5 Writing Tips from Someone Who Has Hired Writers
Adopt the habits that separate writing professionals from writing hobbyists.
While the content I share here on Medium and on my blog (owlcowlandblaster.blogspot.com) almost exclusively represents hobby writing related to my many pop culture fandoms, I’ve been a writer and editor on the corporate level for most of my adult life. This is where the majority of professional writers ply their trade — not in byline-sharing publications but rather as anonymous copywriters crafting technical instructions, product descriptions or marketing collateral. However, I’ve observed that many of the behavioral traits sought out by managers filling technical and ad writing positions are preferred by all who hire or leverage writers in any capacity— because, at the end of the day, all paid writing is a business and all businesses seek to be successful. So while they are hardly sexy or trendy, what I share below are several habits you will want to develop if you intend to be sought after as a writer throughout your career.
When I say that you want to develop a reputation for being reliable, that cuts across a couple of different dimensions. First, you need to be known for hitting deadlines. But you also need to be known for hitting deadlines with a consistently acceptable level of quality.
Remember that yours is typically just a single hand-off in a complex web of pre-publication activities. And that framework is generally hierarchical — meaning that the individuals who are working with your content downstream are often going to be in more senior editorial and/or managerial roles. These are people too — people who have their own deadlines and qualitative expectations to meet. And to the extent that they will have a say in how much or how long you continue to work, your success is invariably tied to how much you facilitate their success.
I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve sat with head in hands at my kitchen table in the wee hours of the morning while (mostly figuratively) bleeding all over catalog proofs because someone didn’t pass along quality work. Again, editors are people — people whose time is as valuable to them as yours is to you. So when they’re flipping through their contact lists looking for freelance or full-time support, they’re going to remember who made their work easier and who made it harder. Be in the former camp.
You may have heard that the customer is always right. To the extent that downstream editors are the first consumers of your content, the editor is always right. Always.
Virtually every publishing outlet follows a style guide of some sort. It may be informal or it may be meticulously documented. It may involve very specific jargon or it could be more conversational. But whatever that style is, it’s important to brand establishment and maintenance. Whether you’re writing for a popular publication or for a retail catalog, you will often be asked to conform to the prevailing editorial voice. And that’s harder for some people than it is for others.
I’ve hired or participated in the hiring process for literally dozens of writers, editors and proofreaders over the years, and writing tests have been a factor in many of those decisions. These tests required the applicants to write a handful of product descriptions while attempting to mimic the style of our catalogs. These were take-home tests — as we weren’t trying to gauge the applicants’ ability to work under intense time pressure; rather, we wanted to see how thorough they’d be given the time provided and how well they’d research and apply the style and voice evident in the catalog samples we’d provided them.
Rarely will an employer expect you to simply absorb their standards by osmosis. Good editors will view their verbal and written interactions with you as teaching opportunities. But they also want to see you track to a reasonable learning curve — because again they’re people, people with a vested interest in the quality of the content that will eventually hit their desks. So ask questions — which is a bigger differentiator than you might think. Just be judicious in asking the right questions that show you’re getting it — and then do, in fact, get it.
Show That You Can Be Creative While Coloring Inside the Lines
I’ve noticed that some people mistake conforming to a standard for being un-creative. It leads them to create content that is compliant yet bland. So understand that just because you’ll be asked to work within certain editorial parameters doesn’t mean you can’t optimize your work. Dancers, ice skaters, gymnasts — they’re all asked to perform compulsory exercises or to include specific technical elements in their routines, but their overall performances can still be quite varied and creative. You can aspire to do the same with your writing.
Of course, that can also be easier said than done. You’ll hear a lot of people talk about the writing that they do for their “day job.” No one ever says that about something that is a passion. It’s what they say about the things they do just to pay the bills. And since a lack of passion can lead good writing to become so-so writing, you’ll need to decide what kind of compromises you’re willing to make in your writing career. If you’re lucky enough to have a “day job” writing on a subject that naturally fascinates and invigorates you, then great. If not, then you need to find ways to maintain a level of investment and interest that allows your work to flourish regardless. A family member who worked for many years as a newspaper reporter routinely reminds me that there is something interesting in every subject — some angle, some perspective. Where the work comes in — besides just the work of writing the piece — is in making the effort to find that angle.
Within reason, editors and managers appreciate candor. So if you’re looking to cultivate a good working relationship with those evaluating and editing your writing, it helps to be honest while still deferential. If there are areas of content available to your role or assignment that are especially interesting to you, it can’t hurt to ask for such opportunities as they come up even as you strive to do the best with the work in front of you. Either way, working within a rigid structure — be it in terms of format or topics — isn’t an excuse to deliver sub-par material. Everyone has to “fake it until you make it” sometimes to carry them through portions of their careers, but you need to consider whether that works for you and you have to realize that it can only carry you for so long.
Be Open to — But Not Dependent Upon — Inspiration
In this day and age, you’d think we’d have muses on demand by now — like GrubHub or DoorDash. But alas, that’s not the case. The writing professional must, therefore, be prepared to work solo. If you’re getting enough paid writing gigs for it to be worth your while, odds are pretty good that you’re also getting it with deadlines too close together to allow for a long warm-up.
From what I’ve seen, a lot of contributors to Medium offer great suggestions on how to flex your writing muscles to keep them limber — exercises to help you quickly get the creative juices flowing. Sample them and find the ones that work best for you. In time, these tricks will imprint themselves on your mind so that you won’t need to think about them. You’ll simply deploy them in dissecting a particular topic or situation without any special fanfare or build-up; it will just become your routine. And that’s a good thing, as all of the other imperatives shared here assume that you’re able to produce content on demand — which is probably the most common and obvious trait of the successful writing professional.
While you can never say never, editors aren’t out to make your life miserable. All creative activities are at some level ego-driven — which might make this a tough pill to swallow — but you’d be surprised by how little an average editor thinks about the impact of a stylistic or scheduling change on you the writer. They’ve got their own stuff going on — date nights and soccer games and birthday parties being affected by the same changes you’re being asked to tolerate. Successful writers slough this stuff off and roll with the punches. And they don’t just do it to be nice — they do it because it’s professionally prudent.
I’ve encountered numerous writers over the years who could be very easy to work with, but only under ideal circumstances. You know how they say, “You are what you eat?” Well, you are what you write — and how you write. You don’t ever want to feel like (or seem like) a doormat, but how you handle changes to the parameters of your writing assignments is something that editors will remember just like several of the other traits mentioned above. If they perceive that you’d struggle to handle change, they might curtail the work they assign to you — figuring you can only be trusted with the “safe” projects. And in a day when technology continuously disrupts how content is both generated and shared, you don’t want to be put into that box. So it’s not about wanting to appear personable; it’s about wanting to appear viable.
In the End, It’s Not About You — It’s About Them
I’ve always loved the movie Fletch, but its portrayal of the relationship between writers and editors is… well, let’s say it doesn’t track with my experience. As a work of fiction, the animated exchanges between investigative journalist Irwin Fletcher and his long-suffering editor Frank Walker are hilarious — but not particularly realistic.
All professional writing is a collaboration — in fact, your entire career is. It’s a joint project impacted by all of the various co-workers, editors, and mentors who have helped to shape who you are and how you’re perceived. And the assets you accumulate over the course of your career aren’t therefore just creative ones; they’re practical and reputational as well. So if you want your journey as a writer to be a long and productive one, I’d suggest you pack accordingly.
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