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There IS No “Copywriting Industry”…

Relax. No, our field hasn’t suddenly shut its proverbial doors. No, all companies haven’t suddenly stopped hiring folks like us. Nothing that earth-shattering (or ridiculous).

Rather, the above semi-apocalyptic-sounding title springs from, shall we say, a semantic epiphany I recently had. Hang with me here. I think you’ll like this (or perhaps, indulgently, you’ll just chalk it up to, “PB headed off on one of his mental-gymnastic routines…”).

To really understand the potential in our business, I say we need to think of it less as “The Copywriting Industry,” and more about servicing an eternal need that exists, by definition, in a business world that needs to communicate.

This hit me after I’d recently been asked, for the umpteenth time, “Is commercial freelancing still a good opportunity?” When you’re an insider, the question might appear silly, but to those on the outside looking in, it’s a perfectly logical inquiry.

After all, it seems like there’s this field called “freelance commercial writing,” so if there’s a “field,” then it can ebb and flow, right? Well, not really. The idea of a “copywriting industry” somehow implies that a bunch of people got together at one point and decided to create this industry writing copy for businesses. Wrong.

After all, if you go down that mental path, then, you open yourself up to having the rules (about “the copywriting industry”), expectations (of “the copywriting industry”), pay scale (in “the copywriting industry”), and any other component, change on you—without notice. And that doesn’t leave you with much control.

It’s far more valuable to view the existence of this field as nothing more than a response to an ongoing, never-ending, systemic need for writing in the business world. And as practitioners, we’re simply molding our writing skills to the needs of the marketplace.

It all starts with understanding how a typical medium-to-large-sized business works. Any such business that wants to stay in business needs to generate a constant stream of written materials in the course of their ongoing and everyday communication with prospects, customers, and employees.

When you get this, you start to realize there will never be a time when they don’t need to do this. They’ll need writing always and forever, and that need is completely independent of any of us out here. The only question becomes how they’ll get it done – in-house or outsourced.

And because it’s a response to an external, already-in-place need (versus some proactive initiative on the part of a bunch of writers to foist unsolicited services on business people), it’s a writing direction with serious staying power. We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to.

The only question—and challenge—is how to get a piece of the action for ourselves. I say that’s a more useful inquiry than asking—one more time, just to make sure, in case Something Happened overnight— “Is there still a market for copywriting services?”

Is this a useful distinction?

Does it give you a better sense of the work we do, and the opportunity it offers?

Does it help you feel a bit more in control of your career?

Any other thoughts? (besides that I might need a shrink…)

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

“Hire Other Writers! Make $25-50+ an Hour for Doing Almost Nothing!” (if you’re really lucky…)

A month doesn’t go by that I don’t get an email or two from a (clearly marketing-averse) commercial writer proposing, in various and sundry versions, the following:

“Since I’m sure you get plenty of overflow commercial freelancing work (not really, actually…), I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about farming it out to others for a lower rate than you charge, and keeping the difference. If you do anything like that, I’d love to be considered…”, etc., etc., etc.

Ah yes, subcontracting. I’ve never gone down this road, but when I focus on the best possible outcome (i.e., solid, reliable subs, steady work, and $25-50 an hour for every hour they bill, with minimal work on my part ), it can sound awfully tempting.

Though, it’s when I think of the worst-case scenario that I come crashing down to earth: Flaky, unreliable subs whose work you have to redo, and for that same $25-50 an hour. AND, in most cases, you’re handling all payments—from clients and to contractors—and all that entails). Makes me tired thinking about it. Pass.

I know it can work out well. The key, of course, is to find those totally “count-on-able” resources happy to work for less (and often far less) than the going rate in return for steady work they don’t have to chase.

In TWFW (p. 230), I share a cool story of a freelance commercial writer out in Montana who did subcontracting right, waking up one day and realizing she’d just made $4K off her subs in the prior month. Sweet.

Recently, got this email from a reader:

Thank you again for your book and the regular encouragement you send out. My writing career has really taken off, and I’m faced with a (good) dilemma.

I’ve found my commercial writing niche. I have regular clients I ghostwrite for each week, and they’d all like more of my time. I only work part time, as I have school-age kids. But, I hate to keep turning down steady gigs!

