The Well-Fed Craft: An Interview with Peter Bowerman

If you’ve been around my blog any length of time, you know I rarely promote anything.

But once in a while, something comes along that is just so good, I feel if I don’t promote it, I’m doing you guys a disservice. Such is the case with anything Peter Bowerman puts out.

His latest offering is The Well-Fed CraftThe Fast Track to Marketing-Writing Mastery. In it, Peter offers 11 modules (and 2 bonus modules) on the structure and strategy of commercial writing that are like looking over his shoulder and really learning exactly how he does it. I was impressed with just how comprehensive (and personal) the course is. Full disclosure: I am part of Peter’s affiliate program, and if you buy, I’m apt to get a little bonus. If you don’t buy, that’s totally up to you and I’ll still love you.  

Recently I chatted with Peter via email to learn more about his course and his own path to commercial writing.

When did you start in commercial writing? What prompted it?

I started in January of 1994. I’d read Bob Bly’s Secrets of a Freelance Writer a few years before, and after talking myself in and out of the idea for, oh, about three years, I took the plunge.

I had always wanted to be a writer, but frankly, wasn’t willing to starve at it, and when I came across Bob’s book on “commercial writing,” the light bulb went off. Who knew that many corporations, large and small, outsourced much of their writing work? I said, “Aha! This is how I’m going to do it.”

What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome? And how many of those were self-imposed?

I had no writing background, no paid writing experience, no writing training, no ad agency experience (which many prospects told me I’d need to succeed…wrong), and no contacts. But, I did have a background in sales, wasn’t afraid to pick up the phone and call total strangers, so that’s what I did.

And in less than four months, after making ~1000 phone calls—to every ad agency, marketing company, PR firm and graphic design firm in Atlanta—I ended up with more work than I could handle.

And FYI, I don’t want readers to think, “Well – no wonder you succeeded; you had sales background!” Yeah well, remember: I had no writing background or writing training, and I was trying to get started in a pretty high-stakes writing field.

One self-imposed obstacle: I didn’t think I was good enough to write for the big corporations, so I didn’t reach out to them directly for a number of years. But, I made some good contacts with freelance graphic designers who were working with these Big Boys, and they got me in the door. And then I realized I definitely could deliver the goods at this level.

Why did you decide to offer Well-Fed Craft?

 Well, the focus of the book side of my business—and that means, books, ebooks, ezine, coaching, speaking, etc.—has always been on how to build a writing business, not the writing end of things. And that business-building component is crucial obviously.

And in the coaching side of my business—which I’ve been doing for 15 years—I’ve seen many different outcomes. Some folks do really well, many struggle. Sure, different people have different levels of drive and ambition, but they have different skill levels as well. And those with strong skills (assuming they’re not lazy) generally thrive.

Which led to this epiphany:

Writing ability—and specifically, in our field, marketing-writing ability— is a far more reliable predictor of long-term success as a commercial writer than marketing ability.

You can be a marketing wiz, but if your marketing-writing skills just aren’t up to snuff, you’ll have a tougher go of it. If, however, those skills are solid, you’ll be ideally positioned to say “yes” to projects and clients of both higher caliber and budgets. Not to mention landing more repeat business and referrals.

Put another way, writers without solid marketing-writing skills may learn how to build a business and land clients, but without the requisite skills to deliver the caliber of work demanded by high-paying commercial clients, they’re far less likely to keep those clients.

Bottom line, marketing will land the client, but skills will keep the client (and, over time, skills will land the client, as your reputation precedes you).

So, given all that, I saw the need for a product that would help writers boost their skills. And I knew there was a void in the market: Plenty of “how-to-build-a-commercial-writing-practice” resources—including, of course, my own!—but very few on how to write the projects that pay so well.

Who should take the course?

Well, while it’s certainly ideal for relative newbies or “early-on” commercial freelancers, it definitely isn’t just for newbies.

It’ll be a good fit for any writer trying to break out of the low-rate trap, where their skills (i.e., primarily articles and blog posts) are the same as thousands of other writers, and hence clients won’t pay well. But with stronger, less common skills, doors to higher-paying writing jobs will naturally open.

It’ll also be a good fit for new or experienced writers who find they’re wrestling with how to write “commercial” projects. Or who just want to beef up their “tactic arsenal.”

Obviously, anyone who’s new to the field of marketing writing, or coming from the journalism world (in both cases, you wouldn’t know how to write this stuff) would definitely benefit from WFC.

Or maybe you’re already a commercial writer, but you’ve been specializing in just one or two project types, and you want to expand your skills range. WFC can help those.

Most importantly, I suppose, it’d be good for anyone who’d like to learn, in a few days of study (it’s ~7 hours total of training) what took me 24 years to assimilate.

What can participants expect to learn?

WFC will provide the skills to set you apart from the thousands of same-skilled masses out there. And those skills will help you to start thinking like a marketer, which is where all good marketing-writing springs from.

It’ll help you learn how to draw readers in by talking about things they care about—the benefits—not just stuff about the product or the company selling it; that’s features. And you’ll learn how to keep those readers engaged and reading.

It’ll also teach you how to structure a piece—to “build a case”—and, based on what you know is important to that audience, you’ll learn how to order the information in a way to most effectively explain the benefits and features of a product or service. And, to lead the reader to take the desired action.

Most importantly, I suppose, these are the skills that high-paying clients are willing to pay handsomely for. And why are they willing to pay those rates? Because they know how rare those skills are.

AND, because they’ve learned what happens when they cheap out” and try to do it themselves, OR when they hire just a “freelance writer,” NOT a marketing copywriter.

