Where Do You See the Commercial Writing Field Going in the Future?

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?

15 replies
  1. Robert Weir
    Robert Weir says:

    Having worked at a huge company for two decades I know how they act in tough economic times. There is more pressure to reduce the overhead, sometimes called employees and increase non-staff support. I don’t think some people recognize that the expense to a company of an employee is not in the salary paid but in the addition burden of benefits. At my former company that cost was 50% above the salary of the employee.

  2. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    I’ll take a run at your last two questions, Peter.

    Economy-related budget tightening by clients great and small benefits those who offer cost-effective expertise and quality as on-demand providers. (Geez, now I’m slinging the type of jargon I keep out of copy.)

    We may not have realized it when we cut the salary tether, but we stepped into the widening world of outsourcing — a 21st century business model that’s not just for customer service call centers anymore. Matter of fact, just picked up a “virtual law office” as a client for web content, brochure and media relations work spreading the word about two attorneys who quit corporate firms to provide legal services from their home.

    Their market is a lot like ours: Lean-staff businesses, nonprofits and government agencies that value deep experience, personal attention and fair rates without overhead costs.

    As staffs shrink in a slipping economy, we should be Well-Fed Writers.

    Those who dine especially well are likely to be FLCWs able to provide full service . . .
    . . . concept to deliverables that are designed or audio-produced or videotaped or mailed or whatever else it takes to serve as an end-to-end solution for marketing or corporate communication departments with empty desks (see above).

    Yup, I’m echoing Peter’s chorus about teaming up with a designer (or perhaps taking a PhotoShop/Illustrator/PageMaker class), building a relationship with a print shop or two, having access to a reliable videographer/audio producer, etc.

    “Yes we can” is a good campaign slogan for us, too. Most manufacturers do their own packagaing. So can word-weavers.

    Thanks for inviting comments, Peter.

  3. Cori Smelker
    Cori Smelker says:

    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?

    Boy, I will try and take a stab at the questions. My access to a crystal ball is limited though!

    Writers are eternal – if there is one job that is always there it is the writers/storytellers/artists. From the cavemen all the way to web designers. I believe we will see more web-based writing, perhaps more blogs, more ‘sound bites’ as people are less apt to read through something too long, but the need for good writers will always be present.

    I am not sure about trends, but i know I am asked constantly to tweak websites, brochures and other marketing materials. Everyone is interested in branding, and want their product to stand out, and so I am asked to try and bring something creative to the table (speaks a writer who just used a terrible cliche!)

    I echo Alan’s statement that I believe we will not be hindered by a slipping economy (which really is not as bad as some media outlets makes it to be!) If one works hard at marketing oneself, not being bashful about one’s skills and expertise, one can find clients everywhere. Truth be known, I personally have seen an increase in my income since the beginning of year, even with the ‘doom and gloom’ pundits predicting tough times.

    As to what will cause us to thrive, I believe a couple of things will help: flexibility and the realization that we need to stay current with hardware and software trends. Gone are the days where knowing just Word or WordPerfect was enough. We need to know DTP as well, to a greater or lesser degree. Aligning your business with a graphic person is the best (as mentioned in the previous post). I married a graphics guy, 😀 so get to keep it all under one roof (my husband is also freelance, and we both work from home).

    The other factor that will help us to thrive is to ‘be seen’. We need to make sure that our name comes up when something needs to be written. I try and maintain contact with all my clients regularly. Sometimes I drop them an email, other times I send a ‘snail mail’ card. I am surprised at the number of clients who actually call me after they receive the card to thank me and then offer me some work.

    Integrity, honesty, and hard work never go out of style, and if you can maintain all three I believe you can thrive in any market.

