What Was Your Most Unusual Commercial Writing Project?

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?

26 replies
  1. Devon Ellington
    Devon Ellington says:

    I enjoy coming up with character-driven marketing campaigns. My background as a playwright and fiction writer helps in that a LOT!

    Glad to see you’re blogging, Peter! Every time someone asks “How do I quit my day job and become a freelancer?” , I tell them to do what I did, which is use your books as the guideline and then dive in and DO IT.

    Ink in My Coffee

  2. Cori Smelker
    Cori Smelker says:

    Two projects come immediately to mind. One was a real estate research project. I had to do several different things; the company would email me a list of cities, towns and communities and I had to research them and make them sound good to people who were contemplating moving there. I had to give median house price, what there was to do there, schools etc; but make it fun and exciting. I often found myself calling realtors in the area and asking questions! The second part of that was to create a quiz for would-be buyers – the catch was I had to make it state specific, so my questions would vary from state to state. I found out lots of little-known details about real estate law that way.

    The other project is more recent and ongoing. There is an advertising agency here in town (San Antonio) that does a lot of work with Mexican based companies. These companies are now trying to break into the US market, but their websites are poorly written. According to the advertising agency the way copy is dealt with in Mexico is completely different from here. I have been hired to ‘Americanize’ the sites (and I am not even an American – I am a Brit who was raised in South Africa!) Many times the copy has been directly translated from Spanish, other times their copy writers are bilingual, but their way of writing is so alien to the American market.

    I just love the variety of my day. Today I interviewed an internationally renowned neurosurgeon for one magazine and then went and learnt some dance moves at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio for another publication. I spent the afternoon editing a third publication as it goes to press on Monday.

  3. Graham Strong
    Graham Strong says:

    Hi Peter,

    I have an ongoing set of projects for a client of mine involving simple award submissions for renovation companies. They are quite short — less than a page long. Now some might say “Ugh, bland old entry writing…” but I really enjoy weaving a story into them. Suddenly it is not just a “renovation” but an adventure of sorts with a beginning, middle, and end.

    Now I don’t know exactly how much impact my words have — they are part of a much larger submission/portfolio package. But the entries I write do tend to do very well in their categories.

    The point is, I have fun with them, I get creative with them, and they are some of my favourite pieces of writing.


  4. Julie Ann Waid
    Julie Ann Waid says:

    For me, it’s not a specific project, but I just get a kick out of the sheer variety. Right now, I’m working on articles about library binding for a non-profit, writing a website about products aimed specifically at Catholics (I’m not Catholic, so I’ve got a learning curve), and in negotiations to do a big brochure about buying gold and today’s economy. I totally love the variety.

  5. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks Cori, Graham and Julie,

    Good stuff! And what Graham says is key: He takes a project that could be just a boring exercise and makes it more interesting by trying to tell a story. I don’t care what you’re writing about – you can always make it more interesting by coming in from another angle. And that’s my goal, given that the point of ANY communication (before it informs or educates and motivates or inspires…) is to BE READ. And that’ll only happen if it’s engaging enough for someone to want to take the trouble.

    And as Cori points out, for those of you who live in areas with strong Hispanic communities (and ideally speak a little Spanish, though that’s not always necessary, especially if you’re working from a written document they’ve created), there’s always the chance to pick up work “Americanizing” their marketing materials.

    And yes, Julie, for people like me with a touch of (undiagnosed) ADD, I love the variety, too!


  6. jill gormley
    jill gormley says:

    I get an assignment once in a while from a company that produces continuing education seminars for attorneys. These are usually two day affairs with multiple speakers on emerging issues in a particular legal specialty. The company gets sponsors for aspects of these seminars–Major Accounting Firm sponsors the free continental breakfast, Mega Legal Research Database sponsors the cocktail party, etc.
    Sometimes the company finds a sponsor for what it calls a conference brief, which is a summary of the proceedings identifying the take home message and any common themes or trends that emerge from the presentations. In that case they hire someone to attend the conference, listen carefully to every presentation (many times the information is sensitive and they don’t allow recording, so this can be an intense gig), and produce the briefing paper, being careful to highlight–subtly–the contributions of the speaker or speakers from the sponsor’s company.
    I’ve done a couple of these briefings, and they make a nice change from my regular work. I used to practice law, and hated it, but listening to presentations from smart lawyers is interesting for me and makes me feel that my education wasn’t wasted. I get to learn about new areas of law or developments in enforcement, and it’s always good to learn new things. And it’s great to be interacting with a room full of focused professionals…I do sometimes miss that.
    The gig doesn’t pay especially well, but the perks make up for it–access to the seminar materials, the opportunity to meet movers and shakers in a field that makes up a large portion of my clientele, and travel expenses paid. Last year they had me cover a seminar in London: free flight (I keep the miles), free hotel room (London prices are insane–a nice but not extraordinary and smallish room in the Tower district for over $800 night!), a per diem to cover meals and other expenses, and the opportunity to meet and talk with the general counsels and other top executives of over 150 major international companies. Plus, once the day’s proceedings wrapped up, a chance to spend a few evenings walking around London-sweet!

