From What Background Did You Come to Commercial Freelancing?

by Peter Bowerman on February 27, 2014

One of the things I love about this field of ours is that there are few backgrounds one can’t leverage into a freelance commercial writing career. Over the years, I’ve crossed paths with commercial writers who started out as doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, engineers, bankers, software salesman, PR people, undertakers, farmers, accountants, scientists, and many more that elude me right now.

It’s always interesting to me to see what fields someone can parlay into commercial copywriting career, and that they can parlay that field successfully.

Of course, it’s no surprise the commercial writing field is so accommodating to most any background. After all, every business needs a healthy volume of writing, and who better to deliver that writing than someone who hails from that field?

Obviously, as most of you know, I turned a 15-year sales/marketing career into a future as a commercial freelancer, and someone who understands sales and marketing is going to get the attention of many a prospect.

But I’d love to be able to share with readers of this blog who are considering a jump to our field, the various different paths that have led to it, to prove to them that, in fact, virtually any field one comes from can be a good starting point. With that in mind…

What was the background that you brought into commercial writing?

How did you leverage that background when you started out?

And if you did leverage it, what did that background mean to the people who hired you?

If you didn’t leverage it, was it harder to get started?

Any other comments?

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Star February 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm

You are asking me to hark back to when dinos roamed. My major in college was Asian Studies–I never used it except to write an issue of the TWA magazine on China–and that never ran because TWA did not end up with the route.

Then after some weird jobs, I became a lobbyist for the aircraft manufacturers association and spent 16 yrs persuading and explaining to members of Congress. If you can get through to THEM, well, you are golden.

During that time, I began writing for Washingtonian–I sat in their lobby (literally) until Jack Limpert spoke to me. I did that for years, then quit aerospace to have a late in life kid. Of course, I also needed money, so I got a job editing a magazine leveraging my defense background (the mag was for military dependents). I could always think of some way something connected to something else. I am good at that. I believe they call it creative writing.

Anyhow, this and my association creds led me to years of commercial work for associations–many many of them. I would say I understand the association world–they “got” that because it is a weird environment. Then I got industry jobs–Apple, IBM, Gannett–based on collateral for associations–nice brochures (remember those?).” So I had magazine, direct response, printing, and other chops.

I pitched to PARADE, we went back and forth, but the piece was never assigned–however! The editor took me with him to CBS. I wrote for HealthWatch for years–then it sold to WebMD and I wrote for them for yrs. Great clients. I got into health–I wasn’t healthy, I just liked health (my Dad had been a doc).

So now, I do a health blog and have for seven years, every weekday. I would say one thing leads to another–but don’t let it lie there…Hook it up to something, push! During a lot of this time, I was trying to break into screenwriting–which I sort of did with a studio option and a short film I wrote and co-produced that won a Telly–and NOW, I decided I am old and want to have fun and am back to screenwriting–and it is fun. Don’t forget fun. This isn’t all grim and grimy.

Cathy Miller February 28, 2014 at 8:12 am

I think I saw some of those same dinosaurs, Star. ;-)

I made the leap from a 30+year career in insurance and employee benefits. I worked the many sides of insurance (claims, customer service, provider relations) before ending my corporate career with brokerage/consulting firms. In a prior life, I was a dental hygienist. I like to say I had experience from both sides of the chair. :-)

I leveraged that experience to work the health care field (as a former health provider) as well as the insurance industry and brokerage firms. The combination of the inside technical skills and the writing skills serves me well. I think my clients appreciate someone who “gets” their business. My strength (IMHO) is making the complex simple so I am able to translate techie stuff (like health reform) into an easier-to-understand commercial form for consumers.

My favorite gigs are those in which I can use my creativity to simplify a concept or process.

Star February 28, 2014 at 10:35 am

Yes, convince people you “get” their unique situation–I used to say I know what works and what doesn’t in an industry. The other day, I made the “fun” remark and someone disdainfully remarked that we weren’t in this to –quotes–”have fun.” Good grief–we are on a rock hurtling through space headed for oblivion–why not have fun?

