Here, I will offer tips on writing copy like a FLCW should…Well Fed Writer style.

Ever Been Asked to Do This? If So, How’d That Work Out for You? ;)

I got an email from a reader recently, spurred by one of my newsletter pieces (the “Appetizer” course of THIS issue). It’s a subject a bit different from the usual commercial freelancing fare on the blog, but thought it was worth running, given that it’s something any reasonably experienced commercial writer has no doubt encountered—whether a scenario like hers or one like mine.

She wrote:

Several years ago, a writing conference director sent an email inviting all to view the new conference website and let him know what we thought. I followed the link, and immediately saw a word had been left out of the first sentence. A few sentences below, the wrong verb tense had been used.

I emailed and suggested he might want to correct the mistakes. His reply? A glib comment about being in a hurry and no one else would catch the mistakes. Really? I had served on faculty for this conference a number of years so it wasn’t like I was unknown to the director. The next year, I was not asked back to teach at the conference and the director no longer speaks to me.

I had a similar experience with someone who was starting an editing service. He invited comments about his new website. In the first sentence on the site, he used the wrong verb tense. Another error, a wrong/mistaken use of a noun, was in the next paragraph. I emailed him, mentioning the errors.

His response: “Yeah, I asked my wife, and she said it supposed to be that way so I’m going with what she said.” Really? A startup editor is going with grammar errors on his editing site to please the wife? Needless to say, his editing business never got off the ground! He became the owner of a small press instead, which consistently publishes books with grammatical errors. No surprise there. And he ignores me when we happen to be at the same writing conferences.

What I’ve learned: Even when people invite critique, they really don’t want critique. They want validation for what they’ve done, whether correct or not, and view anything else as personal criticism. Folks are interesting!

In response, I shared a story of my own:

Reminds me of a lovely woman for whom I wrote a column many years ago, for her local monthly rag. A few years after I stopped writing for her, but while we still considered each other friends, she asked me to critique a novel she was working on. I said I would be happy to take a look, though quickly realized what a bind I had put myself in.

It wasn’t just bad, it was really, really bad. Incredibly clichéd, poorly written, poor character development, uninteresting, and most of it no better than a seventh grader’s essay. After getting her assurance that she really did want me to be honest, I was. I wasn’t brutal, but I made it clear I thought it needed a lot of work to get it to a viable stage.

She thanked me profusely for being honest, going on and on about how much she appreciated the input and feedback, and…I never heard from her ever again. Remember, we were far better than acquaintances, though perhaps less than good buddies, and we talked pretty regularly. But after that, we never talked again. So I hear you!

Ever been asked for feedback from a writer or friend?

How did you handle it?

If the writing wasn’t very good, and you were honest, how did they receive your feedback?

Any suggestions for dealing with situations like this?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Got Some Examples of Clever Wordplay Like This?

Okay, a lighter subject, given that it’s still summer—for a few more weeks anyway—and I’m not feeling so serious today… :)

And that’s probably because I just back from vacation not long ago. Escaped to the blessed cool of New England for a few weeks—a nice respite from Atlanta’s “95’s” dog days (i.e., both the average high temps and humidity—yuck).

Anyway, one day, I found myself one day wandering around Vermont’s cool and compact capitol of Montpelier, and for an afternoon pick-me-up, wandered into this funky coffee shop called Capitol Grounds.

I looked up at their chalked menu board of energy-lifting libations, read it, read it again, and smiled big. While obviously, their store name played on their location in the shadow of the capitol building, the wordplay didn’t stop there.

Check out this picture of their menu board, and note the names up top, of their four different sizes of coffees.

WordplayCoffeImage

I LOVE it. And if you’re a true word person, I’m guessing it’ll tickle you, too. When was the last time you saw a quadruple double-entrendre?

I’m sure you’ve got some of your own. Pictures are cool, but not necessary if you don’t have them. So, share your examples of the fruits of clever wordsmiths far and wide. Yes, a lighter post, but stuff like this gets our creative wells primed and pumping. It’s all about ideas.

Seen some cool wordplay like this, or on billboards or signage?

Seen a smart, snappy piece of commercial writing—ad, direct mail piece, web site, etc.?

