullivan
    Wendy Sullivan says:

    I came to it as a write/businessperson. I have always written – usually fiction for local consumption i.e. friends etc – and discovered blogging almost 5 years ago. I wasn’t in it for the money, but to build a presence. Now that I’ve lost my corporate “day job” though, I’m looking at writing as a business. Since I’ve changed my mindset, I’ve gained 8 paying clients – all in the space of about two months.

    You’re right, it’s all in the way you perceive the role.


  3. Michael Temple
    Michael Temple says:

    I entered this as a business from day one. While anyone who meets me in person might tell me starving wouldn’t be a bad thing for me at the moment 🙂 I decided from the beginning that this was a “real” business and it was not only designed to pay the bills as quickly as possible, but be my profession and provide all the benefits a “normal” job would offer like vacations, 401(k) plans, etc. I love to write, but I don’t believe writing and starving are synonymous nor do I feel I am not a “pure” writer. I am guessing Stephan King does alright financially and I doubt anyone would call him anything less than a pure writer. Therefore, I don’t think business and writing should be separate. It is awesome when we can get paid to do what we love. Imagine all the people who still go to soul killing cube farms everyday to work…oops, I wasn’t supposed to write that for the public er… I mean this is terrible everyday… stay away 🙂

    Seriously, I would give the following advice to new writers…

    1. View it as a business from day one, even if you are writing magazines and books.

    2. Understand that marketing and sales is how you survive in this business. Stop either and you will be unemployed very quickly.

    3. Measure and track your time and use it well. Time is all you have to sell in this business. It is not renewable and is clearly finite. Use it well as it means the difference between poverty and success.

    4. Continually read, learn, take classes, and improve your knowledge to stay ahead of the curve both for your business and for writing itself.

  4. Josten
    Josten says:

    One thing that i didnt take writing/blogging as was a business when i first started. Now i truly am taking it as a business.
    Great post

  5. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    Here you go again, Peter, inviting us to chew on a favorite topic . . .

    . . . which also just arose at the Public Relations Society of America International Conference here in Detroit this week (Oct. 25-28).

    A point voiced at a couple of workshops for Independent Practitioners is that we are precisely what that phrase suggests: business owners, not “freelancers,” a phrase that one speaker says we should politely correct when used by clients, friends, family members or anyone else. (No offense intended to the FLCW shorthand, of course.)

    We do not perform piecework assignments at freelance rates, and should not think of ourselves that way. We are consultants, communication professionals, marketing strategists or independent commercial writers — pick your phrase.

    Point is we provide full-service, long-range, value-added services that encompass research, branding, marketing objectives, message development and other advanced abilities that elevate writing into strategic communications. This ain’t freelancing between jobs or babies — this is the work of self-employed professionals.

    That said, I came to this gig five years ago as a writer/businessperson who knew more about newsrooms and slinging words than about running a business.

    So my heads-ups for ‘pure writers’ is to embrace the necessity of telling our own stories and explaining why prospects can benefit from letting professional communication specialists tell their stories so they can focus on core competencies.

    We save time, deliver compelling calls to action, turn thoughts into narratives, reinforce points of distinction or USPs. and shape meaningful marketplace identities.

    Uh, without the buzzword cliches, that is.

    Thanks, Peter . . . always enjoy this type of reflection. Not many more inviting questions, really, than “Tell me what you do and why you enjoy it.” (Well, OK, I can think of one . . .)

  6. Debbi
    Debbi says:

    I’m a freelancer who also writes fiction, and all the serious fiction writers I know treat writing as a business. After you write fiction, you have to know how to sell it to a publisher (with or without the help of an agent, and finding one of those is itself a sales job). Once you’ve gotten published, you have to promote yourself and your work.

    The reality here is that all professional writers have to be business people–whether they’re marketing copywriting services or novels. Only the superstar novelists get all their promotional support from their publishers–a tiny minority, in other words.

  7. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks everyone, for your contributions. Some seriously focused folks out there. And all making a lie out of the conventional wisdom of the “starving writer.” It can be done, you’re doing it and I salute you. Keep it coming.


