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.)

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13 replies
  1. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    I get the same reaction when I read some of my older posts at my business blog. And the posts are not that old. *shudder*

    I seem to be on a journey to simplify my life. Fortunately, that spills over to my writing. Heck, my whole brand is Keep it simple so I better figure it out! 😉

    I think I am better at storytelling and descriptive writing. Who would believe passive prose riddled this brassy woman’s life? 🙂

  2. Peter DeHaan
    Peter DeHaan says:

    I’ve recently noticed this on what I’ve written a mere six months ago. I had two choices: lament over how bad it was or celebrate that I’ve improved. I opted f0r the latter.

  3. Star
    Star says:

    I recently looked at my brochure collection–and the designs looked kinda 1990s–which was fine for the ones from the 1980s. I dunno, I always write short sentences, a little flashy, I clock in at 6-7th grade level even for doctors (esp. for them, I should say). I try to keep paragraphs short and of different lengths, even an occasional one-sentence para. Today, actually today, I am not joking, a guy said he could not afford me and I remembered what you people said one time: always give a little extra. So I said, sure, let me know if your budget increases. Then I said, here is a little tip. There are five reasons people don’t buy (I am sure this crowd knows the No Money, No Time, No Need, No Desire, No Trust riff). I said, try to counter those and keep the features and benefits separate and it will work out OK. Of course it would work out MORE OK if he had money, but whattaya gonna do?

  4. Princess Jones
    Princess Jones says:

    This happens all of the time. That’s because I am always growing as a writer. I don’t beat myself up about it because the moment I stop growing is the moment I know I’m done.

    You know what else happens sometimes? I read something really great and don’t realize I wrote it. I once ghostwrote a piece that I later stumbled upon online. I liked it and I tweeted it. It was only after rereading it and zeroing in on a particular line that I realized that I wrote it.

  5. Star
    Star says:

    LOL. I have had that happen with letters to the editor. I will think, here’s a good one! Well, of course, I think it’s good! Funny.

  6. Lori
    Lori says:

    I’ve had a few a-ha moments lately. I cleaned out the file cabinet, which included stacks of clips from 1989 and beyond. Egad. In a few cases, I was tempted to throw out the offending piece. Then I realized the only other person keeping that clip was my mother and, since she thinks I rival Erma Bombeck (we all have our own heroes, I guess), I just put them back in the folder and vowed not to look again.

    Then there’s the article I wrote three years ago that should not have gone into print. I wonder why the editor let it go. Maybe he was having a bad day, too? Alas, that article lives in infamy, for it’s online.

    I have seen an improvement in my writing. I make a concerted effort to study grammar and style guides regularly, so some of my unknown-to-me sins have now been corrected. Also, I’ve learned to hone my voice so that the audience feels I’m understanding them and their needs. An editor put it succinctly a few months ago, when one of my articles caused tons of discussion/debate on the Internet. One commenter suggested I knew nothing of his industry because my opinion didn’t align with his. The editor’s comment: “I wanted to tell him ‘Dude, she f***ing IS your industry.'” I had him convinced. Since he’s my first audience, I couldn’t help but feel I’ve come a long way.

    To my bad habits — I’ve probably picked up more than I’ve broken. I use dashes and parentheses entirely too much. On the other hand, I’ve become more conscious of it, and I’ve learned to put the adverbs down and walk away. 😉

    I don’t know that clients have noticed, but I did get rehired yesterday by a long-time client with whom I’d not worked in nearly two years. They said I got them, so I guess if clients feel understood, that trumps any improvements.

  7. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    Whether or not I write much better than I did years ago, I certainly write with more brevity. That comes in large measure from the change in project types. These days, I mostly write web pages and two-page product briefs or data sheets. It’s been a while since I’ve written an 8-page-plus-cover brochure with five inside spreads or message areas. Or even a 4-pager plus cover.

    Back in the day, I had a formula for these pieces that boiled down to: here’s the problem, here’s the solution, here’s who we are to be saying this. I was a master at the 250- to 300-word introductory copy that laid out the prospect’s need, leading to the happy news that my customer’s solution was at hand.

    Today, I cover all that in a paragraph. Sometimes a sentence.

    I’m sure if I looked through the box into which I recently condensed my entire career — had to thin the samples for our move — I would find published pieces that make me cringe. Since I’d rather believe I’ve always been good at what I do, I won’t go looking.

  8. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great stuff, everyone!

    Glad to hear this is a universal sentiment/experience. But it’s still fascinating to me to see how what we thought was juuuuussst right a few years —or even months!—ago, now has us go, “No, I didn’t!” 😉 And Cathy, maybe my reaction is ALSO about simplifying my life, which is something I’m also on a mission right now to do as well. Feels good, no?

    Good point Star (a little digression here…) about writing for 6th to 7th grade level. Something we should all remember to do. Not because we think people are stupid, but because they’re almost always distracted, and are giving our copy their divided attention.

    That’s hilarious, Princess. And hey, you liked it when you wrote it AND later when you read it, so it must have been good… 😉

    Great stuff, Lori! And yes, I love picking up little ideas (that) you never heard before that demonstrably improve your writing. One of my faves: eliminate “that” from your writing, whenever you can, like the one in parens above. I’d have used it in the past, but not anymore.

    I’m also bad with dashes and parentheses as well. You and I apparently just have too much to say, and can’t fit it all in an un-dashed, un-parenthesized sentence…;)

    Brevity (like Ken) is probably my most noticeable improvement as well. Love being able to “nuggetize.” Though sometimes, we can butt heads with clients who want to tell readers everything, instead of just what they need to know at that point.

    Anyone else?


  9. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    I’d written a few articles years ago that now give me the heebie geebies.

    Like Princess, I’ve encountered some happy surprises as well. One night, I was listening to an amusing radio ad. The actor got all the way to the last sentence before I’d realized it was MY writing!

  10. Arbaz
    Arbaz says:

    I too have read my articles that I wrote when I first started out. I was laughing like hell with each sentence, I was horrible at writing convincing articles.
    My writing style has evolved a lot in the last years and I just love it. Now I can draft great content that is worth the share.

  11. Teena Lyons
    Teena Lyons says:

    It’s so hard to look back and think where you started. But we all must have the smug feeling about where we are now.
    It is inevitable to be critical of the work you do, sometimes I can’t believe the drivel I haven’t written at the start of a book compared to the point I am working on now.
    But it all goes to show that writing is something that you will never be perfect at and it is a career where you are forever learning, and that’s fine by me.

  12. Curtis W. White
    Curtis W. White says:

    Ahhhh. So this is what I have to look forward to in a couple of years: looking back on those first few projects and cringing.

    As a newbie (just hung out my shingle thanks to your book) I’m happy to be on track to do just that.

    Landing my first few jobs and figuring things out as I go has been very rewarding. Nothing beats it.

    Even if someday my early efforts will make me want to sandpaper my face off from embarrassment, I’m sure they’ll make me a little proud too.

    Thanks for the inspiration, Peter.
    Curtis W. White
    Portstewart, Northern Ireland

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