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?
(*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.
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.
Okay, time for a little levity. No sticky situations, anxious anecdotes or dicey dilemmas from the commercial writing world. Just some good old-fashioned griping – about grammar. Got the idea for this post a few weeks back when I managed to run afoul of a friend’s pet peeve by writing, “I’ll try and do _____.” Ouch.
Well. He wrote back, deservedly taking me to task, explaining in exquisite detail:
“I must say — with all due respect — I HATE when writers and others say ‘try and’ (as you’ve done here) rather than the more accurate and appropriate, ‘try to.’ ‘Try and’ suggests TWO different acts: trying something, and then something else (e.g., ‘Try and be a better person.’ So you’re saying, ‘try’ (whatever) AND ‘be a better person,’ too. Whereas ‘try to be a better person’ says precisely what you’re meaning: try to be better.”
Just getting warmed up, he continued, “Almost as bad as when 99.9% of people say ‘could’ care less, when they really mean, and should be saying ‘couldn’t’ care less.”
Voila! Blog fodder. My pet peeves? Beyond the ubiquitous “you’re/your,” “it’s/its” and “compliment/complement”? Well, I’ll let you guys tell yours, and perhaps delve a little deeper while we’re at, and maybe we’ll teach each other something new in the process.
I’ll leave you with this…
What’s one of your grammatical pet peeves (one at a time, please, so we can encourage more contributions from more of you…)?
If you’re an English purist, what are your “grammatical grudges”: those things that have been accepted into the vernacular, but IYHO, should never have been?
What are some obscure/esoteric points of grammar that so many people get consistently wrong, but you know better? 😉
Any fascinating grammatical/linguistic trivia you care to share (word origins, evolution of expressions, etc.)?
I was sitting with a client the other day in a marathon on-site session. We were putting together a high-level presentation for a major executive pitch coming up in a few days. They’d brought me in because the presentation, in its current form – for the most part cut-‘n-pasted from an earlier version – just felt choppy and disjointed.
His goal was to build the case for his company to this audience, and knew from experience that I’m good at doing that kind of thing. It was a lot of data, information about the company and how they do what they do, but as he reminded, “It’s still a story. You have to tell a good story…”
How true. You have to tell a good story. As kids, it was our mantra to our parents, “Tell me a story!” But no matter how old we get, we never tire of hearing stories. And that’s never truer than with the audiences for the commercial writing projects we create for our clients. It’s something magazine and newspaper journalists have been doing forever (so if you hail from those arenas, put those chops to work here…).
Proposals and presentations – like the one described above – if they’re going to hit home, MUST tell a good story, must lay out a rational step-by-step case for what’s being “sold.” That doesn’t mean boring and linear – hardly. The good ones are exceptionally creative and will jump around, while always knowing exactly where they’re going and the most effective path to get there.
Marketing brochures – from simple tri-folds to lofty corporate image pieces – can tell the story of a company’s history and evolution, complete with testimonials from satisfied buyers. They can give a prospective customer a compelling narrative, which, when done well, can more expeditiously move that prospect along the sales cycle.
Every description of a product or service within a brochure, sales sheet or newsletter can be enhanced by creating a one-paragraph mini-story that showcases the experience of someone (even if fictitious) actually using the product. And in the process, demonstrating its features and benefits. An example…
In a newsletter for UPS I worked on years back, instead of just describing the features of one of their services, I told the story below. And I put it together simply by asking my client who might use the service and for what reason:
It’s late morning. One of your best customers calls – frantic. A key machine on his 24-hour production line just threw a part. With no spares on-site, he’s dead in the water. Overnight me a replacement, he says. I can do even better than that, you reply. Thanks to UPS “next-flight-out” Sonic Air service, the part’s on its way within an hour, and by mid-afternoon, it’s been installed. Production is restored at 4:00 P.M., not 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think he’ll remember you the next time the competition comes to call?
Using characters and a dramatic story line (where possible, and as dramatic as such a subject can be, of course…) makes far more interesting and credible writing than straight marketing copy. Stories draw in readers, and make it more likely a piece will actually get read (i.e., The Goal, in case you forgot…).
Course, the above (and other story-telling strategies) could be used in web content, white papers (a story as well – one that leads a reader along a very specifically-plotted path), trade articles, direct mail (especially the long-letter type…) – even ads. And what about a case study? It’s the quintessential story.
Before starting ANY project, always ask yourself, “How could I make this more interesting to read?” Be a storyteller and you’ll be a better copywriter. AND people will notice, and that can only be a good thing.
How have you used storytelling in your commercial writing practice?
What specific story-telling techniques have you used effectively in your writing?
Can you give some examples of how being a storyteller improved the effectiveness of a piece?
What kind of feedback have you gotten from clients when you’ve suggested or implemented storytelling in your marketing copy?
Let’s dispense with weighty commercial writing matters for a moment and have a little comic relief. A few weeks back, an accomplished writer friend of mine sent me a link to an article, along with this note: “Holy crap, this is what passes for writing these days?!”
I read it, my jaw slowly dropping, then dashed off a note to the webmaster. I won’t bore you with my entire note, but here are a few snarky highlights:
As a professional copywriter for 16 years, I was appalled that a web site that appears to be a legitimate purveyor of information would actually post such breathtakingly bad, awkward and incoherent writing. Simply put, it makes your site look like a low-rent operation. Why you’d spend what was clearly a pretty penny to create a logo, brand, and attractive-looking site only to fill it with such crap is beyond me. Talk about sabotaging an investment. I’d wager good money you’re paying bad money (what? like $5 an article, perhaps?) for such content. Though, that said, if you’re paying any more than that, you’re getting ripped off.
I actually got a note back from the webmaster, who wrote:
Wow that was some email. But it does come as a reality check to us and I assure you we will try and put out better information in the future. Thanks for the honesty, really. I will review every article before it goes live from now on.
Well, guess what? He actually did revisit it. In fact, the link I sent you is the copy AFTER it was “revisited.” I know, it’s hard to get your arms around the idea that it was actually worse before, but trust me, it was. Here’s an excerpt, untouched. You ready? You sure? Okay, I warned you…
If you want to have a coffee table in your garden or you want to sit there at night then have a rightly sized corner specially designed with a small table and chairs or if you want to have a swing in your garden then have some creeping vines grow on the swing to make it look as if the swing grew there too.
Words fail (in more ways than one…).
My friend tells me sites like these are known as “blog networks” (not “content mills,” that’s something else, though these no doubt pay just as badly) and are largely – you ready for this? – self-edited. And as she put it, “As long as they’re getting the clicks, they’re happy. It’s all about page views in a networked blog.” I don’t even want to get to a point where I actually understand that particular kind of thinking.
One thing quickly becomes clear: what these people do and what we do may both involve quote-unquote writing, but it’s there the similarity ends. Sort of how racing could refer to both what kids do with Tonka Toys and, oh, say, Formula One?
I know, it’s not very nice of me to make fun of bad writers just trying to make a no-doubt bad living in an arena in which they’re a bad fit (or maybe not…). But, just remember this the next time you hear someone saying how hard it is to make a living as a writer with rates so pathetic for writers. No, not all writers making $5 an article are this bad, but when this is how low the bar is in so many places, a decent writer is truly throwing pearls before swine. But hey, they’ve got options. If they don’t choose to exercise them, not my problem.
Ever had any contact with this world in your travels? (Or is this about as foreign to you as Pluto?)
Have you come across some equally bad examples?
What might you tell someone who whines about not being able to make a living writing?
What might you have told the webmaster if you were writing a note?