There are a lot of opinions out there about what freelance writers do. One of the big ones I’ve heard lately is that business writers are selling their soul and writing crap just to fill their bank accounts.
In other words, we’re not ‘real writers’ like novelists. Business writers are just paid copywriting hacks.
Writing for businesses also ruins our writing chops for any ‘meaningful’ personal writing we aspire to, such as poetry, essays, or novel writing.
I used to think like this. For many years, I was a reporter who thought advertising writers were part of the Dark Side of the Force.
By contrast, I was finding facts, revealing truths, enlightening readers with vital news and information they needed. Good stuff!
Then I happened into my first business writing gig, ghosting blog posts for a startup’s CEO, and decided to give it a try. Suddenly, I remembered how my first career as a songwriter went wrong, all because of a similar misconception I had about ‘selling out.’
Here’s what happened…
The 3 roads to writing success
When I was an aspiring singer/songwriter, back in the ’80s, there were basically three ways to pursue this career.
- Starve while you live in a garret above a shop and write songs.
- Work a day job and play your own songs with your band at night.
- ‘Pay your dues’ by playing Top 40 in bars multiple nights each week. Play with your band on the other nights.
I opted for path #2, working as a legal secretary at MGM during the day and practicing and playing my own songs at night.
Playing Top 40 crap all night? Puh-lease! That was definitely not for me.
My songs were brilliant and important compared with that garbage, and I wasn’t going to sully my pure little artiste fingers playing it. I was hot to skip the dues-paying phase and go straight to super-stardom.
- I didn’t get to perform much. Getting a booking wasn’t easy.
- As a result, I didn’t improve rapidly.
- I got older — old enough to tire of hanging around smoky bars ’til 2 a.m.
- I won an essay contest and decided to go into another kind of writing.
Boom! End of rockstar dreams.
How to become a great writer
As the years rolled on, while I loved being a journalist, a little part of me was still sad that I hadn’t become an acclaimed songwriter.
I realized that if I’d been willing to ‘sell out’ and play Top 40 in bars, I would have gotten hundreds of additional hours of performing practice. That no doubt would have improved my performance confidence and my stage presence. My keyboard playing and sense of songwriting craft both would have improved exponentially.
Probably, all that work would have inspired lots of new songs, too. Playing Top 40 is a chance to study what makes a hit song, so those songs might well have been better than my early ones. (See also: Piano Man by Billy Joel, about his days grinding out piano-bar requests. Hmm…that sort of launched his whole career.)
I had refused to sell out. Victory! I was a pure artist. I was also an unsuccessful one.
Building muscles allows for heavy lifting
What had I missed with my ‘I won’t sell out’ attitude?
Just this: Writing improves your writing.
Over time, I learned how many truly great writers (business writers, copywriters, journalists, novelists, and others) had taken writing ‘day jobs’ and come out the better for it.
From Salman Rushdie’s stint writing copy for Ogilvy & Mather (other copywriting alums include Don DeLillo and Joseph Heller), to the time Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway spent as newspaper reporters, great writers seek out opportunities to write a lot. They write tons, and they learn.
Why business writers learn faster
Clearly, writing copy doesn’t ruin your fiction writing or turn the brains of business writers into mush. It gives you a lot of experience with crafting prose that holds peoples’ attention and moving their emotions in your desired direction.
This is a transferable skill.
Taking on the challenge of meeting a client’s writing needs makes you stretch, and grow. Yes, it’s not your novel — but it can be fascinating, challenging, and fun.
It’s an entirely honorable way to feed your family while you sharpen your writing chops.
Busting the myth of the sellout
Despite all the great examples of writers who earned fame and success for their novels later, the myth persists that doing other, more ‘commercial’ kinds of writing will ruin you for fiction.
I can only shake my head when I see comments like this one, which I recently got on my Facebook page:
I’d bet there are far fewer successful writers with the attitude you see above — who only focus on making themselves happy and won’t ‘sell out’ — then there are successful business writers, copywriters, and freelancers who seize any opportunity to write for a living. (And of course, you can’t help but notice all the grammar errors.)
Every assignment is a chance to flex those writing muscles and learn.
Here’s the thing about being a successful novelist — it’s not usually about expressing your opinion. It’s about serving a reader.
So is copywriting. So is newspaper reporting.
If I had it to do over again, I’d be belting out Heart, Madonna, and Whitney Houston songs, night after night, until I figured out how to win at the songwriting game.
Instead of spinning your wheels, if you feel like you’re getting nowhere with your writing career, try finding a client you can write for. Your payoff won’t just come in dollars, but in improved writing skills.
Are you a business writer? Let’s discuss the ‘sellout’ issue in the comments.