Jeff Van Leuvan February 28, 2014 at 11:04 am

I have been a salesman in the truck and trailer parts industry since 1977 and have been producing supplemental marketing materials for my customers the last 20 years. Being a slow learner, I finally realized a year ago I had the ability to do this for other people so I bought The Well Fed Writer as a guide and started to contact potential prospects.
While I am trying to specialize in the transportation industry, I have recently been landing assignments from construction companies and other local customers. I’m still an outside salesman peddling truck parts but I hope to bring that to a close this year. Thanks for your help Peter!

Jake Poinier February 28, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Started out in magazines, eventually working my way up to managing editor (and, briefly editor) of Golf Illustrated magazine. The real benefit was learning the processes, not just the writing/editing, and particularly working and fostering camaraderie with graphic designers and even the ad sales guys. After a brief, painful foray into public relations, I ended up at a custom magazine publishing company. It was a relatively small company with an open-book policy, so it was hugely educational in understanding how to price projects profitably. I also spent some time as a publisher on the sales side of the business, which was not for the faint of heart–many of the contracts were $1 million and up. Talk about pressure!

As far as leverage as a start-up, the two keys were: 1) I had developed solid relationships with our clients, who hired me after I resigned for non-magazine projects (annual reports, web copy, advertising); and 2) developed relationships with staff and freelance graphic designers who needed help with their outside projects. Both were also referral sources, too.

One might argue that my path into freelancing was pretty standard/traditional. But the truth is that being a staff writer/editor isn’t adequate preparation for running your own business, and may even be misleading, as far as thinking that “I’m a good writer–this will be easy!” The lessons I learned as a manager, client schmoozer, sales guy, and supervisor of graphic designers were the ones that mattered. And, at the risk of being an apple-polisher, The Well-Fed Writer bailed me out when the economy tanked in 2000-01!

Sue February 28, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Well, I am a bit intimidated and hesitated to comment. I am interested in copywriting but have not even gone after a client, still being in the unsure area of this genre. So I am one of those readers considering a jump into this field and have been following you to learn. Maybe there will be a few more people to learn from.

Right now, I write a review site for childrens books and the occasional online magazine article. That is it for my writing career so far. I do have a middle grade book in the works, but that is it. I write every day, beyond the near daily post at KLR. I do not write a 400 words review, as most say “should be” but rather an 800 to 1100 word review speckled with humor. My followers are few by review “standards” (who is this standard maker?), but they are loyal.

I ws a social worker before illness took me out of that field and most others. Hence the desire for something done at home. I know medical, photography, animals (pets & advocacy), and kids books/publishing enough to write fluidly about any of them. How to turn all the knowledge stuck in my head to customers is one big reason I am here.

I am all ears.

Star March 1, 2014 at 10:30 am

First, don’t be intimidated–no one did all of this in one day…You sound like you have some good at-home approaches already–I cannot go out to a “job,” either–even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I have a question in the children’s book area–if you want to click on me.

Carolyn Frith March 2, 2014 at 8:57 am

I had decades of experience in marketing before I launched my career as a FLCW. Of course, the strategic marketing orientation helps. Surprisingly, however, it’s my few years in marketing research that I’ve really been leveraging lately. There’s a huge interest now in business-to-business content marketing, and to do it right you need to start with “persona” research–talking with customers and finding out the problems they were facing before they bought a product or solution, the steps they took, and content they looked to in order to decide which product to buy. I do the persona research, and develop an annual content plan — packed with e-books, white papers, webinars, blog posts, videos and more.

Then the magic happens. The client realizes I know their target audience better than anyone. They discover I can write as well. It’s only natural for them to want me to write the content rather than get someone else up to speed. And that’s what I love to do!

Robin Halcomb March 3, 2014 at 11:43 am

Started out writing news and commercials for radio. Later, a degree in public relations with a minor in public health, followed by two years in hospital PR. Discovered Peter’s book around 2004, put health care and freelancing together, and the rest is a pleasant history. Thanks, Peter!

William Reynolds March 3, 2014 at 5:05 pm

My background is in dramatic writing; I got a graduate degree in playwriting, which I figured qualified me for exactly nothing in the real world — until I discovered copywriting. I began in the most intuitively obvious area, writing training scripts and commercials, but I soon found that most of the “nuts and bolts” I’d learned for dramatic writing translated quite naturally to a career as a marketing writer. It’s all about knowing your audience and saying the right things at the right time to push their emotional buttons and elicit the precise response you want. I even wrote an e-book on the subject….