  7. Diana Holquist
    Diana Holquist says:

    I spent last week developing signs for a huge German elevator company that wants funny/apologetic signs in English when their workmen are shutting down elevators and annoying people. I put out two romance novels a year with Grand Central Publishing, but this kind of work pays VERY well and fills in my time nicely when I’m sick of my characters. It’s all about instant gratification (and not waiting for royalties!).

    Great post, btw. Thanks for a fun read.


  8. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:


    Like your correspondents above, I also enjoy talking about what gets the creative juice flowing . . . so thanks for asking.

    For a Southeast Michigan retirement home’s centennial, I did phone interviews with nearly two dozen 100-year-olds in our area — including 10 residents of the client’s site — for a ‘Living History’ commemorative publication that earned print and broadcast news coverage . . . just as envisioned.

    Exercises in tight, bright writing come from developing PowerPoint presentations for trade shows, marketing kits and speechwriting tie-ins. Distilling messages into slide-size bites is a useful workout of sweating the details by separating muscular words from trimmable fat. Less really IS more, in all forms of writing.

    Other off-the-usual-path commercial projects not yet mentioned above include podcast scripts, blog ghost-writing, grant proposals and “message banks” (quick-pitch bites for sales teams).

    And I naively thought, back in my journalism years (uh, decades), that this ‘dark side’ was stiffling and soul-draining. Now I know it’s varied and vibrant.

    Write on!

  9. Barbara Elmore
    Barbara Elmore says:

    Here’s a fun gig…doing stories about barbecue “joints” for an annual report. My client wanted a number of them, and the job required visiting with some great characters and eating lots of Texas barbecue plus the sides. What could be more fun and delicious? Well…getting paid well to do it was nice, too.

  10. Star
    Star says:

    The best paying thing I ever did was a tagline that ran on the back of the buses in Washington, DC. I would say it came to $500 a word. Fun to remember, anyhow. Actually I love doing product names and tags.

  11. Christopher
    Christopher says:

    I wrote a corporate video script about a guy in bed who has a dream that his stock-trading life just got simpler. And would you believe it, his life was simpler because his company just installed software that made all the complicated computer systems talk to each other. He didn’t even need to go to work. There he was at the beach and on his yacht. All the work was magically getting done. End tag line: This is no dream.

    I think the easiest thing for me is to write humorous dialog, or taglines, but that doesn’t count for unusual.

    Christopher Richards Ink

  12. Eileen Coale
    Eileen Coale says:

    Most of my work is in alternative health copywriting, but I do get odds and ends of stuff that’s outside that industry. The most unusual for me – and without question the most personally satisfying work I’ve ever done – was conducting interviews and writing profiles for dozens of adoptive and foster parents for a large agency in California. One set of parents adopted a set of six siblings. Another fostered over 50 kids in 20 years. Everyone’s story was amazing and uplifting. It was one of those projects that restores your hope in the human condition.

  13. Alan Kravitz
    Alan Kravitz says:

    I recently got paid to pretend that I was a frog. I have a client who has a frog as part of her logo. She hired me to do short, punchy display board copy that would help make her stand out and get noticed at the trade shows she attends. Basically, I had to communicate the benefits of her business – from the frog’s point of view. I had a great time just coming up with ideas, and she loved the end result. I had so much fun with that assignment, I almost felt bad about billing her – almost!

  14. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I actually had a client who had a line of children’s party supplies, and she wanted catalogue descriptions for each one. Sounds kinda run-of-the-mill–except she wanted them in verse. I wrote four-line verses in Iambic pentameter about each of the toys she sold–VERY fun. And then recently I got another project like this from a client who has a bridal shower business and wanted poetic gift card ideas.

