“Commercial Writing” Has Many Faces (as these Unusual Projects Prove…)

by Peter Bowerman on March 1, 2013

So, I’ve been working on an interesting commercial freelancing project lately, one that doesn’t fit the typical list I (and others) rattle off to explain the kinds of things we commercial writers do: “marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, web content, direct mail, case studies, etc.” Here’s the deal…

Every year, a group of folks from numerous foundations go to Washington to meet with their legislators to talk about foundation activity in their districts at home, and the positive difference it’s making. All with an eye toward heading off possible deleterious budget cuts or legislation that could harm their efforts.

Each group (11 states are represented) is armed with one double-sided-page synopsis outlining their home state’s foundation activity, mostly facts and figures showcasing that impact in black and white. But they also wanted one short story that would appear at the top of the first page.

To gather the info for those 11 stories, they originally wanted me to interview all the state “captains,” but as the deadline hurtled toward them, they decided to just send a questionnaire to the captains and let them fill it out.

I created the cover letter and questionnaire, they sent it out, and the responses they’ve received back are my source material to write the mini-stories (we’re talking ~100 words, total).

P.S. Because so many of the players involved in making this happen are crazy-busy, they’ve appreciated the fact that I’ve taken ownership of the project: suggesting and then writing the letter/questionnaire; proactively hunting on a foundation’s web site for story fodder when my source got tied up elsewhere and couldn’t write his story, or the info they provided didn’t include all the salient details, etc.; writing well and quickly, and generally making it easier on everyone (the goal, after all).

Don’t even know how you’d classify this project, except to say it looks very different from most of what we do. And that’s kind of the point here: While a lot of what we do as freelance commercial writers looks familiar and falls into one of categories listed above, a ton more doesn’t and doesn’t.

Meaning, freelance commercial writing can be anything that helps any enterprise (for-profit or non-profit) communicate more powerfully to their target audience, regardless of the form it takes. So, keep your radar up, and don’t be afraid to suggest something you haven’t seen before, if it indeed will help a client speak to their audience more effectively.

In case you’re wondering how I even landed this project… I cold-called a graphic designer last fall, made a relaxed, un-pushy pitch to help out when needed, and we started talking. He first hired me (another atypical project) to rework a two-page white paper he was posting on his site as a credibility-builder for his design business (focusing on non-profits). Think about that for a sec: designers (or any business-owner, for that matter) want to raise their profile and credibility, and writing “reports” on various subjects showcasing their expertise, is one way to do it.

But how many have the time to do them? Or, in his case, how many are confident enough in their own writing ability to post what they’ve written? As it turned out, he was delighted at the results of my rework, and now knows he can bang something out, and for a very reasonable fee (far less than if I’d written for him from scratch), I’ll get it ready for Prime Time. Getting your wheels turning?

So, when he was brought in to design these one-page synopses, he naturally thought of me to help write the stories, and brought me in.

Then there’s my book-titling business (“The Title Tailor”), another unusual specialty, but certainly one that fits the criterion above: “Helping any enterprise communicate more powerfully to their target audience.”

So, expand your field of vision. Know that the project types we typically talk about in forums like these are a starting point, and they can go in a lot of cool directions.

Do you usually think of commercial writing in terms of a fairly strict set of project types?

Can you share examples of some unusual projects you’ve worked on?

Any stories of successfully suggesting unusual projects to clients?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy Miller March 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Hi Peter. I don’t limit myself to what some think of as conventional commercial writing. Perhaps since I came from a technical role in my health care niche (licensed agent/service account executive/carrier background), I latched on to less conventional projects.

For example, one was working with a specialist from a broker management system to create an online portal for HR professionals. My client was the brokerage firm and their customers were employer groups.Working with their management system vendor was my suggestion, which they appreciated because it was time-consuming for their staff who had other priorities.

Matt H March 2, 2013 at 6:25 am

If I am reading this right, I do this kind of work pretty regularly. My primary niche is nonprofits (having been a nonprofit fundraiser for 20+ years), so it never crossed my mind that it was unusual.

One important note: In 37 states, when you do “fundraising writing,” where your writing either solicits or supports the solicitation of funds, you must be registered – typically as a ‘fundraising counsel” – with the state’s Bureau of Charitable Organizations (or equivalent – usually the same agency that registers charities). Plus, in many of these states you also need to get each contract that involves fundraising writing with a nonprofit approved by that same agency. in my region, a year’s registration cost $250 in PA and NJ, $800 in NY and nothing in DE – where there is no requirement. Plus in NJ you need to send a $10 per contract fee and a “results” form and fee at the end.

