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How to learn your way around the commercial writing environment
The first thing you need to know about commercial writing is that it is as much about business as about writing. The actual types of writing vary enormously, but the big difference is that you are really providing business materials for other people. These materials can include things like ad copy, technical writing materials, magazine articles, web copy and almost anything that can actually be turned into written materials.
The absolute basics of the commercial writing environment
There’s one fundamental principle in commercial writing you must understand-
Writing for other people is absolutely nothing like writing for yourself.
If, like me, you're a natural creative writer like a book author, it can be quite hard to adjust. Although I'm a second-generation writer (my mother was a professional writer) and I did have some understanding of the commercial realities of writing, actually doing it can come as quite a shock.
The big differences are:
1. Other people’s priorities- You may be a good writer, but as a writer, you can’t know the whole story about what’s going on at the receiving end. Your editors and clients have their own issues, and you really shouldn’t try to dictate to those priorities. They may not make much sense to you as the writer, but you should respect the fact that you don’t know their side of things.
2. Business issues- Commercial writing is all about business for you and your clients. You’re not on holiday. You’re providing business materials for people whose livelihoods may depend on your ad copy, SEO articles, or whatever. Respect these very important facts, because your income may also depend on them.
3. Communications issues- There’s no such thing as perfect communication, particularly in business. Some people are terrible communicators. You’ll need to go looking for answers to your questions, because you’ll always have a few at least. Be patient and tactfully persistent, but get the answers you need.
4. Clients not understanding writing issues- Non-writers don’t understand the issues involved in writing. That’s the basic rule of commercial writing. Many clients will have some basic idea of the problems, but be prepared for total incomprehension. You’ll have to do some more “communicating”.
5. Restrictions on writing- The bureaucratic approach of non-writers to writing is to find a formula. They honestly believe that style is programmable. This rather naïve belief happens to ignore the fact that it’s unique material, not formula slop, which people read. You will have to make a judgement call on whether you can tolerate the restrictions. If intolerable, move on. If not, “communicate” again.
6. Impossible clients- These pests are simply a reality of commercial writing. My very first client on Elance changed the entire style of the articles after the first batch. He then wanted to use phrases like “easy peasy” (which I won’t use at gunpoint) in web copy. He then complained when I did five topics before deadline. Result, exit from contract.
7. Non-paying clients- Always check for any complaints of non-payment from writers about a prospective client. The rule is “no pay, no work and yell like hell”. Never break this rule.
8. Relationships are critical- Never be casual or offhand about your clients and their needs. Go into depth with your clients, understand their needs and wants, and above all be objective and positive. Even if you’re not a “people person”, make the effort. It will be worth it. It’ll keep your clients.
For the record- One of my most rewarding and most interesting relationships with a client is with a guy whose English was very shaky when I first met him online. I wasn’t sure it would last. It’s lasted for years and I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words for him. He recently wrote a fascinating book in English (which I was privileged to proofread for him) and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Clients can also be very good friends and you can learn a lot from them.
One more thing, and it’s very important- You’ll always be learning more about all these issues in commercial writing. Situations vary, but knowing the basics is a good risk management tool. To be forewarned, in this case, can save you a lot of stress and often a lot of money. Learning what to look out for is the most important issue, hence this article.
I hope this is some use to aspiring commercial writers. It should be, because it all comes from experience. I had to learn these things the hard way. I hope I’ve at least saved new writers some time and perhaps some suffering.