What are your thoughts about subcontracting out ghostwriting gigs (i.e., ghostwriting for a ghostwriter). Given that I’ve signed NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements) with most of my clients, I can’t see how this would work. Just wondering if you’ve have any creative solutions or ideas.

I wrote back:

I don’t have a lot of experience with subcontracting, so I can’t give you first-hand advice here. That said, your situation may not be as hopeless as you think.

If you were upfront with the client about how you were thinking of taking on a few writers to help you, ones you’d be personally overseeing every step of the way—they may not have a problem with it. Course, if they’re very attached to YOU and your skills and expertise in particular, it could make it trickier.

But again, make it clear you’ll be keeping very tight control over the creation of the content, and it can go a long way to easing their concerns. Also, if you couch it with the verbiage like, “I’m toying with the idea of…”, it gives you room to back-pedal, if indeed they express serious concerns about it.

And I really don’t think the NDA’s would be that big a problem. You could simply have your contractor sign them as well while explaining to the client that you will make it very clear to them how important non-disclosure is in our industry.

Subcontracting can be a tricky proposition, no question. It can also work out really well, if you find really good talented and reliable people to work with. If you don’t, obviously you can end up spending more time doing the same work than if you’d done it yourself.

Have you ever subcontracted out work—on a small or large scale?

If so, was it a good or bad experience?

What lessons have you learned from doing it?

Any other thoughts?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

How Long Did It Take You to Become a Profitable Commercial Writer?

So, I recently got the following email – similar to many I’ve gotten over the years from what I affectionately refer to as “shortcut-hunters.” Can’t blame them – we all want the path of least resistance as we build our commercial writing practices. He wrote:

I have been working as a freelancer now for a couple of years, and during that time I have pretty lucky in being offered work with little or no marketing effort.

The work has been relatively low-paid, but enough to keep me afloat. I’ve been planning to follow your guidance now for some time, but I have always felt too busy with work and family to extend my reach.

Recently a long-term client told me he’d hired an in-house copywriter and that he’d be in touch if and when the company needed to outsource. This has left me in a serious bind as that work constituted a large part of my income. Today, I’ve been cold-calling per your instructions in TWFW, and called 23 marketing agencies.

I got the usual gatekeeper responses (even when calling between 4:30 and 5:30), and I have been given a lot of email addresses of those in charge of marketing to send along my resume, etc. I’ve emailed them, and given them my website address and resume in some cases, but it feels mostly like I’m wading through mud.

What you recommend should be the course of action for someone like me who is a decent copywriter, but needs work quickly?

My reply:

I wish I could give you some magic solution, but there really isn’t one. If there truly were a shortcut to landing high-paying commercial copywriting work faster than normal, everyone would have figured it out by now, and, on the heels of that, no one would be making any money anymore…

I’m afraid the commercial writing business doesn’t really lend itself to fast ramp-up times to profitability, unless you already have a pretty sizable pool of existing contacts that you can tap.

What you describe (calling 23 agencies and getting people asking for you to send info, but nothing right now) is VERY typical of how prospecting in our business goes. In most cases, one has to make many hundreds of contacts, and then nurture those contacts over time in order for things to ultimately pan out.

As I note in TWFW, any business that can pay the wages commercial freelancing can, is going to take a healthy amount of ramp-up time. You just can’t expect it to happen fast. The only fast jobs in writing are the ones that offer lousy pay.

AND, the more calls you make, the better your chance of finding that client who does need something NOW, but you can’t count on that.

While I felt for him (sorta), my evil, snarky twin wanted to say, “Where did you get the idea that this was an easy business? And hello? One client who makes up a BIG chunk of your work? That’s a crisis waiting to happen. AND (echoing a line from my note above), if it were really that easy to earn $50, $60, $80, $100 an hour, how long would that window last, before the low-ballers entered the ring, and crappy rates became the norm?”

As I’m fond of reminding people, the commercial freelancing field pays well precisely because it’s not easy. It’s a bona fide opportunity precisely because you’ve got to bust your butt, and often for a long period of time before you make decent money, and that there are precious few shortcuts.

It’s precisely because it can take a long time to get profitable, that when it does, it’s likely to be a more enduring profitability. And chances are excellent that’s the case because you got into the right habits early—habits that ultimately led you to healthy profitability. Amazing how that works.

