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

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?

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

Ever Landed Copywriting Gigs in Unusual Ways (Like These Folks Have)?

In the November E-PUB (here and adapted below), I wrote a piece about finding commercial writing jobs in unlikely places. Thought I’d make it blog post, in order to collect your stories about landing copywriting work in cool and unplanned ways.

I love it when work comes from unexpected directions. In The Well-Fed Writer, I talk about picking up a big marketing brochure after chatting up a guy over chips and dip at a party.

And a few years back, I landed a year’s worth of commercial freelancing work from a big charity (probably $10K, all told), after a serendipitous chat I had with a friend in another social setting. We knew each other, but not professionally, and once she discovered what I did, it was a few short steps (and yes, beating out the competition) to a pile of work.

Back in the June E-PUB, I ran a fun piece about a commercial writer making contact with a prospect while playing online Scrabble!

I recalled all this when I got a note from another freelance copywriter, who wrote:

On and off, I erroneously get phone calls meant for another local business. Today the sales/marketing person called me to see what could be done to resolve this. As we were talking, I asked him what their business does. They do tech stuff: web design, databases, maintenance, support, etc. I have a lot of tech writing experience, so I told him a bit about my freelance commercial writing business. He said they’re always looking for good writers, so I’ll be staying in touch.

You just never know when you might run across a potential lead, even in an unconventional way! It’s good to think outside the box and always be open to opportunities that might randomly come along. I was reminded today that potential business really is everywhere around us, and that when we just put the word out about what we do, the work somewhat easily comes our way (assuming we have good writing skills, of course…).

And while it hasn’t turned into work for her yet, to find, through a wrong number, a prospect who regularly uses copywriters? That’s not only a real long shot, but a golden lead as well, and one well worth following up on.

And she’s right. We often get so focused on prospecting only in the “right” places, that we overlook opportunities right under our noses. Doesn’t mean we should turn into obnoxious self-promoters, aggressively hitting up our friends at every turn. But keeping our radar up for opportunities in non-business settings, is never a bad idea.

Have you picked up work in unconventional ways? If so, can you share some stories?

Do you keep your radar up when you’re in non-prospecting settings?

Have you landed work from someone you’ve known a long time, but never in a professional capacity? (friend, relative, someone at the gym, a club you belong to, etc.)?

Any strategies you’ve used to keep you alert to hidden opportunities?

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

“Start Making $300 an Hour as a Copywriter in Just Seven Days!”

Wow. That sure sounds like an opportunity tailor-made for me. I’m a pretty good writer (I mean, my Mom’s told me so, and that’s good enough for me!). And I’d sure love to turn that skill into “$300 an hour”! That’s what they promised in this copywriting program I saw on the Internet. And it has to be true if it’s on the Internet, right? I mean, they could get into BIG trouble if they told lies. But there it is, in black and white!

And the best part? According to the program, I can get started as a “commercial writer” in just seven days! And here’s what those seven days look like:

Day One: I’m going to learn the basics of the freelance commercial writing business. I mean, it’s just writing – how hard could it be?

Day Two: I’ll create my copywriting portfolio. They say it’s easy, and I believe them. Heck, I’ll probably be done by lunch!

Day Three: I’ll create and send out a press release to my local paper, letting them know about my new copywriting business. Wonder how long after I send it out till the phone starts ringing. Could I end up with too much business? It’s possible!

Day Four: I’ll explore making money in PR writing. Working around all the “movers and shakers,” yeah! Sounds like fun – and profitable, too!

Day Five: I get to figure out if I’m going to a generalist or specialist. Decisions, decisions. This is just too easy.

Day Six: I’m going to learn the “ultra-easy” way to market my new business so I can, according to the program, “stay booked up for months.” Like the sound of that. Heck, maybe I will go ahead and buy that Camaro I’ve had my eyes. I mean, obviously, I’m going to have the money to make the payments.

Day Seven: I’m going to learn all about writing for TV and radio. Bet you can make big bucks there, and get to be around all the cool actors. Life is looking up!

I wish the above was just a dramatization of some poor slob getting reeled in hook, line, and sinker by some fictionalized copywriting course, but alas, it’s based on a real one. THIS one. What a joke. I know, why am I surprised? I mean, I know stuff like this exists. It’s just that seeing flat-out fabrication up close still sets you back on your heels a bit.

Someone sent it to me, asking if I knew anything about it. A two-minute visit revealed all. I don’t know who you are, but your offer is a scam, and you know it. And people like you have buyers looking for legit information on copywriting lump the rest of us trying to do the right thing into the same scam-artist boat.

I mean, their “7-Days-to-Riches” timetable would be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that countless unsuspecting folk are dropping $147 for nothing but a mirage. And $300 an hour? Have you no shame? Yeah, right. Silly me.

I can hear them now: “Well, if you read it carefully, I’m not actually promising people they’ll make $300 an hour inside of a week.” Ah, the old “have-‘em-connect-the-imaginary-dots-in-their-mind” strategy. So, you’re weasels on top of being scam artists. Quite an accomplishment. What an unbelievably fragrant and steaming pile of road apples this is.