  15. Marci Diehl
    Marci Diehl says:

    Hello again, Peter! If you look on my web site http://www.marcidiehl.com, I have a page titled “What I Love about Being a Writer.” It’s definitely the variety, the people I get to meet, and the education on things I might never even think about– but I have to learn fast! In my 30 years as a freelance writer — for magazines and for commercial writing — I’ve written about things as foreign as submersible pumps (not glamorous, but I got to visit a horse breeding farm with one that had never needed a repair; I love horses and the breeder/trainer was a great person); and on the flip side for glamorous, I’ve worked with National Geographic (on behalf of a college), visited their HQ in Washington, DC, and interviewed and met Robert Ballard — world famous ocean explorer (think Titanic) and mega-journalist Lisa Ling (think Oprah Show). Possibly the funkiest thing I ever wrote was head and ad copy for Seven S Flashyzipper, a champion palomino up for stud service, in American Quarterhorse Magazine. One of the best paying jobs I’ve had involved doing all the marketing communications for a historic Catholic cemetery that needed to come into the 21st century and get its message out — they now have a new website and DVD I wrote and produced. Among many other pieces.
    Oh, yeah — I’ve interviewed Jack Nicklaus (this was back in the 80’s) for a business magazine, and he liked the piece so much he put it into his then-marketing kit — already I was going to the commercial side!

    Right now I’m beginning work on a project on the New York State Canal systems for a not for profit group of statewide businesses and tourism organizations. I attended their 2nd annual meeting yesterday in Baldwinsville, NY and after the meeting (4 hours with a networking cocktail party at the end) I sat in my car checking messages on my cell, with an amazing view of the raging Seneca River and canal, a dam, a blue heron hunting and eating his dinner (it takes about 4 good gulps to get a small fish down) and watched salmon leaping in the water. These are the moments when I feel so lucky to do what I do.

  16. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    Peter, it appears we’ve got a winner ^ from multi-faceted Marci in Canadaigua, NY . . .

    . . . who earns this admirer’s Best Response nod for mentioning a name more impressive than Jack Nicklaus, Robert Ballard or Lisa Ling among her assignment subjects.

    C’mon now, y’all must also have grinned at Seven S Flashyzipper, that palomino quarterhorse with a priceless name (among other assets).

    And then Marci brings us alongside a Central New York River for a moment that makes this Syracuse U. grad nostalgic.

    Again, Peter . . . glad you asked!

  17. Marci Diehl
    Marci Diehl says:

    Wow — Thank you Alan Stamm! You made my morning! Let’s admit it — (OK, I will at least) — the hard part of writing commercial stuff is that you don’t get a by line many times, and what writer doesn’t live for that? Recognition! (part of the reason I still write for magazines) And Alan, you just opened my eyes to a new potential gig! Ghostwriitng blogs! I’m working on launching a blog, but my new clients need one for their web site (when I get it revamped).

    I should get Seven S Flashyzipper’s ad on my website. They got a “glamor shot” of him from the rear angle, looking back over his shoulder, with his blonde mane running like silk over his neck. What palomino mare wouldn’t want some of that?!

    By the way, if you’re in or near NYS, check out the beautiful canal system — running from the top of the Hudson all the way to Buffalo, with dozens of charming places like Baldwinsville and great universities and colleges (SU! Le MOyne! UB! U of R! You name it!) along the way. The state may have its problems, but being beautiful isn’t one of them.

  18. Carrie Runnals
    Carrie Runnals says:

    Wow! What a thought-provoking thread. It got me thinking about my own crooked creative & commercial writing path. I’d been a recruiter in my professional life prior to having kids and deciding to “quit work? to “stay at home?—a topic for another day.

    I fell into writing when I queried a consultant on a concept I had for a line of greeting cards. I based the line on a caricature I’d been drawing for years and gave little thought to the verses I wrote to complement the illustrations. I was shocked at the consultant’s response. “The good news is your writing is excellent. The bad news is one look at that unpolished caricature and your writing will get tossed out without ever being seen.? Wow! That was tough to hear, but ultimately, it ended up landing me a contract for a signature line of greeting cards and kicked off my career as a commercial writer.

    I picked up Peter’s book and started off on a quest to become the next well-fed writer. That path went everywhere from writing copy for a promotional restaurant table tent, ghostwriting children’s books, magazine articles, a Chamber of Commerce annual publication, to (don’t gasp, Peter) technical writing for the CDC. One of my favorite projects was researching and writing the content for a plastic surgeon’s website, though it did force me to focus far too much on my aging face there for awhile.

