Writing Short: What I Do For You

A summer has passed, and I am writing on this blog again. This time it’s after I’ve been considering just what it is that I offer my clients, both existing ones and ones that have not yet reached me. What do I do that adds value to their business? What do I do that no one else does better? There are many writers available online, even some offering rock-bottom prices for their work (but remember, you get what you pay for — do you want just words, or actual writing?). But here’s what I do that others don’t: I write short.

Short-legged dachshund.

Short… you know, like a dachshund. (image: Michal Zacharzewski)

 

Writing short isn’t as easy as you might think. Anyone can write a sentence to say what they want to say, but figuring out what you actually want to say and just saying that is a different skill. An unskilled writer knows what they’re trying to say, but doesn’t actually say it, because they don’t know the right words, or because they can’t get the words from inside their head to the page. Mark Twain criticized James Fenimore Cooper for his poor writing in the “Leatherstocking Tales.” Those are rules I can follow, that others can’t:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

There are 11 other rules in the essay too, but there are the ones I’m writing about now. “Writing short” requires focus: figure out what’s most important about the subject of the piece, and say just that, quickly. It’s what editors do in newspapers and online, when trying to get you to read their content (I haven’t been on Fark in a long time, but I know they used to pick the version of a story submitted by the person who had the best headline). Yes, the headline itself is a short version of an article, one designed not necessarily to deliver the information, but to get you to spend time and possibly money reading the entire story.

There’s also TV and radio news, where writers consolidate an entire newspaper article or even a piece put together by an on-camera reporter into a paragraph. Try this exercise: Watch the 11 p.m. news one night, and look for the big story, the one a local reporter is on camera taking about. Then watch the 6 a.m. news the very next morning. That same story will probably be there, using a lot of the same video, but simplified, shortened to just the key pieces of information.

A short news story like that, one the anchor reads while you the viewer looks at scenes of people doing something, or terrible destruction (house fires, say), is a paragraph of text, about 20 seconds long while reading it out loud. You have to tell people what happened and what its long-term effects are, all in 20 seconds. It can be done, by writers who know how to write short.

That’s one of the skills I can offer my clients, using “the right word” and not extra stuff. I talked about it a little bit on my revised LinkedIn page, and I’m spreading the word everywhere else I write too.

Also, my occasional series on the Kalamazoo Can-Do Kitchen and its graduates continues this month with features on two businesses in Greater Kalamazoo Women’s Lifestyle magazine.

Writing Niches

The goal for me is to highlight my writing niches — the things I specialize in when I’m putting together articles, blog posts, marketing material and the like. There’s a bit of a Catch-22 here, where publications and potential clients want to see your writing in their niche, but you can’t produce writing until you get a gig from a client. You can write for free, but that defeats the purpose of a lot of writing. You’re writing to earn money from your talent, and there’s no shame in that.

You can't get a job without experience... and you can't get experience without a job.

The book that keeps on giving.

 

But I’m not starting from scratch. I have been writing for a while, and plenty of my work is here on my site. The next step is to increase the number of publications and clients available to me, and for that I’ll need to network, build those relationships. This also is not a good way to bring in cash quickly, as you need time to build up the relationships, you need to provide help to people without expecting anything in return. Networking meetings are one option, though I’m not sure how they’re supposed to work:

  1. The free ones are a get together over drinks, where you wander around and trade business cards. Everyone there wants a job, and everyone else knows it, but you can’t come right out and beg for a job. You’re there to “meet people.”
  2. The paid ones are extremely expensive, limited to one person per industry, and (at least based on the times I’ve been to those meetings as a guest), a time to socialize (aka “meet people”). There never seems to be people actually giving one another leads. I’m not sure what they’re paying for. It’s like a fraternity, with less hazing and more coffee.

Thanks to the internet there’s also passive networking via forum posting and podcasts (and blogs, as long as they’re regularly updated).  Time to concentrate on my niches, and “meet people.”

Buyer Personas: Values & Fears

What do my customers want and what are they worried about?

Values

A value isn’t the same thing as a goal for a client.  A value is what’s important in general, not a specific thing that the client wants to accomplish. Think of adjectives (dependable, open-minded, passionate). So what are my buyers looking for?

Reliability: They want a writer who can say something consistently. Having material to work with, like a document written by a client, is a great way to get even more material written (because you can spend less time preparing). At the same time, you want a client who is reliable, and offer works (and payment!) regularly.

Creativity: Some clients want you to rewrite their material, put in what they ask and nothing more. In that case you’re of a typist or transcriber than a writer (though sometimes a phrase is just not workable at all). A lot of times, though, you get to decide how to say what’s being said.

Communicative: I have worked in a grocery store as a clerk, and in a financial services business as an agent. Totally different tasks and activities. In each job, though, you have to talk to someone. A lot more people as a store clerk (all those customers and co-workers, managers) than as an agent associate (maybe the help desk, and the agent who assigns responsibilities).

Fears

“Fears” is an exaggeration. I don’t think people are necessarily afraid of anything in the business world (except not making any money), so it’s probably better to call it “hesitations.” That’s more realistic — it’s the things that keep them from trying new things in their business, hiring new people, launching new products. The big two are:

Hesitation of Loss: No one wants to lose money. Starting a new venture can be risky, and there’s no end to the research available about the best ways to offer a product or service, down to the best font to use on a blog post. The way to overcome that hesitation is by offering something, having a track record. If you have no track record, but people won’t try you without a track record… well, that Catch-22 is the eternal question.

Hesitation of Approval: It’s wise to consult different sources when getting ready to take action, like experts in the field, family and friends. The hesitation there is in whose opinion matters. Can a writer overcome this hesitation? Not directly, but finding research that supports the writer’s contributions to the project means the writer ends up with more contributions to the project.