Was doing a talk about commercial writing (www.wellfedwriter.com) recently when someone asked, “Isn’t writing for business pretty dull and uncreative?”? My reply? “I don’t glorify this field and won’t tell you you’ll get all your creative fulfillment from it. That said, I’m pleasantly surprised on a regular basis at the interesting, challenging – and dare I say, at times, fun – projects that cross my path.”? And to get paid so well for it? MmMmMm. Another reason to love this life (see previous post). But, when I tell most people I write commercially, the most common reply I get is, “Oh, technical writing?” Egad, no (not that there’s anything wrong with being a technical writer…). But, as we all know, it’s MUCH more fun than that…
Recently, I landed a most interesting gig (which I’ll actually showcase a bit more in May’s ezine). This BIG firm does marketing for retail establishments – fast food places, convenience stores, supermarkets, etc. They design, build, and come up with unique marketing strategies to maximize their profitability. This job entailed creating 150+ point-of-purchase displays to highlight tips, values, recipes, and product bundles (i.e., meal ideas) with an eye toward maximizing sales. I had to create a snappy headline and one line of equally catchy body copy. Ended up being 50+ hours over 6.5 days or so, and an exceptionally healthy hourly rate.
Unusual project. NOT my typical fare. But a good example of why I like this business: such a broad variety. So, it got me thinking about what commercial writing IS. I figured if I’ve had some unusual “don’t-fit-the-mold” projects, some of you have as well. Remember, commercial writing can be anything an organization has to create in the course of doing business.
Here’s a list of commercial writing projects that have crossed my path over the years:
Marketing brochures (from tri-fold to capabilities to corporate image), ad copy, newsletters, direct mail campaigns, web sites, sales sheets, sales letters, case studies, executive profiles, speeches, video scripts, radio spots, event scripting, on-hold message scripting, CD-ROM scripting (did the commemorative CD-ROM for the Korean Veterans Memorial in D.C. – very cool), slogan/tagline concepting, annual reports, trade articles, press releases, and more that elude me right now…
So, what have I missed here that you’ve done? And what’s the most fun or unusual well-paying commercial gig you’ve ever landed?
I was in downtown Atlanta a few weeks back, delivering a few seminars at a writers conference. I loooove getting out from behind my computer and mingling with the rest of humanity (and when they’re paying me, even better…). It’s part of the variety that makes me love this life I (we) have.
Well, apparently, that love and appreciation for My Pretty Cool Life came through loud and clear to one of the attendees of my morning session on self-publishing. After the talk, sitting at my book table, this gentleman approached with a lovely bit of good news: He was a freelancer who did the regular Why I Love My Job feature for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and I sure seemed to fit that profile. Would I like to be the subject of a future half-page instalment of the series? “Is this a trick question?” I asked, smiling. Like, duh.
He came by last Thursday to do the interview and snap a few, and that’ll be coming up some Sunday in May, I’m told. Yay. Of course, it got me thinking about how good I have it. There’s a special moment I have every morning (after rising about 8, 8:30, and commuting 15 feet to my office) when I’m sitting at my computer answering email. Big windows frame trees and more trees, and let the morning sun stream in. I always stop and think about everyone out on the highway, struggling through gridlock on their way to an airless, windowless, soulless cubicle for the next 8-10 hours, and then back in the car for Round 2 and on to fight crowds at the grocery, gym, and dry cleaners, etc.
I thank my lucky stars I am not among their ranks and wish this life for them. To live life on one’s own terms. To rise or crash on your clock, not someone else’s. To take a day, week or month off when you say (as long as you can pay your bills). Yeah, I know, you folks still working for The Man don’t really want to hear all this, but hey, if it helps you get to this place quicker… I joke sometimes – but I’m more than half-serious – that while my Well-Fed Writer titles are ostensibly about writing, they’re really about lifestyle. I just happen to do that with writing.
If you’re living the freelance dream, what part of it puts that quiet, contented smile on your face or even makes you downright giddy?
So, I’m working on a project with this agency and they start hinting at this other gig. Seems they’ve been writing the copy for this consumer products line for seven years, and while the client is fine with the design work they’ve been doing, they’re just not thrilled with the copywriting. They wanted me to take a look at the latest round of copy and see if I had any ideas. But, before I did, they gave me the deal on the situation. Get this…
They can only use a pre-approved list of words – no deviating. The middle management layers of approval have their own biases AND their own need to justify their existences by making changes or otherwise showing their disapproval. And after those managers are done, they’ve culled down the three concepts that the firm gives them to ONE, which is the one they have the agency creatively execute and then present to the top boss. ONE concept.