In 1994, it took me four months to hit financial self-sufficiency as a commercial freelancer, which is fast. Though, in all fairness, I’d scaled down my expenses, and hit it very hard. Count on longer these days. Put another way…

Anyone who promises you fast riches as a writer is jerking your chain. Period.

With any luck, this piece and the soon-to-appear comments below will provide a good reality check to those starting out or early on in the business-building process.

How long did it take you to get to comfortable profitability?

What advantages/disadvantages did you feel you had compared to others starting out?

If you made it happen fast, what do you think the key was?

If it took you longer to become profitable, why do you think that was?

Any advice to give to someone starting out?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

From What Background Did You Come to Commercial Freelancing?

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?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Can You Share Some Examples of *Useful* Commercial Freelancing Jargon?

Got an email recently from a budding copywriter with a big worry. She wrote:

What is the language of marketing? What kinds of jargon can I expect when I talk to marketing execs? I am concerned that in meetings or conference calls, I might find myself up against a foreign language of sorts because I never worked in a corporate marketing environment.

My first inclination was to simply say, “Not really a big issue in freelance copywriting. It’s not really like a different language, so don’t worry too much about it.”

But then, I got to thinking about it and realized that, when you’ve been in the middle of a particular world for 20 years (this month, in fact…), it’s easy to imagine that it’s not all that complex. And bottom line, it really isn’t that terribly complex, but it’s not completely transparent, either.

And right about the time I got that question, I received an email from a new commercial freelancing client, with the background information on a new project he wanted me to quote. And in that email, he told me what files he’d attached, which included “the wires.” Commence head-scratching. Huh? Wires? What are the wires?

He was with a marketing/design firm, and after clicking through the source material, I realized that one of the documents was a line-drawing mockup of the website they’re creating for their client, and for which they need new copy. That six-page mockup with all the little boxes, arrows and greeking*—is known as the “wires.”

*(Oh, that’s placeholder copy a designer inserts in spaces where copy is needed, but hasn’t been written yet. It usually reads, “Lorum ipsum dolor sit amet…” and a bunch of other, well, Latin, actually. So, the name’s a misnomer, but it’s still “greeking.” And two Latin-to-English translation sites are telling me that the five-word phrase above means…well, “Thong team…” Hmmmm. No clue. Remember, it’s placeholder copy.)

So, “wires.” Learn something new every day. So, maybe there’s a little more to the jargon in the commercial copywriting business than I’d like to believe. Of course, a couple of standard phrases come to mind: collateral, for instance: the term for various and sundry marketing communications pieces beyond ad copy that are part of a larger campaign—things like brochures, sales sheets, case studies, etc.

Then there’s the “creative brief.” Meaning, the document you’ll receive from clients (i.e., an agency, design firm, or the marketing department of the end-user themselves) describing the scope of the project in question, what the objective is, what the deliverables are (there’s another word: “deliverables,” meaning the final end products that need to be created, and which you’ve been entrusted to write), the timetable, contact people (a.k.a. “subject matter experts”—a.k.a. SME’s, and yes, actually pronounced “Smee’s”—yet another term!), etc.

All that said, I still maintain that, even if you come from a background completely different from commercial writing, that it won’t be anywhere near the same as, say, visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

Over time, I learned all these (and many other) words by osmosis, but my overriding recollection is definitely not of one embarrassing moment after another as clients exchanged looks, loosely translated as, “Where did this guy come from?” Not so.

So, that’s a few that occurred to me off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are a ton of others I’m missing right now. So let’s help out this nervous newbie, and share some of the jargon you’ve come across in your freelance commercial writing travels.

And, for the record, I’m not talking about the silly jargon that’s the brunt of jokes about “corporate-speak”—things like mission-critical, value-added, at the end of the day, outside the box, leverage, etc.

Yes, our fledgling freelancer should familiarize herself with those as well (here’s a pretty good list), but I’m talking about the useful terms native to this field of ours.

What are some of the terms, phrases, jargon, that you’ve encountered in the course of your copywriting practice?

In your opinion, how hard is it for a newbie to get a handle on all the vernacular? Did you feel at all confused or out of your depth when you first started out in the business?

Are you aware of any resources/glossaries listing a lot of these terms (I know, I should know some…)?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.