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Are Your Skills As Good As They Can Be?
Speaking of clever writing, and improving writing skills in general… Solid writing skills—far more than marketing ability—is the strongest predictor of long-term success as a commercial freelancer. With that in mind, the next Well-Fed Group Coaching series (my first in 18 months!) kicks off on September 15.

It’s new and improved, with a shorter format (just 9 days from start to finish), and a new focus on developing stronger commercial-writing chops. Just 4 of 15 available slots remain. If you’re looking to build enduring success into your practice, you want to check this out. Details, testimonials, and registration instructions here.

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

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Here’s the image that went with Cathy Miller’s comment below. I can’t figure out how to insert an image into a comment, so I’m just going to add it to the end of my post here…

WordplayCMillerimage

Why Commercial Writers Earn More Than Regular “Freelance Writers”

When I first wrote the original piece noted below, it struck me as a subject on which I’d love to get some feedback from you guys. Look for other such posts (I know, recycling content, but all for a good cause…;)

In the November 2013 Well-Fed E-PUB, my Appetizer course shared a recent client experience that underscored for me why good commercial freelancers generally make a lot more money than regular “freelance writers.” Here’s that piece (adapted and slightly edited)…

Got an email from a client of mine a few weeks back, needing a little editing work on a project her designer was working on for her (i.e., combo brochure/direct mail piece she’d be giving away at trade shows as well as mailing out to prospects).

While I can’t make blanket statements, I’d wager good money that had she simply contacted a “freelance writer”—someone charging quite a bit less than I do—with the same request, she’d have likely gotten just what she’d asked for: edited copy.

However, I took a look at it, and gave her my thoughts: she didn’t need the thing edited. She needed to trash what she had, and start all over again both with the copy and design (and, while she was at it, replace her newbie, “moonlighting-college-student” designer with one of my trusted design partners).

While the existing design was quite creative—a main panel with all sorts of other panels that folded in on it—I looked at it through a far different lens. I listened to what she said she was going to do with it. I looked at what she was selling—a service that needed to have a “case built” for it, and in a logical, sequential fashion.

Her existing copy didn’t begin to build that case (and given the design, the requested editing wouldn’t have allowed me to expand it to do so), nor did the existing design framework even remotely facilitate the proper persuasive unfolding of that “story.”

Doing good copywriting work for her for years has her trust that I know what I’m doing. So when I suggested a totally different layout (still quite creative), new designer, expanded copy and a far higher fee than originally envisioned, she quickly gave the green light.

She’s the ideal client: someone who understands that the ultimate effectiveness of a marketing piece always trumps cost (within reason, of course). So, I’m being paid far more, largely because I’m providing a level of expertise that straight “freelance writers” wouldn’t.

If you know how to write, and even tell a good story, you’ll only be able to command a certain fee (given how many other writers have those same skills), but if you can, indeed, “build that case” for a product/service in a logical, creative way, and can think strategically about copy, and—when necessary, about physical layouts that facilitate that “case-building”—watch your writing income rise.

On this piece, I averaged roughly $120 an hour, not as much as I’d like, but not bad for fun work. And I made more than a regular “freelancer” because I know both how to write AND organize what I write to fit a certain layout (which in this case, I suggested, further increasing my value).

My goal with this post (and hopefully, the ensuing comments) is NOT to discourage non-commercial writers from our business. Anyone can learn, through experience and practice, the craft of good marketing copywriting and the strategic planning side of it. But, I did want to highlight that it IS a different set of skills, and for a businessperson, they’re worth more, and hence worth learning.

And, in all fairness, we commercial copywriters get paid a lot more than regular freelancers, in large part, because the business arena in which we’re operating pays higher rates than say, magazines, newspapers, or content mills.

So, it’s the setting as well as the good skills, but being in the “high-rent” district will only get you so far without the skills.

What do you feel good commercial freelancers bring to the party that regular writers don’t?

Can you share a specific moment/project when you realized you truly had far more marketable skills than the average writer?

Can you share a moment where a business client had an epiphany, as they realized how much more you were able to do for them than a regular writer did/could?

Can you share a moment when your ability to think strategically about copy or layout, set you apart from other writers?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Do You React Like This When You See Something You Wrote Years Ago?

