A year or so back, I got an email from an Atlanta gentleman that has to be a top contender for The Stupidest Question Ever Asked. I realize that’s not very nice, and I know “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” when starting out, but still…. In essence, here’s what he wrote:
“I noticed you’re in Atlanta – I am, too. Congrats on your freelancing success. For someone starting out in the same market as a commercial freelancer, that success is a bit intimidating. (Here it comes). Can I safely assume that you’ve pretty much sewn up the Atlanta market, copywriting-wise?”
(Beat). Rub eyes comically. Re-read. Drop jaw. Guffaw. Shake head. Okay, okay, maybe not the stupidest question ever asked, just one from someone with very little understanding of business in general and our business in particular.
My reply: “Joe, think about this logically. I couldn’t sew up the copywriting market in a city of 100K, let alone one of close to five million. Could one attorney, plumber, accountant, real estate agent, or mechanic sew up the market for their specialty? Rest assured, there’s plenty of copywriting business out there.” I’ve been working in this market for 15 years and consistently run across working, thriving copywriters I’d never heard of before.
Sure, as we all know, this business isn’t a cakewalk. 5K jobs don’t fall out of the sky with minimal effort. Lucrative freelancing requires good writing skills and a grasp of business. That said, his question is similar to those I get asking if this is still a good business to get into – given the economy. Questions like these underestimate how much potential work there is AND how many companies know the value of good copywriting (and they overestimate the number of competent, reliable copywriters out there). They fail to see the reality at work:
Fact #1: Every single business has to create written materials either for marketing, advertising, or internal needs. The bigger the business, the bigger the volume.
Fact #2: There are only two ways to create those materials: do it in-house or hire it out.
Fact #3: As long as that company’s in business, those needs won’t ever disappear (if they want to STAY in business), even in lean times, when arguably, they have to do even more.
Fact #4: While many businesses don’t understand the importance of good marketing materials, those are the ones that fail or struggle eternally. Forget ‘em.
Fact #5: Most successful businesses DO understand the importance of good writing as a key contributor to their growth and success, and many of those companies hire it out – especially smaller companies (which can mean $1-100 million+), for whom it’s not usually cost-effective to have in-house creative staff.
Obviously, our challenge is to find those companies, but know, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, that they’re out there.
Until and unless American business undergoes such a radical shift in modus operandi that all business books and schools have to retool their offerings, those five facts, are in my humble opinion, fairly immutable.
A column in my local paper this morning was yet one more gloomy drumbeat of many these days about the sorry state of writing skills amongst young people. According to a recent Pew Research Center Study, “64% of teens report that the informal styles often found in electronic communication do bleed into their school work” (i.e., 50% have used informal capitalization, 38% have used text short cuts like “LOL” or “ur,” and 25% have used emoticons).
Those kids grow up to be the workers of tomorrow, and one can’t assume that their writing skills will suddenly become strong and compelling, minus the shorthand and emoticons. In fact, what’s already happening is likely to continue happening.
A December 2004 New York Times article, “What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence,” discussed a study by the National Commission on Writing, which concluded that a third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training.
And when a company that wants to stay competitive knows that its people can’t write to the required level to maintain that competitiveness, chances are good they’ll turn to those who can. I’ve said this forever: writing skills suck in the business world, and that can only bode well for those of us who have the skills.
What are some of the most egregious examples (actual or recalled) of bad writing you’ve come across?
How has your writing practice benefited from the poor state of writing skills out there in the business world?
It’s nice to be appreciated. As some of you know – mainly those in the D.C. area – I’ve been invited back for an encore plenary speech at the annual conference of Washington Independent Writers (www.washwriter.org) entitled: THE WRITING LIFE: “Where We Are and Where We Are Going,” on June 14th. Great conference, by the way. This is a serious writing organization and they do a nice job. The venue is beautiful, the program sessions solid and meaty and the offline networking excellent. There’s still room, so check it out. Besides, I’ll be there. 😉
As an editorial aside, I work pretty hard at conferences, believing that, heck, “I’m here, I can’t be anywhere else, so you might as well put me to work.” Besides, it’s fun. Never quite “got” the attitude I’ve seen amongst many conference presenters, especially keynoters. They blow in 45 minutes before their talk, sit with the organizers at the head table, don’t talk to any attendees, do their speech – often rambling and obviously unprepared – collect their fee, then blow out. Nice work if you can get it. But I truly digress…
I was recently brainstorming a few talking points for this year’s talk with the conference organizer, and given the prognosticating theme of the conference, we got on the subject of the future of the commercial writing field. I have thoughts about my little corner of the world, most all of them positive, but I’m no oracle, and I’m one guy.
I want to hear from you, my fellow “in-the-trenchers.” I KNOW you guys are a veritable fount of wisdom (no kidding), so I’m counting on some good stuff to use in my speech (which WILL be attributed to you if I use it…). Thanks for playing! 😉
Where do you see our field going in the coming decades?
Any trends you’re spotting?
Do you think a slipping economy will help or hurt us?
What will be the attributes of those who thrive in our field in the future?
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?