  4. Star
    Star says:

    Both of the above suggested we learn DTP. I work with a designer (and she’s a writer, too). Me, the side of my brain that does visual is stunted, I am a word person. I have lamented that Craigs and other free ad sites have devalued web writing, in particular, down to the $5 post (or article, as they like to call it). This is about a hundredth of what we used to be able to get. At our end of the spectrum, I am told, this does not matter, but I have seen a change. I have ridden out two recessions. Yes sometimes people will fire the in-houser and use the on-demand writer. But they also delay on projects, won’t rewrite that brochure, won’t send that mailing just yet. That “pushing a string” aspect in getting clients to commit can be a factor of life. What can we do, though? Keep on keepin’ on, as we used to say.

  5. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    > What will be the attributes of those who thrive in our field in the future?

    One attribute will be strong word-of-mouth which, in truth, has always been an attribute of those who thrive. My own experience is that people who hire freelancers don’t have the time to go searching the Internet for the right person. They’re going to go straight to whatever network they have and get testimonials and recommendations from people they trust.

    This might sound scary for someone who is new and hasn’t made connections. But the good news is that often just getting your name out there puts you ahead of people who only throw up a website and hope people stumble across it. Networking in person and online in appropriate places begins to cast you as a someone worth talking to when projects come up. Isn’t there some saying that half the battle is just showing up? Consider online and in-person networking as part of “showing up.” (That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a well-rounded marketing plan, though.)

    And, as mentioned, getting your name in front of potential creative partners (designers, printers, etc.) is important. That gets back to the idea of people not having as much time to research who is a good fit… far easier to get a good recommendation from someone you already know and trust.

    There are a number of ways to get your name out there but that’s probably a topic for another day.

    > Do you think a slipping economy will help or hurt us?

    I wish I had the exact quote, but years ago (probably in the 70s) motivational speaker Dennis Waitley was asked if the recession was affecting his business. He said something like, “Well, I heard there was a recession, but I decided not to take part in it.”

    I love that attitude! Not to diminish the real effects a poor economy can have, but I do believe a certain mindset can set one apart from those whose confidence is easily swayed by what they read in the news.

    From what I see, while some business cut back in their need for freelancers in tough times, others increase their need or see opportunities to market new products/services. These are the folks who want to take advantage of their competitors not being prepared, so they’re even more aggressive in marketing themselves.

    When it comes to writing, though, I don’t think there’s ever been a time when there wasn’t a market for someone with strong writing skills. I’ll go far as to say that I think commercial writing is one of the most recession-proof occupations available.

  6. Cathy Dold
    Cathy Dold says:

    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?

    All good questions and I hope you’ll post your findings once you sort through everything.

    I think web 2.0 is a big trend that will affect us. It’s always been true that networking is the best way to find work. In 17 years of freelancing, I’ve found that 99% of my work comes via my personal networks. Now, in the last few months, I’ve greatly expanded those networks via social networking sites. I’ve reconnected with former co-workers, grad school friends, and others, and made new connections with lots of people in related fields, all via Facebook and LinkedIn. I also just set up a private social network for Boulder writers, on Ning. Very cool, and lots of fun. It will be interesting to see how these networks possibly lead to more work in the future. (And where are you on Facebook or LinkedIn, Peter?)

    Working virtually is also a big trend, though ongoing. Writers have always been able to do this, but I think the concept is expanding rapidly. I work with some companies that have “associates” all over the country.

    I think those silly $5 an article ads will go away soon. You get what you pay for. No serious client will try to find a competent writer that way.

    Self-publishing is booming.

    Health writing is always a strong field, and will likely get even bigger as the boomers get older.


  7. Graham Strong
    Graham Strong says:

    Hi Peter,

    One of the biggest trends I’ve noticed is that things move a lot faster now. What works one day does not necessarily work the next. The epitome of this is PPC ads and SEO activities. With Google changing the formula — literally — every so often, it is important to keep “up to date” with your own web writing.

    There also seems to be a bigger trend towards tighter niches. Copywriters used to be general, with some specialization into “technical” writing or industry-specific clients. Now you see exclusively white paper writers, case study writers, SEO writers, etc. I’m not sure if this is a trend that will hold up though. I think as the US economy slides backwards, some specialists will likely need to fall back on other projects. As the economy rebounds, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this trend advance again.

