You Can Earn a Living as a Writer

I’m a writer. I’ve been at it for as long as I can remember. Although you probably don’t know me, I’ll bet that you’ve read some of my stuff.

Growing up in the suburban wastes of Kansas City in the 1970s, most kids I knew spent their free time playing softball on the schoolyard lot off Mission Road. Others went fishing down at the lakes between Manor Road and Meadow Lane. Me? That wasn’t my thing. On a hot summer day, I loved nothing more than to stretch out on the carpet of my living room floor near the air conditioning vent and scribble all over the pages of a Big Chief tablet with a Flair pen until my fingers went stiff. I wrote all kinds of junk. The earliest piece I can remember writing was a fake brochure for some kind of rocket ship / Chevy van hybrid. I was eight years old at the time. It was a bi-fold brochure with color illustrations. I was pretty proud of myself then. Still am.

Although much has changed over the decades – my writing skills have improved, I think – I still write commercial copy. During the daylight hours, I write about lawn mowers and deburring machines and satellite TV. As I said before, you’ve probably read some of my stuff. Planned a trip to Louisiana for Mardi Gras recently? You’ve read my work. Frequent a popular dating website? That’s me too. Spend any amount of time online researching orthodontists, equestrian supplies, building materials, self-storage facilities, or high fashion? I wrote some of that stuff.  I run my own little “content development” company. We’re writers and bloggers for hire. After hours, I write supernatural horror and science fiction. The commercial copy pays the bills, and that’s what this article is really all about.

Since I subscribe to a number of writer’s magazines, I get a lot of junk e-mail about books, DVDs, and seminars where you can quickly learn “how to make a six-figure income writing advertising copy.” Let me say – right here and now – that some of you can. Most cannot. Sure, if you can string together words and phrases and clauses with a fair grasp of sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar, you have a talent that can command a fair income – if you know what you’re doing.

In this age where text-speak has spread like Ebola from cell phones to term papers to casual conversation, many under the age of twenty-five appear to be incapable of putting a convincing argument for one thing over another to pen and paper (my personal opinion, not that of anyone else here at BookLifeNow). And since most marketing – whether in print or online – is driven by written content, there’s a great need for those who can write well. But you have to know the rules – those rules above words and phrases and clauses. Marketing copy is not written like fiction or journalistic articles. I won’t go into deep detail here, simply because there isn’t enough room to spell it all out in a single blog article.

But I’ll give you a peek. Here we go.

1. If you’re writing copy that sells window treatments, roofing supplies, invisible braces, air handling units, bug and tar remover, party supplies, liquid face lifts, or financial products, you have to first identify your audience. Ask yourself: WHO would want this? If you can come up with an answer, you’re well on your way to some compelling copy.

2. Always write to the business purposes at hand. Your client wants to convince the market that they need to pick up the phone or fill out a form or set up an appointment. What you write must gently nudge the readers toward acting on this suggestion.

3. Keep it interesting, engaging, and brief. Most people can read about 350 words (a single page from a paperback novel) in about a minute. They read whole pages because they’re invested in the characters and story. As a writer of commercial copy, you have none of that to your advantage. The average time a reader will spend on any page of content on a website is a whopping 33 seconds. Interesting, engaging, and brief, yeah?

4. Sell! If you’ve never sold anything in your life (cars, computer software, shoes, whatever) you may not have the experience needed to craft compelling sales copy. Selling is more than listing features, advantages, and benefits. It’s about creating an emotional connection between your reader and the product. In sales, we talk a lot about building commonalities, discovering needs, leveraging pain points, and overcoming objections. And it all works beautifully – with practice. Lots of practice.

5. And you must sell without selling. If this sounds like some twisted Kung Fu technique, you’re right. You must strike without being seen. Truly compelling copy leads the reader to believe that their needs are in direct alignment with product features, advantages, and benefits. You can almost see them nodding their heads in agreement as they ponder the words on the page.

6. Learn to write for robots. Pick up a book on the basics of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Online, everything is driven by search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo!). Every piece you write for a website is going to be seeded with keywords and phrases and links. Why? Every search engine employs search bot software to scan every web page for its content and then adds that data to a searchable index. This is how the web works. If you’re writing a page about chocolate chip cookies, you’d better mention “chocolate chip cookies” a few times in the copy.