What do you see as some of the biggest obstacles facing freelance writers these days, and how does WFC address them?

One of the biggest obstacles is one I touched on earlier: A certain class of writing skills (e.g., articles and blog posts) have become “commoditized”—where too many clients need the same, fairly low-quality skills, and that reality has dropped rates into the basement.

And it’s happened because of the explosion of article-writing sites, and the implosion of the journalism world, as well as the huge “content marketing” push, which has dumped countless writers into the marketplace.

And I apologize if the “low-quality skills” comment irritates some readers. I’m not saying that their skills are of “low quality.” I’m certain many have superior skills, but if you know you are a better writer than most, yet you continue to compete in an arena where clients don’t have to pay more than peanuts—because they have countless writers who can deliver the same requisite quality of writing and will do it for peanuts—you’ll continue to struggle financially.

So, by definition, WFC enables people to get a serious “skills upgrade,” so to speak, which will allow you to get out of that low-rate basement, and start going after the clients and the jobs that pay far more.

What are the common myths you see about commercial writing? How does the course address those?

 One myth is that a sales and marketing background is required to succeed as a commercial writer. Does having such a background help? Of course. Are you doomed without one? Hardly.

Fact is, you just don’t have to be seasoned marketing expert to do well in this field. But you DO need to understand what makes for good marketing writing. And you need to understand and internalize some cornerstone marketing principles (e.g., Audience, Features/Benefits, Unique Selling Proposition (USP), and The Curse of Knowledge, are the ones that have served me well.)

You need to be familiar with, understand, and know how to use the most common and time-tested marketing-writing tactics, approaches and strategies, which includes understanding how to “build a case” for a product and service.

And of course, it obviously helps to be comfortable with a wide range of project types—things like brochures, direct mail, web site cop, case studies, white papers, sales letters, landing pages, and more.

And, yes, I say Well-Fed Craft gives you all that. No, I’m not promising an instant “Marketing Mind-Meld!” But I’m pretty certain it’ll take far less time to develop that mindset than if you had to learn it over the 24 years it took me. 😉

There’s another myth I love: That commercial writing means “selling your soul,” or “going over to the dark side.” Too funny. The implication is that journalism is all about objectivity, while commercial writing isn’t. And that would be correct; it’s not, and never claims to be (unlike…ahem…the other).

But there’s a whole lot of real estate between helping companies put their best foot forward in their marketing materials (and no, that does not mean lying or even stretching the truth; and if I were ask to do that, I’d walk away…), and selling one’s soul.

A final myth is that clients are SO much smarter and savvier than you are. As such, and per my answer on self-imposed obstacles, Don’t put corporate clients on a pedestal. No question, there’s a lot of sharp people in the business world, and there are also a lot who are overworked, overextended or in over their head.

Also, if you’re new to the field, don’t imagine that clients are a bunch of hard-assed ogres waiting to trip you up or to find your commercial-writing skills wanting. They’re regular people just like us. Yes, if you’re operating at the middle-to-upper levels of our craft, they’re going to expect good results and a good experience.

Any advice for writers wanting to break into or improve in the commercial writing niche?

How about this: There are no shortcuts, AND, let me share one BIG one. J Not actually a contradiction. So, everyone loves shortcuts, and I have two lines of thought on this one.

First is this: If you indeed want a true shortcut—a way to set yourself apart from the masses, cultivate a pretty high level of “buttoned-up”-ness. Meaning, be reliable and dependable (i.e., do what you say you’re going to do, and when you say you’re going to do it; no exceptions, period), turn in clean copy, be easy to work with, and do really good work.

With the possible exception of the last one—harder at first, if you’re new—every single other one takes zero experience to deliver. And, given how rare they are in the business world (trust me), if you DO them, you’ll absolutely stand out. And if that isn’t a killer shortcut, I don’t know what is.

That notwithstanding, I don’t think there are any shortcuts in our business. To build a thriving commercial writing practice takes a lot of hard work, and if you imagine you can somehow bypass all of it, you’re deluding yourself.

As such, there’s little value in looking for, “THE most effective way to ______” (i.e., build a business, prospect for new clients, network); or “The easiest way to kick-start a writing business from zero to 100 mph;” or “The best places to look for work”; or “The  #1 thing you have to do first…” or any other best, most, or first.

Think about it: If there were a #1 best way to do ___, everyone would be doing it, and all the other ways would wither away. Moreover, if there were a “best place to look for work” or “best new writing market,” everyone would know about it and be pursuing it, and soon, it wouldn’t be any good anymore.

Fact is, there are plenty of ways to do any number of things, and they can all work. You just need to pick one, and perhaps the one that’s a fit for your temperament, interests, background, training, etc.

Last piece of advice I’d offer is encapsulated in a quote a friend sent to me a few months back: “The goal is not to be successful. The goal is to be valuable. Once you’re valuable, instead of chasing success, you’ll attract it.” Love it.

“Success” is a pretty vague concept that not only means different things to different people but, more importantly, how you get there isn’t at all clear. But being valuable? That’s a lot clearer. And if you know you want to be valuable as a commercial freelancer,
then figure out which skills and expertise you need to develop in order to be valuable—to
high-caliber, well-paying clients.

Thanks, Lori, for having me here, and giving me the mike for a while!

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Peter Bowerman, a 24-year commercial-writing veteran and business coach, is the author of the multiple-award-winning title, The Well-Fed Writer, the industry standard, how-to guide to building a lucrative commercial writing practice. He is the creator of the newly released Well-Fed Craft: The Fast Track to Marketing-Writing Mastery, a self-paced course on how to actually write the most commonly needed, high-paying, commercial writing projects.

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