Jennifer Mattern March 5, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Sue,

You mentioned that you currently review children’s books. Have you considered turning that interest into a copywriting career? For example, maybe you could write back cover copy for children’s books, book launch press releases, or online newsroom material for authors. While authors can write, many can’t write effective marketing and PR copy. They outsource that. And with the boom in indie publishing, it might be a market to consider with your background. :)

Jennifer Mattern March 5, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I came to this business / commercial writing thing through a PR background. I studied PR and business in college (degree in PR), and I later ran a small PR firm.

Copywriting makes up a huge portion of PR work — press releases, newsletters, brochures, PSA scripts, etc. — and there is a lot of overlap between PR copy and marketing and sales copy. When I decided to move away from the PR and social media consulting side of that business, most of my clients kept me on in a copywriting capacity. That made the transition fairly smooth. I suppose I got lucky in that sense.

Peter Bowerman March 5, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Great stuff, everyone – love the varied paths, but all leading to the same profession! This field of ours truly IS a welcoming one… ;) And one offering a wonderful new shot at life away from the corporate jungle/cubicle hell.

Reminds me of the opening lines on the plaque that graces the Statue of Liberty (a sonnet by Emma Lazarus):

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

That about sums it up, no? ;)

Carolyn Frith March 6, 2014 at 7:39 am

That does sum it up. I was definitely tired of the corporate world and yearning to breathe free!

Ken Norkin March 6, 2014 at 12:26 pm

How I became a commercial writer –

I graduated from college with a degree in journalism in December 1973. I had not looked for work my final semester (of part-time courseload) because the managing editor at the suburban weekly where I had been stringing as a general assignment reporter and sports columnist had said “we’ll talk when you graduate.” I thought I had a great $150-a-week journalism job waiting for me in January.

But shortly before I graduated, the managing editor left. (And went on to win two Pulitzers!) His replacement had no job for me and felt no obligation to honor the departed ME’s commitment. I was too young and inexperienced to know I should just talk to the editor-in-chief. I made the choice not to leave home and friends and go off into the hinterlands to get an entry job at some small paper or radio station (I had been news director of the campus radio station). I struck out with DC-area journalism jobs. I continued stringing for the paper, but needed full-time work.

So I took a job as technical editor in the publications department of an engineering and environmental consulting firm. I worked on environmental and safety analysis reports for the licensing of nuclear and fossil-fueled power plants. There was lots of overtime, so I made pretty good money. Continued to look for local journalism jobs with no luck.

A year later, out of the blue, I was internally referred to the company’s communications manager and next thing I know I’m his first full-time staff writer-editor. I produced the company’s external and internal newsletters; wrote brochures, ads and press releases (or worked with freelancers when more experience was required); learned basic photography; bought printing, and managed the in-house marketing list. It was a great education in all facets of marketing communications.

Following this, I worked in other organizational communications jobs the rest of the 70s, then became an ad agency copywriter (a lateral move, but a needed change) in 1980. I went freelance in 1991.

So I was forunate in that I came out of college with a degree and writing portfolio that qualified me for an entry-level writing-editing position, I had a commercial writing portfolio before getting hired into my first ad agency job and then had an even bigger portfolio, with a clear tech marketing focus, when I went freelance.

I agree that any background can be a springboard to a commercial writing career. But I’m at a loss for suggestions on how someone with no writing experience to show can get that first commercial writing job or freelance assignment.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

I’d like to add one personal postscript to my story.

Of course I was disappointed, sad and frustrated when the newspaper job I thought was mine after graduation didn’t materialize. And I was not feeling very good about myself when the only job I could get was technical editing boring engineering documents (and doing that 60 or more hours some weeks).

Over the years, I have sometimes wondered how different my life might have been had I actually received that newspaper job in January 1974 — because it was in that engineering company’s technical publications department that I met the young woman with whom I am this very day celebrating my 38th wedding anniversary.

Carolyn Frith March 6, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Ken:

Your P.S. made me smile. Everything happens for a reason. I was pretty upset with upper management at my last job when they eliminated my job, but now I thank them for opening my mind to a much better opportunity in freelance writing.