And gee, big surprise, he often isn’t nuts about it. Give someone ONE idea to choose from, and that’s a whole lot of pressure to like it. Give someone three to choose from, and even if you know which one you want them to choose, by having a few others there as “filler,”? you make it easier for the client to like yours. Of course, clients are notorious for turning that particular piece of logic on its head and loving one of the filler concepts. But hey, if they’re happy and we get paid, life could be a lot worse.
It was clear to me right from the get-go that the issue wasn’t the copy – it was fine. It was the process that was the issue – a process structured in such a way to make it nearly impossible for the agency to succeed.
And heck, for all we know, this account is one of those that likes to keep their vendors in a constant state of anxiety about their worth to the company. Praise ‘em too much and they might just start asking for more money. Keep convincing them that “you’re just not quite hitting the mark, but I guess we’ll go ahead and use your lame copy anyway…”? But seven years into the process, they’re still working for them, so maybe they don’t suck that badly after all…
As many of you know, this craziness is more common in Corporate America than most people would ever imagine. Well, needless to say, I said, “Pass.”? NOT interested in working under those circumstances. Feels good to say no sometimes.
What sorts of client/project situations do you run from?
Some months back, I got an email from a guy relatively new to the commercial writing field. He’d done a bit of work in one particular niche, liked it and was making a few bucks. He continued with this:
“However, I want to go after the money, in whatever form is most easily gotten in terms of getting the work and getting paid, so I would love your input in where that might be and how to get the work.”?
I always have to smile when I get notes like this. “Short cut hunting,”? I call it. I wrote him back:
“I’m not picking on you here, because a lot of people ask this. But, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work that way. If there were indeed a place where it WAS easy to get work that paid well and fast, in this wired age of ours, do you really imagine it would stay a secret for long? Everyone would be flocking to it, and in short order, rates would drop to nothing. Like any other business, it takes hard work and persistence to make it happen.
“There really aren’t any shortcuts, unless you count experience that you bring from another industry that you can leverage into writing for that industry. In that case, you WILL probably be able to get in the door faster because you have some value you’re bringing to the table. That’s the key: things can be easier when you have an advantage of some sort that others don’t.”?
In a perverse sort of way, I’d like to think this reality check would be of comfort to people considering the business. Knowing that it’s NOT a cakewalk should banish any lingering suspicions that I’m selling snake oil here – promising riches with little effort. After all, we’re big kids. By this point in our lives, how many times have we heard, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”? Knowing that the effort required needs to be substantial lets you know that the rewards are real. And they are. Not just financially (you can make money in any decent J-O-B), but far more importantly, in the heavenly, oozing-with-freedom lifestyle. Trust me. You want this. Can I get a witness?
Know that if you DO build a successful business, you will have accomplished something big – something the seasoned practitioners already get – in spades.
So, what advice/warnings/admonitions would you give a “short-cut hunter”??
Last year, I leased a postage meter from the company that shares my initials. Their introductory special offer became more understandable after seeing the bloated prices they charged for supplies. Some time back, I started getting regular “Low Ink!” warnings on the meter. Their cost to replace the slightly-bigger-than-a-pack-of-Tic-Tacs-sized cartridge? $47 + $8.50 shipping (UPS Ground). 56 bucks. On a whim, I called my neighborhood Cartridge World (www.cartridgeworld.com), a low-cost, high-service, friendly cartridge refiller franchise (from Down Under, incidentally…). $28 refilled, drive-out price. But it gets better.
When I handed it over to the guy at CW, he started walking to the back of the store, then stopped, hefted it gently, and said, “This doesn’t feel empty.”? He knew exactly what it should weigh both full and empty, and a few moments later, he comes back: “It’s still about one-third to one-half full.” Nice. Thanks, guys.
Oh, and up yours, PB (them, PB, not me, PB), for hoping I’d just do as I was told and toss roughly $20-25 worth of ink and pony up another 56 clams. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall at THAT meeting: “I know, we’ll set the machines to give premature low-ink warnings so we’ll increase ink sales by 37.56%! Wow, what a genius! Give him a raise!” Guess it never occurred to them that they’ve got competition on supplies, and even worse, honest folks who can bust them SO easily. Not smart. And now I’m writing about it. So they lose my supplies business along with that of probably a bunch of others, too.
P.S. I finally returned for a replacement cartridge nearly four months later.
P.P.S. When it came time to order mailing strips, THEY wanted over $80 for two boxes of double strips – delivered. Got the same thing from a competitor for $22 – to my door.
How do you make sure your copywriting clients keep coming back to you instead of going to the competition?