Righting Wrongs about Writers

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There are a couple of myths about writers that I think could bear to be addressed, specifically regarding those of us that earn a living at it.

Most Writers are Starving Artists

Popular culture and the worried parents of English majors often think of writers as that guy at the coffee shop who’s trying to make it big by writing the next great American novel on his MacBook while living in his friend’s attic. Fortunately, writing isn’t just an art, it’s a skill. Those of us who practice it professionally are mostly doing fine, thank you.

Very few people make a living writing books, especially not fiction. Most modern writing jobs are either related to technical writing or marketing. What we write lives on the internet, on corporate servers, and in instruction manuals. I’m not saying that novelists don’t exist, of course, you’re just a lot more likely to run into one of us regular desk-jockeys than the more romantic inspiration-based people.

Great Writers Don’t Need Multiple Drafts

Good writing is very rarely produced in a flash of inspiration. None of us is that good, and if you are you’re missing out on your potential greatness.

Your first draft is just a basic breakdown of what you’re trying to say. If you want to produce something not just readable, but truly interesting, you’ve got to rework it a couple of times. Go through your writing a couple of times and think about how somebody who’s more interesting than you might say what you’re saying…

Writers Work Alone

It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re the only one staring at your work, you’re going to miss some glaring issues that a second pair of eyes can clear up for you in short order.

The problem with working alone as a writer is that we, being mere mortals, tend to understand what we wrote exactly the way that we intended it, not the way that we actually wrote it. As a result, we have a natural tendency to produce inferior work when we’re working alone.

One of the first and most important lessons that any writer learns when they become a professional is to seek out and treasure feedback, whether it’s from an editor or from a client. That feedback is going to make your work look better and save you from possible miscommunication and embarrassment.

Writers Have a Magical Talent

I can’t even begin to tell you how often I’ve been told by friends and peers that they “just can’t write”. They don’t mean that they can’t form coherent sentences, just that they can’t organize their ideas into a long-form readable format.

Fortunately, pretty much anyone can learn to write competently. It takes some study and practice, but it’s not so intuitive that you couldn’t make a step-by-step course for it (as literally every school and university can attest). So, if you want to learn to write, just Google it and start practicing!

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Breaking Into a New Writing Niche

huge.15.78083Your best writing will always be in industry niches that you’re already familiar with. That means that you’re going to be limited by your own personal interests or past work history when you get started as a professional writer. If you’re in marketing, that kind of limitation can cost you a lot of contracts, which you probably can’t afford.

As you go, you’ll inevitably get a client who wants you to write something in a niche that you know nothing about. Knowing how to successfully tackle an unfamiliar topic with an unfamiliar audience can be difficult, but it’s perfectly doable if you’re smart about how you approach it.

Explain the Industry to Outsiders9623863701_16659786d4 

When you get started in a new niche you’ll be a total outsider; you simply won’t have anything relevant to tell people who are surrounded by it everyday. If you try you’ll inevitably come across as either badly under-informed, or just incredibly condescending.

You can circumvent that by just ignoring them for now, and writing for a totally different audience: laypeople.

You can translate your research on the industry into articles that your client can publish to reach out to the greater community. Being an outsider is actually kind of helpful when you’re writing an educational piece, because you won’t accidentally infuse your writing with industry jargon and unfamiliar concepts without bothering to explain them.

When you’re writing one of these pieces you’ll need to follow a few important guidelines that’ll help you become more proficient in the new niche until you develop the background necessary to comment intelligently on subjects that are relevant to the niche group.

Take a Minute and Read

Even if your client is giving you some basic 4341546201_89f1f13313points to write off of, you need to do your research on the industry. Go and find a few relevant industry blogs and familiarize yourself with the community and industry-specific language.

Find out who’s important, follow them on twitter, and listen to what they’re saying.

Don’t Pretend to Be an Expert

In those first few articles it’s always tempting to make yourself sound like a long-time expert in whatever field you’re writing about. Besides violating the trust of your readers, that’s also going to undermine the quality of your work.

Instead, take a more academic or journalistic approach. Cite and quote your sources to lend authority to your writing, and think about publishing an interview with a real expert, like, say, your client.

Ask Questions To Break In

Once you’ve written a good handful of articles in your new niche it’s time to start shifting your focus to the professional community. This new audience could be your client’s customers (often also businesses), or any other individuals who already have a real interest in the niche (kind of like you!).

Start asking informed questions that matter to you (and your readers) and write articles that bring your client’s answers to the masses. These articles are usually about broader industry news, or just more specific information about how things are run.