Welcome to my world!

…Matt

Katherine Andes March 2, 2013 at 9:23 am

As I recall from my nonprofit days, in California, you have to register with the Board of Equalization only if you make at least 25K a year working for non-profits. What a headache! To your point, Peter, just last week I suggested a client run her important business emails by me so I could clean them up before she hit the send button. She asked me what was wrong with her emails, so I sent her a sample of how I would have revised one of them. She agreed with me and said that she was going to keep me around for a long time.

William Reynolds March 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm

I maintain the usual al a carte menu of items (and packages) on my price sheet, but I also say, “Need something not listed here? Call for a quote!”

I’ve been hired to write rebuttals of online complaints or negative reviews before. One client had a customer post damaging and (according to the client) untrue allegations and accusations on the client’s local directory page. The client didn’t trust himself to respond in a calm, professional manner, so he subbed the job out to me.

I have also been a time traveler of sorts. I was hired by a venture capital firm to write a year’s worth of press releases — retroactively. The firm was creating a new website and wanted a “news desk” page that told the story of its first year in business, from initial launch to the latest big events, through a series of press releases. Unfortunately, no one at the company had ever bothered actually issuing any such stories as they occurred! So I wrote them all, each one composed and back-dated as “news,” and the firm posted them on the website to get their online history up to date.

Lori March 4, 2013 at 8:04 am

I don’t know about limiting. I’ve had more variety than I suppose anyone would ever think commercial writers would have. I ghostwrite articles, newsletters, sales letters, etc., but I’ve also written copy for an envelope mailer, executive bios, product descriptions, company boilerplates, radio scripts, photo captions, slogans, and ebook chapters.

In one case, I was hired by a marketing person to edit her work before her client saw each piece. She wanted (and desperately needed) oversight so she could deliver her best work. I’ve done the same for a large, household-name company who has an expert prepare articles on various topics (he can’t really write).

I’ve even ghostwritten a book for a politician. You never know. :)

Jenn Mattern March 4, 2013 at 9:30 am

One of my favorite project types is the radio PSA script. I haven’t done one in awhile, but it’s one of the less common tasks I’ve taken on.

The most unusual came from my music PR days though (where pretty much all of the writing was on the fun side). I worked with a punk band with a rather large cult following. They were in the process of reworking their brand and image, with more of a rock emphasis, and they were partnering with a guitarist from a more well-known band. They decided they wanted to do a trading card style promotional piece to include with their new album (the band’s lead is also a fairly well-known visual artist in the music community, so he did the design work). I handled the mini bios and such on the cards. That client was always bringing in interesting work though. I handled edits on a music magazine piece where they were featured and I drafted press releases resulting from a feud between them and a very well-known band at one point. I don’t even think I’d have the energy to keep up with them at this point. :)

Henry Alpert March 4, 2013 at 10:13 am

My least typical project was an exhibit. A non-profit, almost 100 years old, had a few print pieces that told its history over the years. I used that source material to write a four-panel exhibit (kind of like something you’d see in a small museum) that included photos and a few artifacts in glass boxes. The exhibit was installed in the organization’s conference room.

Lori March 4, 2013 at 11:58 am

Oh, I forgot one. I was asked to put together and head a panel discussion for a company (unpaid). I’ve yet to take the gig mainly because there’s no pay involved and all benefit for the client. But the request was unusual!

Matt H March 4, 2013 at 12:17 pm

I’ll participate or do “volunteer” work for a client on a case by case basis.

For example, I was asked as a favor to a friend to critique and rewrite some web copy. Since it’s a niche that I see moving into and has some good upside in work with the client long term, I’ll do it.

As far as a panel goes, if it puts me in front of some potential clients, I’d consider it. There’s nothing like looking like an expert. This happened not long ago when I moderated a panel for a professional association of “young professionals” and ended up with a referral for a substantial job.

…Matt

Star March 4, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Let’s see. I once did five words for the back of all the DC buses–my best per word rate evah! Something like $500 a syllable. I also did a “thought control” horoscope for many years for a customer service company. I used the one-year horos from the drug store and then put the customer service spin on…”With Mars in your third house of crankiness, you need to be very careful to listen well and respond calmly today.” I did a blog on bottled water–you’d be amazed how many tidbits there are on water–this was daily!

Finally, for many years, I rewrote all correspondence prepared for a high-ranking cabinet officer–her PR gal could not write. She would come to my house at midnight sometimes.