  8. Eileen Coale
    Eileen Coale says:

    I started out as a writer … earned my first paycheck as a writer when I was 15 years old, in the 70’s. Any job I ever had, I gravitated to the writing tasks. But I thought “real” writers just wrote fiction and for magazines. When my kids were still small, I began doing some magazine writing, trying to bring in some serious dollars, and getting frustrated at the whole query letter game, etc. In 2001, I stumbled on your book, Peter, (it was the title that grabbed me) and had a lightbulb moment. Copywriting hadn’t even been on my radar screen, but instantly I knew that’s what I was made for. Almost immediately, my paradigm flipped from struggling writer to businessperson/writer. When you become a businessperson/writer, the balance of power shifts. Instead of begging for bylines and pleading for 10-cents a word work via query letters, you are a consultant who has something valuable to bring to the table.

  9. Steve Rainwater
    Steve Rainwater says:

    This is a really outstanding crowd to be a part of! I’ve been seeing many people in blogs crying the blues due to low rates, etc. but it’s not what I’m seeing. I do approach FLCW from the standpoint of someone who can make an important contribution to my client’s business both in strategy and execution, and I feel people should be and are willing to pay for that contribution. Am I always engaged by this work? Probably not as much as I would be doing the writer / journalist thing (which I do pony up for occasionally), but I do get distinct enjoyment from helping my clients succeed and having money in my bank account.

    I remember a few years ago when I decided FCLW would be my full time and primary income, a friend of mine expressed her interest and said she had always wanted live off her writing but did not know if she was good enough. I shared with her where Peter, Bob Bly and others had turned on the lights for me. I am only an average writer (hopefully getting better everyday), with no real magic in my meticulously (is that spelled correctly?)crafted prose. However, I AM a skilled marketer with years of experience; important for writers of any discipline. I bring this to the table both for myself in my ability to find specific types of work and build strong client relationships; and for the clients I work with…giving them more that just words on a page, but the resource they need to accomplish their initiatives.

    You GO Alan!(above) “full-service, long-range, value-added services that encompass research, branding, marketing objectives, message development and other advanced abilities that elevate writing into strategic communications.” Gimme summa ‘dat! So yes…its the BUSINESS of writing for me.


  10. Laura
    Laura says:

    I had dreamed of working as a writer for a long time, but couldn’t find a way to make it work. I was in a full time job that paid well and I couldn’t afford to take a pay cut. But, I was so sick of working for the “man” (and I even worked for a really nice “man!”), that I kept looking for ways I could be a writer.

    Not to sound like a giant brown noser, but when I read Well Fed Writer, I had an epiphany similar to the one you describe after finding Bly’s book. I thought – that’s it! That’s how I can be a writer. So I approached it as a business person with a love of writing I guess. I knew that if I was going to be able to go out on my own, I had to approach it like a serious business. I told people I was starting my own business, not that I was becoming a writer. And I’ve actually found that I enjoy much of the business side of it even more than a lot of the actual writing.

  11. Craig
    Craig says:

    Coming from a corporate background(sales, marketing, management), the business aspect comes first.

    This was reinforced when I asked a successful FLGD(freelance graphic designer) friend what he contributed to his success, while many of his peers often seemed to be struggling.
    He simply stated, “I treat it like a business.”

    I figure if it works for him – it should work for me.

  12. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Well-said, PB. Business first…ALWAYS.

    I started my own biz 9 years ago after a successful PR career, so writing was just a part of what I was doing in my life before becoming a business owner. It never occured to me to think of it as anything BUT a business.

    While the “what” of my business may vary (writing, consulting, facilitating, etc.), business is still about paying the bills, making a profit, taking good care of clients, and — hopefully — enjoying what you do.

  13. Devon Ellington
    Devon Ellington says:

    Hey, Peter, stopping by here always makes me feel better. I have a case of the blues today.

    Well, YOU are the reason I made the jump into freelancing from a career on Broadway backstage and doing things like writing plays and short fiction.

    The bulk of my writing is still fiction, but I expanded into business writing in order to make the leap. So I’d say I’d come from the writer/businessperson POV. However, your techniques have helped me take the next leap in my fiction – I apply what you talk about in your book and what we discuss here to the fiction.

    I do less corporate writing and pick up more of the “odd” types of business writing jobs, where fiction and playwrighting come in handy.

    And, Arthur Miller said to me once, “you’ll never really be a writer until you count on it to pay the bills” and he was right.

    It’s a different perception. You don’t have excuses; you can’t “wait for the muse to strike”, you can’t skip writing because you don’t feel like it that day or because you’re tired.

    And you get to take a day off whenever you want, once you’ve met your deadlines!

    You put the butt in the chair and you DO IT.

    Adding the business perspective into the business of writing means you approach everything with action, not passivity, excuses, or re-action.