So, a few weeks back, I get an email from one of my favorite graphic-design partners*, asking for a favor. This is how we roll, by the way. We trade out services: she designs my book related business cards, flyers, and even some of my sites, and I do copy for her sites and promo materials. It’s worked out wonderfully.

Anyway, she was putting together a proposal to a prospect, and wanted me to tailor a cover letter I’d written for her some years back to accompany an earlier proposal. The letter outlined her capabilities, strengths and background, and how all of that translated to benefits to the client.

She sends the letter, I read it, and I’m shocked (shocked, I say). Seriously, I’m asking myself (out loud, if memory serves), “Did I really write this?” Apparently so.

Because, wow. It was wordy, verbose (see, there I go again!), uber-flowery, etc. All this grandiose copy that was, frankly, far more than necessary for this proposal, the earlier proposal—heck, any proposal.

So, I took out my razor-sharp, double-edged editing pen, and went to work. When I was done, it was probably half its original length, far more succinct (by definition, I suppose), but still covered the same ground. Whew.

So, it got me thinking. Clearly my writing skills had evolved in the past 3-4 years, and for the better. And from when I started in 1994? Suffice to say, every now and then, I pick through pieces of commercial copywriting I wrote way back when. While a lot of it is perfectly serviceable, it’s often unpolished (and sometimes just laughably mediocre). Every bit of it, I’d put through another pass or two.

But, I don’t beat myself up much. Fact is, at some point that pile of copy served its purpose (that original letter, was, in fact, part of a successful proposal; she got the gig, and told me she regularly pulls pieces from it for ultimately successful proposals).

A lot of what I’ve written over the years (brochures, newsletters, case studies, web content, even some ads) doesn’t lend itself to clear “conversion” metrics like, say, direct mail would. But, bottom line, my clients were happy, so it got the job done. And you can always get better.

Have you had a similar “Aha!” like mine above?

Have you seen your writing improve over time, and if so, in what ways?

Put another way, what bad writing habits have you managed to break yourself of over time?

Ever had a long-time client comment that they’d noticed your writing had evolved or improved over time?

DesignerIconMinusText(*Speaking of designers, “Profitable – By Design!,” my popular ebook for commercial freelancers looking to create lucrative partnerships with designers, is on sale through the end of October for 25% off. Details.)

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

One Big Reason Why Commercial Writing Pays Better and Resists “Off-Shoring” (and Why this Other Kind of Writing Doesn’t…)

Okay, possibly just a “mental gymnastics” piece, but you be the judge…;)

Read an interesting book recently: Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink (author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind). While some of the stuff was a bit obvious (e.g.; money/prestige/titles doesn’t motivate everyone…no kidding), Pink does have a way of spawning mini-epiphanies.

Not to mention that a few things he shared had me exclaim (in the immortal words of Johnny Carson), “I did NOT know that!” Allow me a quick digression…

Most of us are aware that Wikipedia is an “open-source” undertaking, meaning it’s built, updated and revised solely by volunteers – just regular folks like you and me, when the mood strikes us, and, needless to say, for no pay.

But did you know that the browser Firefox (150 million users); the server software platform Linux (running 25% of all corporate servers); and the web-server program Apache (used by 52% of all corporate web servers), are all open-source as well? All volunteer efforts, with no money changing hands? Who knew? (everyone but me, perhaps?)

Pink shared this to illustrate that “intrinsic motivation” – doing something just for the challenge, creative expression, and reward of solving problems – can be a powerful driver for humans, and far more effective, after a certain point, than money, prestige or awards.

Enough “gee-whiz” facts…

One point he made had something click in place for me, and had me realize something about this commercial writing field of ours, as well as other arenas of so-called “writing” (that may not really be writing at all). He notes that jobs/tasks fall into two categories: algorithmic and heuristic, explaining:

An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. That is, there’s an algorithm for solving it. A heuristic task is the opposite. Precisely because no algorithm exists for it, you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution. Working as a grocery checkout clerk is mostly algorithmic. You pretty much do the same thing over and over in a certain way. Creating an ad campaign is mostly heuristic. You have to come up with something new.