Peter Bowerman March 4, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Great stuff, everyone,

I pretty much expected plenty of you to have tons of off-the-beaten-track-examples, but again, the whole goal is to get people who may be in the early years of the business to see that work is everywhere, and comes in many forms.

Thanks Cathy – good example of how, often, we pick up work, not necessarily because they NEED a writer to do it, but because they just don’t have time to do it.

And thanks Matt and Kathi for the heads-up on necessary registrations. I haven’t done any fundraising yet for NFP’s, but if it comes to that, I’ll cover the base. And Kathi, loved your example of vetting this woman’s emails. SO many people need that (thanks, Lori, for your similar example, and good to see you here!).

I forgot about the ongoing work I’m doing for one client who wrote a book, and is doing all these emailed interviews as part of the PR campaign. And I’m cleaning up her often scattered missives.

Cool example, William, of writing replies to bad customer reviews. That could be a cottage industry in itself, given the toxic level of discourses in the review arena these days.

Great example Jenn (and good to see you here as well!), especially the press release covering the feud. Too funny. Bet those had to be worded just so… ;)

And thanks Henry and Star – fun stuff. Years ago, I did a brochure showcasing the small museum the CDC has in their offices in Atlanta, tracing the history of their agency. And nice gig, Star. Closest I came to something like that was a tag line I did for the Atlanta Public Library system, and which someone told me they saw as part of an ad on the side of a city bus. Told them to take a picture of it if they saw it again! :)

Any more cool/fun/interesting examples?

PB

Merrill Clark March 6, 2013 at 10:18 am

Thanks everyone for some cool ideas…

My latest “out of the box” writing project was for an existing client.

He was vehemently opposed to a proposed state law coming up for debate that could potentially ruin the successful business he spent 28 years building.

And he wanted to explain his opposition points to the local legislators. He’s very busy, so he just hired me to write a detailed letter that he could mail to his state reps and senator.

On my end, it involved studying the original law, the proposed changes, and conveying why the changes would be very bad for his business, other similar businesses, their employees, and also the State.

Pretty interesting, definitely different, and kinda fun (after I got through the legal mumbo- jumbo and determined my outline).

Michael Scully March 7, 2013 at 6:33 am

That sounds like a very interesting project, indeed.

Laura Brennan March 10, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I had a fun job last December: a client whose book I had copy-edited was going to a lot of Christmas parties and realized she was bombing when people asked her what she did for a living. She knew I helped other people pitch their projects, so she asked me to come up with a “pitch” she could use for herself at cocktail parties.

She was such an interesting person that it was a breeze, and she ended up having a lot of fun with our pitch.

Anastasia Dudina March 14, 2013 at 3:31 am

Thank you for the story and for your wonderful web-site Peter! I found you book and blog two days ago and just can’t stop reading. It’s really the most useful information for freelance commercial copywriters that I’ve ever seen.

As for my projects, last Christmas I had a request from local representative of Kia Motors Corporation. They wanted to have fortune cookies texts that would both reflect the brand philosophy, would speak indirectly about motion, speed and driving, and also just be positive and fun, brief and bright. As a fortune-teller I felt extremely responsible, as some people can really take these predictions seriously :) And both the client and me were happy with the result (hope people who’ve received the presents were happy too :) ) Here is a short description of the project, but it’s only in Russian, sorry (but you can see a picture of the final result) – http://adudina.com/portfolio/kia

P.S. After the project was finished, I’ve read the news that fortune-cookies-texts writer was included in the list of the most weird professions in the world :)

Ken Norkin April 9, 2013 at 10:20 am

My most out-of-the-box assignment was more than 30 years ago. For a side job I was hired to write a magician’s script for a performance at a trade show booth. The idea was to relate the magician’s patter to the exhibitor’s message and theme. It was for the training and support programs offered by one of the big oil companies to their independent station owners and retailers.

The studio that hired me for the project did not know that I actually was a magician! I used to do close-up magic in restaurants in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. No more. That was another lifetime.

For this assignment, I not only wrote the patter, but drew on my experience to suggest the tricks that the magician perform. The client was very impressed that I gave them a complete act to give to their client.

I don’t know the end of the story. Don’t know how much of what I wrote the hired magician eventually used. But even if he or she suggested alternative tricks — and there were many that could help convey the same points — my script showed how to tie magic to certain types of effects.

Can’t say that anything else I’ve worked on in my career is in any way out of the ordinary.

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