    Another trend is falling prices. This is an economy-based trend to a certain extent, but it is also a reflection of freelancers based in India and similar countries where the cost of living is so much less. Even in North America, there are writers working at a fraction of what others do (I think someone above mentioned this already). The pressure is on to add value to our services, whether in the form of something basic like much better writing, or in the form of “advanced” skills like marketing, graphic design, etc.


  8. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks to all of you for such rich, thoughtful musings! What an impressive bunch you guys are…

    In my mind, and echoing to a certain extent what Graham said above, if you had to sum up the attributes of a successful future freelancer in one word, it would be “specialize.” But, before you get nervous, thinking that you don’t have a specialty, I mean it in a broader sense. Sure it can mean a specialty in a particular project type (i.e. web writing, case studies, SEO, speeches, etc) or industry (i.e., telecom, healthcare, financial services, etc.). But it can mean a lot of other things, as long as you’re bringing something unique to the table. That can mean incredibly good writing ability, phenomenal thoroughness or reliability, being a quick study so you can work totally without supervision, letting your clients focus on THEIR jobs, etc. Anything that makes you valuable in ways that mean a great deal to your clients can be a USP.

    I still don’t see the need to become a graphic designer as long as I can ally with them. I’m not seeing more of a push from my clients to want that from me, but if you DID have that skill under your belt, it could only help, AND perhaps give you that edge I just spoke of.

    I’m also not worried about being replaced by writers in India. While top-drawer writing may not count with some people, for MANY others, it’s not just a nice thing, it’s essential to the continued competitiveness of their business. And if a client allies with you because you’re talented, that talent has just become part of THEIR value proposition to their clients.

    I do see a slipping economy helping us as companies have to execute projects heretofore handled by in-house staff, but it could go other ways as well. Companies could just load up existing workers with those tasks, and who’s going to complain, when they’re just happy to have a job? That said, I don’t think that strategy will work for long before the quality of the work (either due to lack of talent or sheer overextension) begins to suffer. On balance, I think it’s a good trend.

    I LOVED and heartily agree with Mike’s comment about Denis Waitley and his decision to not participate in a recession. So much of this battle is between our ears. If you buy into all the gloom and doom, you lose. If the old, “Whether you think the state of the economy will be good for your business or bad for your business, you’re right.”

    I’m sure this discussion will go on for awhile… 😉


  9. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    There’s been a lot of angst in the writing community about what the web is doing to professional copywriting. I think that while it does do some negative things–allowing $5-an-article writers in India to compete with writers charging professional rates in the States, for example–it also opens up a huge market. The Internet is basically writing–it wouldn’t exist without words. There is so much business out there for writers who know how to write to appeal to both search engines and readers. SEO isn’t as esoteric as it seems–I am absolutely the most non-technical person in the world, and I still do a lot of work with SEO companies and SEO-savvy design firms. While there are plenty of cheap writers online, a professional with a strong record of helping clients’ rankings AND boosting sales will always have the edge with well-paying clients–and there aren’t a lot of copywriters who specialize in SEO right now, so the market is wide open.

  10. jill gormley
    jill gormley says:

