"Commercial" Writing: Good Money, a Flexible Schedule, and the Time to Pursue Your Writing Passions
Peter Bowerman | September 2004
The PR firm had hired me to work on a twelve-page brochure for their client, a local telecomm giant. Source materials were nine one-hour interviews which I then transformed into the same number of one-page profiles plus an intro piece. The fee? $6,000. Hours? Probably about 50–55 spread out over 2–3 weeks.
The brochure was an "audition" piece for the PR firm. If it went well, they’d get the contract to produce a six-page monthly newsletter for the next year. Well… it went well. The client really liked my work but wasn’t quite sure what the PR firm was doing to earn their hefty add-on fee. So, once the project was done, she called up the PR folks and said, "We’ve decided to produce this in-house. But, we want your writer."
What could they do? So, for the next year, I was the writer for this six-pager, the main internal (for their employees) communications piece for this division. After paying the PR firm 10% as a "finder’s fee" (only fair), my monthly income from this single account was $4,000. Time invested in writing the piece? 30–35 hours.
Common scenarios? Not everyday occurrences, but hardly rare once you’re established. This is the field of commercial writing-a.k.a. "copywriting" or marketing writing. If you’ve got writing in your blood, you’ve likely dreamed of writing full-time but realize how difficult it is to thrive as a novelist or poet. But, in the commercial field, it’s all about becoming a well-respected and well-compensated writer. And with hourly rates ranging from $50–125+, you can write for a good living and still have time and energy left over to pursue your writing passions.
Prior to entering the field, I had no paid writing experience or professional writing background, and I was entering a high-stakes writing field. Yet, by leveraging my sales and marketing background to prop up a pretty sorry starter portfolio, I was paying all the bills in less than four months. You may have the writing background but no marketing experience. We all come at this from different places.
How Good An Opportunity?
In the last decade, two huge trends have sculpted the American landscape: downsizing and outsourcing. The creative and communications departments of today’s companies are running leaner and meaner, but the work still needs to get done. Add to that the countless opportunities with smaller companies that don’t have budgets for either those departments or high-priced agencies, but, nonetheless, still need to create a wide variety of marketing materials. Put it all together and it spells rich opportunities for freelancers.
A manager with a huge high-tech firm in Atlanta says, "Most people would assume that a company of our size would do the bulk of our writing in-house, and they’d be wrong. My writing needs these days are pretty steady, and I pay anywhere from $65–85/hour, depending on experience."
Huge Volume of Work
The sheer volume and variety of work outsourced by not only industry giants like UPS, the Coca-Cola Company, BellSouth, IBM, and MCI, but companies of all sizes is formidable. Marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, video scripts, direct mail campaigns, speeches, Web copy, and much much more (and FYI, you just do the writing; graphic designers handle laying it all out).
Corporations outsource for good solid business reasons: They pay for what they need, only when they need it. They get fresh "outsider" perspectives. There are no salaries, vacations, or benefits to pay (as a freelancer, I’m more than willing to take care of those things myself). And given the wide variety of writing projects, a stable of talented freelancers, each with different strengths, ensures the best writer for the job.
And there’s far more work out there than meets the eye. As consumers, we mostly see what’s known as "B2C" (business-to-consumer): newspaper and magazine ads, direct mail solicitations for credit cards, home equity lines, cellular service, etc., newsletters from our frequent flyer program, or utilities and the like. What we generally don’t see is "B2B" (business-to-business): all the materials created by a business to market to other businesses. And finally, there’s the huge arena of internal communications (all materials created by a business only for their own people): marketing manuals, brochures, CD-ROMS, sales sheets, newsletters, websites, speeches, etc. Think of how many materials in all these categories are produced within your own university. Someone has to write them. Sometimes it’s done in-house, oftentimes not.
Study Your Mail
Start taking the time to study your mail (okay, yes, the junk mail)-the B2C stuff you get every day-the ads, direct mail, and newsletters. Take a gander at the rack brochures in your bank. Pick up a brochure or two from a car dealership. Take a closer look at the websites you visit. Notice the ones that are well-written and user-friendly and the ones that aren’t. Ask yourself if you have the skills to write any of this. I’m guessing you do. Every single one of these projects is written by someone, and many by a freelancer.
Could You Get Used to This?
Recently, I had nicely productive three weeks of business. A nontechnical eight-page brochure for a medical software firm: $2,500. A four-page financial services newsletter (recurring quarterly): $1,800. A rework of a rack brochure for the same client: $600. The first phase of a brochure project for our state’s EOE department: $900. An 800-word article for a huge global staffing giant: $800. Two sales sheets explaining a company’s new website: $850. And finally, the same company had me bid on two big brochures ($3,000–3,500 each), both to be done within the next six weeks.
A Reality Check
Again, stretches like these aren’t every week occurrences, but they don’t have to be to make a good living (and they become more common the more established you become). No question, you’ll have your share of $300–400 weeks. In the beginning, with prospecting and marketing, you’ll be working a lot harder for a lot less. This is not a get-rich quick proposition. Any field that pays $60–80+ an hour, is flexible, home-based, and can potentially earn you $75K or more annually in the space of a few short years, by definition, is going to require an investment of time to get established. Few professions meet those criteria.
How Good Do You Have To Be?
You do have to be a good writer. No one’s going to pay you $60–80/hour if you’re lousy (at least not more than once). But the good news is that many fields-i.e., financial services, healthcare, high-tech, real estate, and others-don’t expect brilliant prose. They want clear, concise, readable copy.