    I suppose what I’ve learned on this twisted trek is to stay open to whatever comes down the pike. When something comes across your desk that you’ve never done before and it quite frankly freaks you out, jump out of your comfort zone and do it, anyway. Case-in-point for me was the CDC work. The first time I tagged along with my associate to see if it may be something I’d like to try, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed and intimidated by the medical terminology, but when I got that call asking if I’d record the brainstorming planning session for the International Conference for Emerging Infectious Diseases, I moved past my fear and said, “Yes.? Now, these meetings provide excellent income to support my more creative endeavors.

    Most recently, I’ve merged my writing experience with my recording experience (I’ve been a co-host on an Internet talk show called TheDivaCast at http://www.TheDivaCast.com) to create an author interview talk show and companion blog website called Words To Mouth (www.WordsToMouth.com) “where readers meet authors beyond the printed page.? And guess who’s agreed to be a guest on my upcoming show? None other than Peter himself! So, stay tuned and subscribe to the show on iTunes, so you don’t miss it.

    Peter, a big “Thank You? to you for all you do to encourage other writers—your gift for writing and your enthusiasm for equipping and empowering others in the industry is a quintessential example of finding success from following your passion. And what a powerful tool this blog is in providing a venue to share ideas. Thanks!

  19. Rick Middleton
    Rick Middleton says:

    Three recent assignments were pretty fun:

    * A children’s book for a local bank. It’s the story of an industrious squirrel who knows the value of saving.

    * A series of fortune cookie slogans for a local museum that was hosting Chinese antiquities.

    * Signs for a local park that tell the story of our local industry and development.

    Projects like these are a nice change of pace and I always welcome them.

  20. Lori
    Lori says:

    I write trade copy. When I tell people the type of articles I write, I get some odd giddy pleasure in watching their eyes glaze over. You can almost hear them calculating their escape line. Aw, come on! You don’t find workers’ compensation and captive insurance fascinating? Good. More for me. :))

    I write white papers for companies. I ghostwrite articles. I write insurance courses (I’ll admit that one bores even me). I write advertorials. I write training manuals. I see profit in doing well the jobs others would turn their noses up at.

  21. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    Because I work in Hollywood, I get a lot of strange requests. Some recent ones:
    – A thank you letter to the father of a mega-star recording artist and fashion icon–and her less well-known sister–for his family’s participation in a recent premiere
    – A speech for a famous female television action star who recently launched a home furnishing line
    – Ghost writing a letter of recommendation to a snooty New York City co-op board for an entertainment industry executive on behalf of one of his colleagues.
    – The inside copy of a company holiday card for a major Hollyood talent agency
    Anyway, it’s not boring!

  22. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    o.k. guys…this was a really strange one. About 10 years ago there was a tragic car accident in Jefferson County (south of St. Louis, Missouri). Sadly, a head-on collision took the life of a husband and severely injured his wife, Chris, who was in the hospital for about two months.

    A business leader in the area knew my background as a freelance writer/producer and asked if I would videotape the husband’s funeral to share with the wife. I wrote the outline, shotlist, and very subtle VO copy. Following post-production, a touching and tearful viewing was presented in her hospital room with family and friends.

    Later, I received the most awesome note from her saying that she was so appreciative and that it brought her a sense of closure.

    This was a far cry from my usual writing for corporate ID, PR and marcom. To date…it remains one of my most satisfying projects.

  23. Peter Wise
    Peter Wise says:

    This is very late to the party, but I’m only gradually working through your back catalogue of posts.

    Anyway, in no particular order:

    Writing various marketing communications as Keith Floyd, at one time the most famous TV chef in the UK and a real larger-than-life character. It was to endorse various alcoholic drinks. I don’t know what he got paid, but I’m sure it was a lot more than me….

    Coming up with the idea for the toughest ad agency brief of all: the annual Christmas card. I did it for three years running for three different agencies.

    Writing brochures for phone sex operatives. These had to cover the more boring aspects, such as contracts and tax, along with the more interesting ones, such as topics of conversation and how to keep punters on the line for as long as possible!

  24. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Fun stuff, Peter, thanks for weighing in! I love how different these projects were from what we consider “typical” commercial writing gigs. Just goes to show there’s work of every description in every place e can imagine… Good reminder!


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