When Safe Freelance Writing Isn’t Good Enough

What I’m reading: The Trouble with Goat and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
What I’m listening to: Blood and Guts by Middle Brother

There’s nothing like a week that begins like a starting pistol at a marathon. That’s how it feels so far, and it’s only Tuesday. Yesterday I jumped among three projects, trying to make headway on all of them. It felt a bit more like I was running a marathon with one foot in a bucket. Today I’ll be on a train to Manhattan, so at least I’ll have time to get some work done during the trip.

It’s been a few days of travel — I was in western PA for Father’s Day, and that’s ten hours round trip (or 9 hours thanks to the increased speed limit). Once again, I’ll be on the move today.

Last week, a quick project came in from a favorite client. They needed it by yesterday, but luckily I had some spare time on Friday before we headed west, so I completed it in a few hours. Looking at the project audience and message, I took a different approach than I normally do with their communications.

They loved it.

It was a gamble, but this time, it worked. They hired me to help them gain visibility and get their name out there. I figure I can’t do that unless I up the ante a bit. There are a lot of messages floating out there, and since this was a social media-related message, they needed it to stand above the rest.

It’s what most of us already do for our clients — think beyond what’s already been said and written. But it never hurts to remind ourselves that we are creative people. Our clients hire us for that creativity, and it’s a damn crime when you see writers churning out the same crap an admin assistant with a few courses in Marketing could manage.

It’s not good enough.

Here are some ways in which we freelance writers can be our clients’ best asset:

Go beyond the formula. Just because everyone else is using the same type of formula to announce their new social media strategy doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. It’s better to create eye-catching content that stands out, right? Stop filling in the blanks. Start writing. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing anyway.

Lose the jargon. Please. If you start out that press release with “ABC Company has announced enhancements to its suite of internet solutions that combine robust, back-office technology with real-time data results” congratulations. You’ve just bored the hell out of your readers (and you’ve written a carbon copy of what every other schmuck thinks is what a press release should sound like). Instead, make it relevant. “ABC Company is now delivering more power to customers, who are now able to  search, retrieve, and analyze their customer sales data faster and with better results.”

Kill the catch phrases. I refuse to write phrases like “leading edge” “premier” and “the best” anymore. Not only is it false in most cases, it’s boring to read. Yet companies continue to use these phrases, much like they claim they have no competitors (right). Replace them with superlatives that actually work — facts and numbers, for example. “The #1 company as voted by Forbes Magazine” or some similar fact does so much more to get the reader’s attention than just parroting the same old schlock.

Pretend it’s you reading it. What do you want to see? What would make you respond to the offer or react to the message? If it bores you, think how small the impact will be on your client’s customers.

Boost their voice. Think about the tone they use, the medium you’re writing within, and the message they want to send. If you tweak that message to be a little more personal, you could hit a home run. So instead of that stiff, corporate announcement that doesn’t wash with anyone, try a “Here’s what we’ve been doing” style that’s slightly more relaxed (not too much), but conveys the message in a more compelling way.

Not all clients are going to love your approach. You’re going to get some who push for you to use exactly the things that aren’t getting them the attention they want. Explain cordially why you think your approach may help them, then let it go. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t.

Writers, do you remember the first time you decided to go outside what’s expected with a client? How did the client react?
What advice can you give other writers on how far to push it? Where is your own boundary with creativity?

About the author




  • Cathy Miller June 21, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    As you know all too well, Lori, our niche tends to be a tad conservative in communications. 😉 The healthcare industry is also.

    I remember when I presented a different format to a healthcare client. Something other than the "traditional" white paper. The new format combines images and a presentation format (what Nancy Duarte calls a slidedoc). They loved it. It helped that they have been a long-time client so there is a good level of trust there.

  • Lori Widmer June 21, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    Sometimes it just takes a nudge, doesn't it? You're so right about the conservative nature of our niche — moving them toward something new can be painful for both sides.

    I think you were smart to give them a "transitional" style. Helped ease the terror of something new, I'd bet!

  • Paula Hendrickson June 21, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    Being on the receiving end of an endless stream of press releases, I can attest that anything that sounds like a press release is immediately ignored (by me).

    Conversational tones always beat corporate jargon.

  • Lori Widmer June 22, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    Paula, it's true. I know some media outlets do publish them verbatim, others take bits of them for their front-of-the-book sections, but in general, they don't compel editors to want to use them. Though I will say the well-written ones do spark ideas. I've used a number of them as springboards to articles, and thanks to the releases, I already have one source.

    Totally agree on the conversational tone. You can do that and not sound so corporate, but still maintain your authoritative tone. It just takes the right writer.