    I love writing, it’s like breathing to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to allow some cubicle slave who hates his life to punish me because I love what I do. I have valuable skills, and I deserve a living wage for them.

    I think that’s the most important thing writers who approach it from writing-first need to learn — respect your own worth, or no one else will. Don’t let anyone punish you for loving your job.

  14. peter
    peter says:

    Wow – great stuff. Thanks Devon, for the kind words (and Laura, too!). And WISE words, especially, “Don’t let anyone punish you for loving your job.” Great stuff. And I’m sure plenty of cubicle slaves hate the fact that we’re living lives they only dream of.

    And thanks Michelle. Your comments and those of several others here (Eileen, Steve, Alan, Craig) remind us of what it takes to be successful, and that the stakes are nothing less than having a life truly worth living – where we get to do what we enjoy and make a difference for a lot of others. And that’s pretty cool. Do you all get how rare that is for most people? Don’t forget it. As I’ve learned over and over, the #1 key to having a great life is to first realize that you indeed DO have a great life.


  15. Jennifer Gniadecki
    Jennifer Gniadecki says:

    I started in marketing. Went from business to business knowing I could sell anything but not finding something I loved to sell.

    Then I started blogging and got comments and free stuff and was all, “Hey, I really thought writers were starving artists…I need to do more research…”

    I had done some writing as part of marketing work and found that people loved what I had to say and then when I was searching for a way to turn the writing into the “what I sell” I ran across the Well-Fed Writer. Then I had a pretty standard “ephiphany moment” and have been writing ever since.

    While I don’t make six figures yet I do manage to balance my work from my home office with two toddlers and when they’re in school I will up my game, but for now I’m just looking to maintain what I’ve got and add more a little at a time.

    So I’m absolutely, positively a businessperson/writer. It helps when talking about money with clients, because I think most people choke on that part and it’s important to treat it like any other part of the conversation, openly and without fear.

  16. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    “. . . openly and without fear.” ^

    Well-said, ‘JennyDecki’ of the Chicago area! That’s the best, shortest description of Peter’s guiding principle I’ve seen . . . even from The Man himself.

    Also has particular resonance on Election Day, I daresay.

    Don’t charge by the word, Jennifer, even though you know how to make each one count.

  17. Marci Diehl
    Marci Diehl says:

    This was a particularly intriguing question for me. The responses are all terrific. I started as a writer doing freebie stuff for organizations I belonged to back in my stay-at-home mommy days (which, I have to tell you, I still miss at times, though they are loooong gone). I confined my writing to book-length letters (now I’m showing my age — yes, they were handwritten and snail mail!) and went to fiction workshops. I walked into a career as a magazine writer — on a pretty credible scale. But it was a world that still pays poorly… I did it because at the time I could afford to do it, and I loved having my own “voice” in what I wrote. Then life intervened, and my ability to communicate in writing got me a real job writing copy and being given the opportunity to use my instincts and experiences in media. I learned about marketing on the run.

    [I have to relate this story: After I started my business, I continued in a fiction writers group for about a year. It was very small and 3/4 of us were already published — books. Not me, although the group loved my manuscript. But as I wrote for business and had to concentrate on that, I wrote less for the group. Then one meeting, they didn’t tell me when it was. I was more or less dropped from it — because they were “serious about writing” (fiction) and I apparently was not. I was the only one who had to work and didn’t have a spouse to support my writing time… There is an elitism about “being a writer” — I didn’t fit it anymore.]

    Sometimes I confess to people I like — in and outside of business — that I feel like an “artist in an itchy wool business suit.” But I’ve been wearing that suit for 13 years now, working as an independent communications specialist… or FLCW, whichever you prefer. Either way, I have been supporting myself and for a while, my growing sons. I work out of my home office. I BOUGHT my own home 8 years ago — after a disasterous divorce — something I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do when I started my own business. There was no “divorce money” to buy a home. It’s mine because I’ve worked very hard and had clear vision that writing was the way to make money, and it was in commercial writing. I’m still here, and still changing and growing in my professional life — wearing that suit.

    Because, even as a magazine writer, and a (still) hopeful novelist — I agree with Debbi. You must have a business mode for whatever writing you do, if you are to be successful. Today I have a contract with Gannett as the head writer and associate editor for development of a regional magazine where I live. This is a part of my income but certainly not the whole shebang! I work on other clients and projects. I missed writing for magazines, and happened to see that Gannett was looking for someone with exactly my skills and background. I went after it knowing that they put out a spectacular product in the city nearby. We went about working together as a business arrangement — I am helping them develop the issues in addition to writing features. Then I put my work up on my site, as part of my portfolio — it’s very attractive to other clients.