You can earn a living as a writer. Like many, I’ve had a number of cube farm jobs. Long ago, I decided that I was unsatisfied with corporate life and made a decision to bail. I spent years building a book of business for my content development company. I’m a full-time writer now. It’s a sweet gig but it has its drawbacks. When 5pm rolls around and you’ve been killing yourself to crank out 10,000 words for a plastic surgeon, it isn’t easy to switch gears and be creative. Somebody once said that the worst day job for a writer is as a writer. Some days, I fully agree.


The Writer’s Toolkit: Almost Everything You Need to get the Story Started

It’s long gone now, lost to some damnable garage sale or other, but my father once had a wooden shoeshine box that sat at the back of the bedroom closet beneath a rack full of awful ties. The box was a real showpiece: furniture-quality American poplar with dovetailed joints and an elevated footrest. As a kid who liked to dig through his parent’s stuff, I’d get the box out from time to time, flip open the brass latch at the front, and play around with the contents.

The shoeshine box held two horsehair shining brushes, a dauber brush, a bottle of cleaning cream, tins of Kiwi brand shoe polish (black and brown), and a soft shining cloth. There was no polishing glove. In all the times I watched my father shine his shoes before going off to work, he’d first pull an old sweat sock over his hand to prevent the dark polish from staining his fingers.

I mention the shoeshine box because I’m a big fan of toolkits. I’m fascinated by the things professionals collect to do their jobs – the stranger the better. Ever see a professional piano builder’s kit? It’s a sexy assortment of lathes, chisels, and auger bits. Have you ever heard of a tobacco smoke enema kit? Oh, they’re very real, I assure you. In the 1800s, they were the indispensable piece of medical equipment for assisting drowning victims – until they were debunked. Once, on a research trip to a medical history library, I got my hands on a Civil War-era surgeon’s battlefield kit. Although most of the implements were of the cutting and sawing variety, everything was stainless steel – still gleaming – and very lightweight. Nasty little cutters. Take an arm here, take a leg there…

Every professional has their toolkit. As writers, we’re no different from the rest. It can be easily assumed that anyone reading the site on a regular basis has stacks of books on every flat surface in their home. But there’s always room for more, eh?

Recently, I was at a conference during which a panel attempted to come up with a list of essential books for any writer to devour before picking up the pen. The panel moderator called it a “writer’s toolkit.” I listened, made notes. I didn’t agree on a number of the titles mentioned – some were irrelevant to my chosen genre, others didn’t interest me. But the mention of the toolkit held my interest. When I returned home to the paperback-and-empty-whiskey-bottle nest I call an office, I walked the stacks and hunted down every title that had been helpful to me in all my efforts. My writer’s toolkit (abridged):

Dialog gives definition to your characters, reveals motivations, aids in setting, and propels the story forward. No two characters should speak alike.

Dialogue (Write Great Fiction Series) by Gloria Kempton

Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella

Characters in fiction should be treated like real, live human beings. With history, motives, and reputation – they are believable and worth caring about to the last page.

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Writing Your First Novel is damn difficult work. Ask any professional and they’ll tell you the same. It’s hours and hours of dedication to the craft, but it beats working.

Your First Novel by Rittenberg and Whitcomb

How NOT to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Writing Great Horror is a topic near and dear to my heart. Horror has its own language and rules and pitfalls. Whether a slasher or a morality tale, horror stories are part of a genre that is continually reinventing itself.

On Writing Horror by the Horror Writers Association, Ed. by Mort Castle

The Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll

Writers Workshop of Horror by Michael Knost

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

Story is the realities, not the mysteries of writing. Story is the essential element to any successful product of the craft. A bad story does not excite readers and turn pages.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

The Hero With 1000 Faces by Joseph Campbell

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias

I’ve always thought that books on writing are invaluable, due to the fact that they are a resource available at any time of day or night. I can’t count how many times I’ve left the bed at three in the morning and picked up one of these books to sit at the kitchen table until I’d worked out some plot turn or character aspect. If nothing more, a writer’s toolkit is a preparation – waiting for that moment when you’re struggling to hammer something together.

In the title, I suggested that this toolkit was almost everything you need to get the story started. Every toolkit is personal. None is ever complete. What is your essential writer’s resource? What books do you lean on in times of trouble? Let us know in the comments section below.