Our mothers were right: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” As the experienced commercial writers on this blog know, our field can be a wonderful way to make a great living as a writer. But they also know it’s no cakewalk. As writing fields, go, it’s one of the most accessible, but it still take a lot of hard work to get established and work up to healthy hourly rates. And $300 an hour as a copywriter? In a week? I can hear the hysterical laughter echoing across the land. From sea to shining sea.

Did you ever fall prey to any offers like these before you got started?

What would you say to someone considering this fairy tale of an offer?

What truths would you want them to know about our field instead?

Any general comment for this shyster?

“What’s the Current State of Freelancing?” is a Bogus Question…

So, about a week ago, I get an email from a good friend and fellow commercial freelancer who’s presenting on an IABC panel on freelancing a few days later. She’s written to me to get my input on an issue of exceptional interest to the many would-be attendees. Her question is:

Can you sum up “the current state of freelancing” in two sentences?

Sounds like a logical question, and one phrased in precisely the manner we’ve all become accustomed to. After all, there’s the current State of the Union, of the healthcare debate, of male/female relationships, of the Atlanta dining scene, etc. So there must be a “current state of freelancing” as well, right? Well, actually, no.

Here’s my reply (with a few embellishments after the fact):

I’d actually take issue with your wording. There IS no “current state of freelancing.” Think about it. That implies some condition pervading ALL of the freelancing market, which, by definition, affects everyone. Sort of a silly notion, actually. There’s MY current state of freelancing, yours, and everyone else’s, and none of them have much to do with the others.

Our respective states are dependent on how good a writer each of us is, how broad a network we have, how aggressively we’ve been tapping into that network, and a ton of other things inherent to us alone and how we run our businesses.

Buying into the idea of a “current state of freelancing” is victimization waiting to happen. It implies a reality to whose dictates we’re all subject, and hence, can do little except ride the wave along with everyone else, and “wait for things to turn around.” Which is exactly what a lot of people are doing, having bought into the idea (after listening to what some “experts” said IS that current state) of a “force” beyond their control. I suppose some people just like to be told what to do next (or not do).

In truth, my current state of freelancing is pretty good, as are those of a lot of others I know. And part of the reason for that is because we realize our commercial freelancing businesses are OUR businesses, largely under OUR control.

Sure, many businesses have pulled, back, but many haven’t, and the work is out there. Magazine and newspaper writing? Absolutely, those arenas are way down, but that’s not our field of freelance copywriting. So, don’t buy into the gloom and doom. Remember: the average commercial freelancer needs such a tiny slice of the overall universe of freelance commercial writing work to do well.

How would you respond to the above question?

Why do you think people are so anxious to be told what the “reality” is?

How IS your “current state of freelancing”?

Even Seasoned Scribes Fret Over “Just-Turned-In” Copy…

I recently got a note from a fellow FLCW and friend of mine up in New York. Here’s what he wrote:

Peter: Do you sometimes anguish over the waiting period, after you’ve submitted work to a client and then anticipate their thumbs-up or thumbs-down response? As I write these words, I’m waiting on a client to whom I sent what I believe is some pretty solid creative copy. But the longer it takes to hear back from them, the more that glass-half-empty side of my mind’s town crier belches out, “Now hear this: they hate it! They hate it!”

Do others ever go through this kind of self-doubt? Do you sometimes think the worst? Or wonder if you’re good enough to be doing this sort of work? Do you find yourself too needy in the “I-need-validation” department? I confess that this yoke finds itself around my professional neck more often that it ought to. But, I can’t help it! Am I totally alone in my self-imposed angst?

My reply?

You’re absolutely NOT alone in that. Believe it or not, I go through the same thing on every project. Thanks to a lot of successes and happy clients over the years, I’m not nearly as crazy about it about it as I was some years back. In fact, in the rare cases in which I DO miss the mark these days, in most cases, it’s a matter of the client changing direction or not being clear, because I will ask the right questions to get the copy right. But yes, until I hear, I’m always a bit concerned.

In fact, as I write this, I’m waiting to hear back from a client about the third ad I’ve written for their company in the past few weeks. The creative director loved the first two, and I’m sure she’ll like the latest, but she also usually responds within a few hours. It’s been closer to 24, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t nag at me a bit…

Perhaps it’s something in the nature of writers (okay, some writers; I’d be curious as to Jon McCulloch’s take – the subject of the 5/12/08 blog post (just scroll down) – a fundamental insecurity about putting our creations our there – especially when money’s on the line. Perhaps it’s just human nature – the propensity to think the worst when an outcome isn’t certain.

So, if that sounds familiar, you’re not alone, and if you’re still on the outside of the business looking in, know that even the seasoned pros chew a fingernail from time to time. And in a perverse way, I see an upside: that mindset will always keep you a bit humble, and humble writers listen carefully to their clients to make sure they DO create work that hits the mark. Which, in turn, will keep those angst-ridden moments to a minimum.

Do you experience those pangs of insecurity if you don’t hear back from a client after turning in copy?

Have you gotten beyond it, and if so, what made the difference for you?