    Meanwhile, I’m working on re-vamping my web site. I realize that it needs to be less “writerly” and more about the problem solving and consulting I do with clients — benefits over features. I’m asking feedback and ideas from former clients, current clients, mentors, and people whose advice I respect — what do they see, and how can I do it better?

    “The suit” may itch at times, but it keeps me warm!!!

    Alan, thank you for your clarion call. Thank you to all — you have so many valuable things to say.

  18. Jennifer Gniadecki
    Jennifer Gniadecki says:

    Alan! Way to make me blush!

    Thanks for the kind words 🙂 I keep trying to get Peter to talk to me, because I’m a rock star, maybe testimonials on his blog will help. (Of course, so would having an actual reason to talk to him…I haven’t worked up that part yet. I don’t do Internet marketing anymore so a JV deal is out of the question.)

    I’ll think of something.

    Asking might help. *grin*

  19. peter
    peter says:

    Wow – this WAS a good topic, wasn’t it? 😉 All of you are brilliant and I’m honored and humbled to even facilitate a discussion with you folks. Seriously, I know people say that a lot, but I’m totally serious.

    Eileen and Marci, great insights and stories as usual. Marci, I love the bit about being dropped from the writers group b/c you weren’t serious enough. Shaking my head. WHATever.

    And Jennydecki? Sounds like you’ve carved out quite a nice life that works for you on YOUR terms. What more could you ask for? As for the other, see, I KNEW you were a rock star, so I was a little intimidated… 😉 Hey, just ask away. I don’t bite.


  20. Donna Kaluzniak
    Donna Kaluzniak says:

    I’d have to put myself in the “business/writer” category. I still have a (non-writing) full-time job, but have had my “moonlighting” copywriting business for almost 3 years now.

    I like the professional aspect of writing–working for clients to help them reach their goals.

    Maybe I’m just too left-brained to be a writer first.

  21. Debra Baxter
    Debra Baxter says:

    After reading the post and comments, I realize that I’m in the business/writer category too. I’m thrilled to be working as a writer, but like others want to maintain or improve my standard of living.

    I go to a local freelance group where one person says she leaves feeling like she’s not doing enough. I was always puzzled by that statement. Maybe she’s a writer first and feels a little out of place with those of us who are taking a more businesslike approach.

    I worked as a textbook editor for 18 years until the company closed our local office. While figuring out what to do, I read a book called Second Acts, which talked about doing what you love but not going broke doing it. That’s what I wanted then and still want. Things are a little slow as far as projects go right now, but I’m confident they will pick up. It has given me time to create a Web site and blog for my business, which is turning out to be a wonderful outlet for my writing. I’m even more excited about the idea of creating a personal blog, which is on my to-do list. I will take a business approach to that too.

  22. Michael Kurko
    Michael Kurko says:

    I fit more the frustrated (or wannabe) writer rather than the starving writer image. Just couldn’t ever get up the courage to put pen to paper and really go for it. Then about three years ago I picked up Bob Bly’s book and TWFW and got really excited by the idea of building my own freelance copywriting business. Unfortunately I was trying this while working full time and getting distracted by the siren song of internet marketing. Long story short, I got laid off right before Labor Day and while pounding the pavement for a new job, I’ve decided to really dig in and get serious about copywriting.

    I never thought of myself as a “business” person. For me the term called up images of a pinstripe-suited executives gleefully poring over profit and loss statements, PowerPoint presentations, and charts and graphs of God-knows-what. But recently I’ve learned that being “business-minded” is mostly about taking yourself seriously and believing in your gifts and talents, whether it’s writing or something else. Obviously it involves work too, but I believe that’s the underlying attitude one needs for success.

    Another thing that was helpful for me to learn is that I don’t have to be the best writer or eat, breathe and sleep marketing in order to be a good copywriter. I just need to know more than my client (or roughly the equal amount if I’m dealing with an agency). I’m simply contributing my skill and knowledge to someone who needs it. The prospects I’m calling take me seriously because I take myself seriously and believe that I have something valuable to offer. As long as I don’t waver in my faith in myself, I should be where I want in six months (or less).

    I’ll let you know.


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