That said, the better-paid scribes in this field do more than just craft pretty sentences. They’re professionals who take the time to learn about a company-its products, customers, and market niche-and what it does better than the competition. He or she then uses this information to help the company craft marketing materials that speak effectively to their target audience. None of which, incidentally, is terribly difficult to learn to do. A crash course…
The Marketing Mindset
Here’s a top-line look at three cornerstone concepts of marketing writing and ones which, believe it or not, are not universally understood or practiced by a goodly chunk of commercial writers out there. Master them and you’ll set yourself apart.
"Who’s the Audience?"
The first question to ask at the start of every project. Obviously, you’d write very differently to speak to fifty-plus year-old married women than to teenagers. You want to determine what motivates this audience, how they think and talk, and what’s going to get them to pay attention and take action. And you’ll find all that out simply by asking lots and lots of questions.
"USP-The Unique Selling Proposition"
"What’s your USP?" What sets your client’s product, service, or company apart from the competition and how can you capitalize on that in the copy?
The "Features/Benefits" Sales Equation
Features are about a product/service and the company selling it (i.e., twenty years in business, experienced people, twenty-four-hour tech support, aerodynamic design, etc.) Benefits are about customers and what’s important to them: profitability, competitive advantage, reputation, etc. An audience for any product or service-and you’re no exception-cares first and foremost, about benefits. When writing persuasive copy, always begin with benefits, follow with features.
Who Will Hire You?
The first broad category of prospective clients are end users (EUs): various divisions and departments of corporations-ranging in size from 10 to 100,000 employees-not-for-profits, universities, government agencies, and others. The second is middlemen (MMs): graphic design firms, marketing companies, PR firms, advertising agencies, etc. MMs are hired by EUs to execute various projects, and since most don’t staff full-time writing help (larger ad agencies and PR firms will but even they outsource a lot of writing), they’ll need to find writing talent to get the jobs done.
Approach EUs through their marketing communications department (also known as "MarCom"), marketing, or sales. At MMs, contact the Creative Director, Assistant Creative Director, Marketing Director, Production Manager, or Account Executive. For both EUs and MMs, make the first contact by phone or through networking functions (business associations, Chambers of Commerce, etc). And speaking of networking, tap your different circles to land business contacts. Don’t feel uncomfortable doing this-it’s the way it’s done. Referrals are the best way to get in the door. And since your likelihood of being hired rises dramatically once you meet a client face-to-face, always push for a meeting.
What About a Portfolio?
Those coming from academia could certainly include published articles in a portfolio (especially if you’re planning on pursuing newsletter work-a similar project type), but realistically, you’ll need to acquire some samples of the types of work corporate clients might hire you to do.
Start with any projects from past/present jobs: manuals, press releases, newsletters, Web content, speeches, articles, etc. Do pro bono work for a charity or start-up firm. Team up with a graphic designer, also starting out, and either approach those same type entities together or "create" a portfolio with pieces for real or fictitious companies. You might choose to streamline your marketing (and boost your credibility) by using an online portfolio to showcase your work (check out http://www.writeinc.biz-my commercial site).
How Much Can You Make?
Rates for corporate freelancers range from $50–125+/hour. I started out at $50, and am now billing at $100. In the commercial arena, $50/hour will faze no one except you and in most larger markets, anything lower will have clients wondering how good you really are. For those starting out, once you’ve built up a decent starter portfolio (or "book"), making $30–40K just isn’t that difficult. Get reasonably aggressive about getting the word out and you should start getting into the $50–70K range. Build a good reputation, start getting a lot of referrals and who knows? A healthy number of writers in this business gross $100K annually.
The Prosaic Truth
But doesn’t commercial writing entail becoming, in essence, a corporate shill-compromising one’s morals, filthy lucre and all that? Contrary to some widely disseminated notions… no. My current clients and projects: a mortgage company (brochures, direct mail pieces, sales letters, and Web content); a graphic design firm (brochure); a residential security firm (brochures and Web content); a sales training organization (Web content). Not exactly soul-selling stuff.
In a nutshell, commercial writers help companies highlight their strong suits and put their best foot forward in marketing materials. Just as any academic might do in a professional c.v. Think about the marketing materials your own institution creates to attract students. It’s about talking in language that will resonate with a reader and move him or her to take action. It’s selling an idea. It’s not journalism. It’s not literary masterpieces. It’s not supposed to be objective.
The "Commercial" Downside
But, isn’t commercial writing b-o-r-i-n-g, mind-numbing stuff? I don’t romanticize the field. You won’t get all your creative fulfillment here. That said, I’ve worked on plenty of projects over the years that have been fun, challenging, interesting, and personally satisfying. And sure, plenty of others were just jobs. But all of them paid well-and provided nice lifestyle benefits.
One thing is almost certain of most any MFA degree-holder or English major: your writing skills will be good enough for the commercial arena, where mid-to-high five-figure earnings (and higher) are well within reach. They just need to be channeled and refined for a different arena.
Whatever your goals or your circumstances, the commercial field offers a lucrative and growing opportunity for those with even moderate talent and drive.
Peter Bowerman is the author of The Well-Fed Writer (2000), an award-winning Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, and its companion volume, The Well-Fed Writer: Back For Seconds (September 2004). A commercial freelancer and columnist in Atlanta, GA since 1993, Bowerman has published over 250 columns and articles, and also leads seminars on writing. www.wellfedwriter.com