Think about jobs/tasks that get “offshored” reasonably successfully: computer programming, software development, database management, accounting, other technical processes, etc. All algorithmic tasks that follow a set path. Heuristic tasks – with no fixed set of instructions or set processes – are far harder to outsource to offshore practitioners. And writing is one of those things.

Most writing. Certainly the kind of writing we do – projects that entail original and critical thinking, not to mention facility with English as a native tongue – isn’t leaving our shores anytime soon for some sweatshop garret in Bangalore, Karachi or Manila.

But, there is one arena of writing that has been offshored, though, to a large extent, without ever actually leaving our shores. Of course, I’m talking about writing for content mills (e.g.; Demand Studios, eHow, Suite101, etc.): 500-700-word keyword-rich articles cranked out by legions of “writers” for rates hovering around $5-$10 a pop (or less; keep reading…).

Why does it pay so poorly? Because there are countless people with the same minimal skills necessary to produce such pieces (making it “commoditized” writing). And why is that? Because writing these pieces entails an easy-to-follow formula, making it one of the few algorithmic writing tasks out there.

Why is it formulaic? Because the quality of the writing doesn’t matter. The articles are just a framework to hold keywords, which are there to engage the search engines and drive traffic to the site, where, in turn, the goal is to have visitors click other links on the page. So, when the writing doesn’t matter, it can indeed get offshored for peanuts.

Exhibit A: I just got an email from a frustrated writer who’d gotten an email promo from this outfit. Their home page trumpets: “Get articles written for as low as $2.00 an article.” Can you say algorithmic? I rest my case.

Heck, given that, let’s not even call it writing. How about word-arranging? Definitely a more accurate description. Or as my frustrated writer friend enlightened me, the term to describe the process is actually called “spinning,” and in many cases, is actually done by computer (and scarily well in some cases). So, yes, there is definitely skill involved. As she put it, “You try writing a 400-word article with the phrase ‘mesothelioma diagnosis’ at a density of 6.25%.” I get it, and…

Given that its practitioners approach their task in terms of “How many pieces can I crank out in a day?” if that isn’t a piecework mentality – part and parcel of many algorithmic tasks – I’m not sure what would be.

No doubt, having what they do be called “word-arranging” will make me pretty unpopular with those folks working in the content mill realm, and truly believing that what they’re doing is, in fact, writing. Well, tough. If you think you’re a true writer, then quit screwing around in that algorithmic writing sub-basement and move up to more heuristic writing tasks – where your creative fulfillment and earnings can only rise, if for no other reason than you’ve got less competition for what you’re able to do.

After all, how could you offshore what we do? Certainly with projects where the goal is a specific, measurable response, and hence, must be crafted just so (e.g.; direct mail, landing-page copy, direct response, sale promotions, etc.), offshoring won’t work. When the bottom line is on the line, you can’t afford to do it on the cheap.

But even projects with softer metrics (e.g.; case studies, white papers, sales sheets, brochures, etc). where the goal is educating, brand awareness, image-building, impressions, etc., I’m still not seeing how offshoring would work. Yes, budget constraints could have a company seek out lower-priced resources, but the stronger and more focused your skills, the less likely they’ll be able to get what they need from cheaper writers (i.e., they may be able to write, but often run screaming from even the whiff of “marketing.” All the better for us…).

Of course, my foundational assumption is that, for most of the good clients we work with, or want to work with, the writing itself matters very much. If we get to a point where it doesn’t, all bets are off. Though, if that happens, I suspect that’ll be the least of our problems.

So, the more heuristic the writing task (i.e., the more creativity and original thinking involved), the less likely that task can be offshored (to a foreign or domestic shore…), the more in demand competent practitioners will be, and the higher rates they’ll command. Not saying it’s easy (it’s not), but if the alternative is slaving away for peanuts, then I say, taking the time to hone your skills in order to set yourself apart is worth the investment.

Was this just a useless mental exercise or am I on to something here? 😉

Have you thought about writing in these terms (algorithmic vs. heuristic) before?

Have you successfully transitioned from a more algorithmic writing career to a more heuristic one, and if so, can you share a bit of your story?

Any epiphanies of your own from this discussion?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.