Peter Bowerman March 6, 2014 at 1:18 pm

One door closes… ;)

Sarah F March 10, 2014 at 6:56 am

Yeah the paths usually link up when it comes to freelancing

Melzetta "Mele" Williams March 12, 2014 at 11:38 am

In my sixth grade essay I wrote, “I want to be a lawyer and an author.”

I planned to have a long legal career first, and write books and film scripts during “middle age”. I enjoyed the creative part of building a legal strategy, but I hated the paperwork, and my clients were high-maintenance (I practiced a lot of family law).

After presenting legal seminars to corporations and government, I asked my training company client if I could teach something else. They assigned me to faciliate communications seminars, which I loved. I turned a resume-writing seminar into a “build your personal brand” class and the clients loved it.

I found Peter’s book and was on my way.

Bradford March 12, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Sixteen years in technical education. Ten years in high-tech (software startups, telecom) ending up in a marketing position. Transition to replacement salary as a freelance writer over a six-month period. Never looked back. In fact, I’ve turned down a few offers to go captive.

Lori March 13, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Well, I started out as a waitress at age 16. I eat — that’s about the only correlation. :)

One of my jobs back in the 1990s was a part-time marketing job for an insurance agency. I used that low-paying job (sorry, Ted, but you don’t pay well) to get a job at a company that supported the insurance industry. From there, a job as a senior editor at an insurance-related magazine, and then here, writing about insurance and risk management. :)

I did indeed leverage the insurance background. That I knew the terminology helped me get into the company. That experience at the company I used to get the writing job. From there, it’s been leverage on top of leverage on top of leverage….

Anyone starting out should know that it’s possible to use what you know now to set yourself on the right path. If I can, anyone can.

Carolyn, great to see you! I was thinking about you yesterday — we need to do lunch again.

Carolyn Frith March 13, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Lori:

That’s so funny–we met on this blog a couple of years ago and now we reconnect here. Yes–now that the snow has finally melted, I’d love to escape and do lunch.

Carolyn

Peter Bowerman March 13, 2014 at 11:28 pm

I love it – my blog is the Great Connector AND Reconnector…;)

Joe McDermott April 6, 2014 at 11:05 pm

I know I’m a little late for this party, but I had to weigh in since it was Peter’s book — in large part — that propelled me into this field. Unlike Ken, I did get a newspaper job right after college and spent 20+ years covering just about anything an editor could throw at me, from city government and politics to skiing and cycling.

I started looking for new pastures when I saw the headlines on the wall about 15 years ago, and they were all predicting dire things for the industry I loved. “The Well-Fed Writer” was the first thing I found when I started looking for new avenues, and I followed that up with Bob Bly’s “Secrets of a Freelance Writer.” I will say that both Peter and Bob gave me personal encouragement in email responses to my questions about whether I could make the switch.

I didn’t make a direct jump, though. I did some community/public relations for a local official and agency, and that was very important to my success because it helped the local business leaders see me as more than just a reporter. It introduced me to many people I would not have met in my prior career, and it gave me a terrific network to leverage when I went out on my own.

As a writer, I found I truly loved ‘people stories,’ and that the best stories were about people rather than decisions, places and events. That experience translates so well to what I am doing now because I use it to help my clients tell their stories in ways that mean something to their audience. Case studies, newsletters and media relations are my bread and butter, and I have found that the best sales sheet is a good feature story with a call to action at the end.

Peter, thanks again for your early support. I know you probably don’t even remember it, but it meant a lot. And for everyone else, one of the most important things I have learned is that we have a skill that really isn’t shared by many people — despite what they may think — and it is very, very valuable.

Curtis W. White June 27, 2014 at 11:35 am

I started out selling radio advertising, and quickly discovered my favorite part of the job was writing the sales letters (and the ads). It took me several years to get up the courage to start my own freelance copywriting business. But eventually the opportunity presented itself. And the rest is history. I’m in my second year now as a freelancer. It’s been very rewarding. I’m not knocking ‘em dead just yet, but I am doing pretty well. And prospects are even brighter for the future. Reading WFW was a turning point for me. I’m sure that’s true for quite a few people here.

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