Becoming an “Expert”

Being a niche expert as a writer is VERY different than being an actual expert. An industry professional has to operate an industry; their writer just has to understand what they’re doing. That’s lucky for us, because it means we can become relevant pretty quickly.

A writer becomes an expert when they’re integrated into the larger niche community. It’s a gradual process and you can think of it in a variety of ways.

Personally, I like to just go by how other people treat me. If people know who you are, you’re invited to industry tweet chats, and other professionals are citing your work in their own writing, you’ve probably arrived.

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Writing Is About Your Audience… The Other One

As writers we’re taught to think about our audience’s perspective and to write just for them. That’s awesome advice, but what we keep forgetting is that freelancers have two audiences, and one of them is our client.

Being former humanities majors, a lot of us tend to carry a weird juvenile grudge against businesses and corporations, because we see them as “the man”. We tend to ignore the fact that we have a job precisely because they’re “the man”, and “the man” needs help communicating with normal “Hyu-mons”.

The people who pay your invoices are 2192108211_2e4231545busually immersed in their field 24/7, and that can result in them losing sight of what normal people will be able to understand about their work. It’s our job to do the research to understand what the client is trying to communicate to their target audience, and then to build that bridge between the two.

If  we don’t successfully reach both audiences, the whole thing falls into the water.

Making your Client Happy

As writers we’re usually taught to “put a little of ourselves” into everything we write. That still sort of applies, but impressing your client is more about putting a little of them into your writing.

Just BS-ing well enough to convince laypeople is a great way to irritate your client and lose contracts. Making sure that you really know what you’re talking about is key to earning your client’s trust.

There’s no way that you can communicate your client’s knowledge and expertise to their audience if you don’t have access to it yourself. The first thing we need to do is to demand information. It feels weird to ask for something from someone who’s giving you money, but you won’t be able to give them what they want if they can’t tell you what they want to communicate.

Next we need to listen, and then do research on, the information that clients give us to make sure that we actually understand what we’re going to be writing about.

Achieving Long Term Success

Making your client happy is your first goal, but you can forget about getting hired back if your work doesn’t make an impact with your client’s audience.

Most of the time you’ll be trying to reach out to laypeople who have no special knowledge about your client’s field. To reach them, you’ll need to take your client’s message, and what you learned in your research, and figure out how to get the unwashed masses to care.

Your client lives in their industry and is inherently interested in their own work. We come in as outsiders and figure out how to translate the client’s needs for their audience. Your relatively recent ignorance in their field, combined with your communication and writing skills, gives you the necessary perspective to know what will and won’t speak to laypeople.

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3 Surprises You Face When You Become a Freelance Writer

(If you didn’t do your research first)   🙂

Writing is, technically, something that you can do from anywhere in the world, 4341546201_89f1f13313which is what makes it such an attractive field for people who are unwilling or unable to stay in any one place too long. As it turns out, writing for other people presents a few challenges that your English degree didn’t prepare you for…

You’ll Need To Learn To Sell

Most of us studied writing related things in college because we don’t like talking to other humans if we can help it. Unfortunately you can’t run any business without salespeople, and, when you’re a freelancer, that salesperson is you. I was fortunate enough to work with and for companies that engaged in various types of internet marketing, so I got a bit of practice before I struck out on my own. If you’re thinking about doing this you might want to start with an intense Googling session about SMM, SEM, Email marketing, and Content Marketing.

The Hours are Nuts

That doesn’t necessarily mean there are a lot of them. In my case it’s become a trend that whenever I have a few days or weeks without any travel plans, family obligations, or other distractions I’ll suddenly run out of work. Then, as soon as I pack my bags I get an avalanche of assignments that I end up putting together in hostel rooms, airports, buses, random coffee shops in Belgrade, or anywhere else that I can glean a spotty internet connection.

You Can’t Bill for 40 Hours per Week

Charging 15 or 20 bucks an hour sounds pretty great if you’re a fresh college grad that’s currently stuck in an unpaid internship, but at that rate you can forget about making rent by yourself, or having health insurance. As a freelancer you’re going to spend nearly half of your time talking to prospective and current clients, marketing for yourself, and doing miscellaneous clerical work to keep your business in order.

To make a decent living, charge what you want to earn hourly at a normal job, double it, and add the cost of taxes.

If you still want to write for a living after reading this, you might just make it! If you’re a freelance writer, please comment and add in any other curve-balls you faced when you started out.