The beauty and challenge of working in any creative field is that there is no right answer. Almost any idea can be a great idea or a horrible idea, depending how it works out. So your success as a creative often comes down to how much your team can help you execute your ideas successfully.
My first two jobs in advertising, I found myself working for great mentors. They taught me so much about writing and about advertising in general, and made sure my ideas turned into something successful. Each mentor was extremely smart, and they would never settle for anything that wasn’t as great as it could be. They were also incredibly patient and were willing to work with me to improve my skills.
At my third job in advertising, that completely changed.
Personally, I never thought I had a preferred “writing environment” before I started writing professionally. During school, I’d almost always written at a desk in my dorm room, maybe with some music on. When I would write for personal fulfillment after graduation, same thing, except in my apartment.
I didn’t realize at the time that, though I may have chosen these environments out of convenience, they fit my writing personality. They were comfortable, generally quiet, and I could shield myself from outside interruptions. That all changed when I got my first “real” writing job and was given the little kid desk at the back of the office, against the wall.
It was - no joke - a piece of wood supported by two file cabinets.
I learned then that a professional writer doesn’t often have the luxury of choosing their work environment.
I’m seething right now.
We just got comments back from our client about a brochure we’d been working on. Actually a brochure that we’d been busting our butts on. We hadn’t had a lot of time to come up with something great, but we rallied around each other and made sure that we provided them with everything they’d asked be included - while delivering something we were very proud of.
A member of the client’s team had come in at the last minute with comments. That’s not so odd or unforgivable. It was the type of comments her gave us that were so unforgivable. It was just bad feedback.
That’s why I’m seething.
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The first article I wrote for my home town’s weekly magazine was a travel piece about Las Vegas. I’d recently gone on a trip there with a group of friends and had offered to write about it in order to get my first article published. In order to get my first byline, I was willing to throw out the old rule about what happens in Vegas staying there, obviously.
I had trouble sitting down and writing, though. Perhaps it was a way to recapture the feeling of my trip, but I ended up writing it all through the night. I was literally typing in my bed at 3 am, getting it ready for a deadline the following morning. By the time I handed it in, my eyes were red, my brain was mush and I swore to myself that I’d never wait until the last minute to write an article again.
Of course, I did the exact same thing when I wrote my next article.
Elmore Leonard was a famous novelist and one of the unique writing voices of the last 50 years in America. He rose from pulp magazines to best seller lists, and one aspect of his that was often cited for this was his authentic voice.
My favorite quote on writing from him is this: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
That should be your mantra as you write anything: web copy for your startup, a script for a TV spot, an article, your memoir.
For many years, I was a copywriter in ad agencies that specialized in pharmaceutical advertising, writing copy about prescription medicines. Outside of any feelings anyone may have about that industry, it was a great challenge for any writer to wed hardcore medical science with the soft fuzziness of marketing.
One aspect of this industry that can be hard is that every piece of marketing that goes out to consumers is heavily scrutinized by a cadre of internal experts. This is done to make sure that all the information that they put out about any medication is completely accurate and balanced, making sure that any possible side effects are clearly indicated.
So my copy was always heavily edited.
Whenever I talk to someone who wants to learn about making a career writing, I always ask them what sort of career they want. Because the truth is that while there are many, many careers that require writers who think and write creatively, not all of them call for the same kind of writing.
If someone tells me they want to write, I ask them one simple question. This is a question that I wish someone had told me when I went into advertising, because I didn’t appreciate how differences in writing styles play out in different jobs. The question is:
Do you consider yourself a wordsmith or a storyteller?