Being a content writer for hire has unique difficulties that aren’t typical of “normal” day jobs. There’s the pressure of deadlines, the constant struggle to come up with novel ways of saying things that have been said countless times before, and the distractions set forth by working from home. Sometimes you need to be fearless.
Image via Flickr by jetheriot
One common hurdle is being offered a writing assignment that’s a bit too far on the outskirts of your comfort zone. I’ll admit that my personal preferences are a bit extreme when compared to others. I’m an environmentally conscious vegetarian who believes that shopping is a cultural scourge, politics exist merely to line the pockets of the rich, and household pets are aliens that are on Earth solely to monitor human activity (lest we get too close to interstellar colonization).
You’ll guess that I often feel uncomfortable creating content that’s largely designed to sell something to the general public. For example, I may be asked to praise the wonders of the latest gas-guzzling supercar that can catapult from zero to 60 in 1.2 seconds. I drive a hybrid. Yes, I’ve traded in my hippie Prius for a large hybrid SUV, but I have a three-year-old and the Prius was getting too darn small.
Another similar experience was being asked to write about Western boots. You know, the elaborate pointy-toed kind you might see George Strait wearing. The client wanted more than just a product description — they wanted a narrative that readers can sink their teeth into like a 72-ounce steak. I think I might have a bottle of organic vegan barbecue sauce in my fridge, but that’s about the extent of my country roots.
Then there was the task of writing about competitive eating. While people in some countries struggle to obtain enough food to survive, these folks are competing against each other to gobble down the most pie. For a guy who considers a single Pepsi to be a nearly unforgivable indulgence, this is heresy.
Yes, I’ve been faced with all of these conundrums and more. So how does one do it? My first step is to remind myself that, as a writer, one of my jobs is to push myself as far as possible. If I can’t try to understand a world outside my head, how can I ever consider myself successful?
Why not plunge joyfully into the pool of the unknown? Few careers allow you to become someone different every time you punch in. What other lines of work give you the flexibility to shape a language into something useful, humorous, or beautiful? Sure, there are guidelines to every assignment you receive, but there is also an infinite number of ways you can approach your work. This is why you’re called a “creative.” You get to be creative!
It’s always possible to wryly construct an article so you get the job done without completely abandoning your sense of morality. I once wrote an article about “extreme” cuisines. It seemed that the goal behind them was to make these foods as unhealthy and meat-crammed as possible. I compromised via an introduction that began, “While some consider these foods gastric abominations that can send you straight to the hospital, others embrace the indulgence…”
Remember that some readers will actually share your viewpoint. Personally, I’ll often read “extreme food” articles just so I can shake my head and bask in the superiority of my vegetarianism. By sneaking a subtle (and humorous) barb into your content, you can voice your own opinion, entertain your readers, and still meet the client’s requirements.
A background in poetry helps. Yes, I’m one of the suckers that went and got an MFA in poetry. Poetry, however, is the writer’s equivalent of weight training. Poets create a fantasy world out of letters, a crystal city out of ideas, and take language precisely where it’s needed like you’d lead a unicorn to a trough full of candy. If you don’t have the time to get a degree in poetry, try reading a bunch of it. Take it once a day, like a vitamin.
Just as reading poetry can make you a better writer, scouring online material on the subject you’re going to write about can always prepare you. If you don’t know anything about authentic Salvadorean pupusas, the next best thing to venturing out and eating one is to read, read, read about it online. You’re being called upon as an expert, and sometimes (or most of the time) you simply need to do the research to temporarily become one. This is a far cry from “making things up.” Even if it’s short-term, you must write with authority, which requires knowledge.
As a content writer, it’s rare that you’ll be asked to write about something that’s truly controversial. But if you ever are, this is where writers must genuinely put themselves to the test. If you’ve ever taken a debate class, remember what you were taught. Tread carefully. Speak your mind, but do so respectfully. Be honest and forthcoming, but don’t put too much of your heart on your sleeve lest others dismiss your stance as coming purely from emotion. Walk the balance beam between heart and mind. Be strong.
Reminders of what’s important are key. I’ll peek in on my wife as she slumbers. I’ll watch the rise and fall of my daughter’s breathing as she sleeps. I’ll remember that, somewhere down the line, there’s a financial reward for doing what I do. Writing is my job, and as with any job on this planet, it’s not always easy.
As a final bit of advice, there’s always the option of turning down the assignment. This is one of the beautiful things about freelance copywriting. If you don’t feel like taking on a piece of writing, you don’t have to. You’ve already traded in the stability of a day job and the steady income associated with it. The least you can do is enjoy the flexibility that you’re granted from this “balancing one-footed atop an iceberg while juggling laptops” career.
Applaud your discomfort, embrace your instability, and write. Just write.
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