    Great questions and really interesting responses. I’m so glad you started this blog, Peter.
    Since the beginning of the year, two companies have approached me to ghost-write blogs. I’d never considered doing this before, and had never been asked to do it, so in my world blog ghost-writing blogs seems to be a new trend.
    I haven’t found a drop-off in business since the economy has been slowing. My experience has been the opposite–my clients are devoting more effort to marketing and outsourcing more projects. I’m busier than ever, but cautious; more of my income goes into savings just in case the slow economy trickles down to me in the months to come.
    Several contacts at client companies have been laid off recently. That hasn’t affected me yet, although it may in the future. I need to work hard to ensure that I create a relationship with my new contact that is at least as good as I the relationship I had with my former contact. Recognizing that the new person may have assumed extra duties, I try hard to be efficient and low-maintenance. And I make a point of keeping in touch with my laid-off contacts, so that when they land somewhere, they’ll think of me again when their new company needs a writer.
    I don’t use Facebook, but LinkedIn has helped me get in touch with people I haven’t seen or heard from in years, and led to a couple of jobs. I use it more as a social tool than as a business tool, but in fact I get work from social contacts, so the distinction is blurry at best. I’m shy about asking people who were college classmates, for example, to join my network if we haven’t seen each other in twenty-five years–but I’m not shy about getting in touch, explaining that I came across their profile on LinkedIn, and seeing what happens. It’s fun and can be useful.

  11. peter
    peter says:

    Great stuff, Jill! Glad to hear business is good for you. Been hearing that from a lot of people… And yeah, this blog WAS a good idea, no? 😉


  12. Devon Ellington
    Devon Ellington says:

    Hey, Peter. Aren’t conferences fun? I know what you mean about those with “attitude” — they’re missing so much! I love running into total strangers from all over the place with whom I might never have crossed paths and finding out what makes them tick!

    To answer your questions: I think there will be more and more alternative media. Corporations will (and are) trying to take over the internet, and then something else will spring up.

    I think we’ll get solid quality entertainment via web series, something still in its infancy.

    I think, as people flee the corporate world, and, eventually, in 30-50 years, as some of these behemoths implode, we’ll see more small businesses and, in spite of telecommuting, more one-on-one interaction between writers and their clients.

    I panicked at first in the economic downturn — I went full-time just last fall. But I have to say, as long as I’ve stuck to my guns about rates and not grabbed horribly paying jobs — I’ve gotten a lot of great work. I’ve had to be creative about some of it, but it certainly has been my experience that the lowest payers are the highest maintenance and the biggest pains in the . . .

    There’s a lot of web content that sucks out there because the employer’s taking the lowest bid instead of finding the right writer. And those sites are folding.

    I’ve also had clients that initially told me the bid was too high and they went with a lower bid, and then they came back to me and begged me to fix/revise/re-invent what was screwed up. And I was well paid so to do. They finally realized they’d have saved money if they’d hired a quality writer (in this case, me) in the first place.

    I’ve also become a huge believer in “aggravation fees”.

    I don’t get boxed into a niche, and that’s serving me well. I move easily between business writing, articles, non-fiction, fiction. I feel blessed because I can follow anything that interests me and get paid for it.

    I think, as we get more and more aware of our impact on the environment, telecommuting will become more prevalent. It’s cheaper than renting office space, everyone saves gas, and who cares WHEN the work gets done as long as it gets done by deadline?

    I think there will be a period of painful growing pains and adjustments, but as long as people read — be it on paper or on the web or road signs — there’s a need for US. And that’s a good thing.

    It’s up to us to be creative, reliable, honest, AND value our time and expertise and not sell ourselves short. Those who want genuine quality will find us and pay us. The rest — let them fall away.

    My 2.5 cents.

  13. peter
    peter says:

    Great stuff, Devon – thanks for the contribution, especially the part about sticking to one’s guns (rate-wise). Play the price game and you’ll always lose, because there will always be those who are willing to give it away for nothing. Hang tough. Thanks again!


  14. Mike Sieber
    Mike Sieber says:

    One word: Down.

    While I can’t speak for the print writing arena, the web writing business is a wasteland. More and more writers who are willing to write articles for as little as $5 are coming online everyday, which is a dream come true for web-based businesses. I think that the writers who are making the most money online are the ones who are selling e-books and coaching services to other writers. I saw one recently that claimed you could make $1,000 a week by blogging. Rubbish.

    As competition increases the rate of pay will continue its downward spiral for web-based writers.

    Good to see you finally blogging, Peter.

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