It’s been a while since I’ve shown my face at DIY MFA, and that is because I have been full-time, honest-to-Zeus employed – as a writer. No, I’m not getting paid to spin tales of whimsy and fantasy (yet). I’m a content writer and editor for a small business in San Diego. Switching gears to business writing was tough, but I have learned a lot.
What kind of content writing do content writers actually write? (Say that five times fast). Sales Proposals, Client Reports, Business Letters, Flyers, Press Releases, Newsletters, Feature Articles, Informative Video Scripts, Ghostwriting of Nonfiction Books, Synonyms and Grammar for People Who Don’t Know How to Use Google
I’ll make a long story short: here are the two most valuable lessons from the world of business for any kind of writer.
Story is King
This seems counter-intuitive when you think about business writing, but it’s as true in the corporate world as it is with your favorite novel. Readers don’t want to be bored. Reading a proposal is about as fun as having a migraine at a bounce house, but if a client has a reason to want to read it, he or she will be much more likely to look favorably upon your proposal, as opposed to the MILLIONS of other options they have. The same hold true for readers.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is an actual, fiction-form story in a proposal. Clients can sniff out that kind of contrived fakery in a second. But any story–in business writing, poetry or fiction– can engage a reader by being well-organized, humorous and human.
Just like your high school English papers, the flow and organization of thoughts has to make sense. If you’re going chronologically, great. Stick with that. If you’re going from big idea to specific, perfect. But if you begin by talking about a hugely metaphorical whale-hunting voyage, and then suddenly decide you’re going to write a book about marine mammal anatomy, you’ve already lost your reader. Write two different books (or articles) if you have to – just don’t force an arranged marriage on two different stories. Repeat after me the mantra: Beginning, Middle, End.
The Humor Play
Even those stuffy white shirts like a good chortle now and then. The best way to do that is to showcase your business’ unique voice – or the unique voice of the main character.
When I was tasked with coming up with a flyer showcasing a SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley Act) confidential hotline for workplace misconduct, I knew the content was probably going to be as serious as you can get. So I made the sub-headers more fun and eye-catching:
Looking for SOX?
(obligatory boring content)
We’ve got SOX!
(more boring content)
Call to get SOX today.
You see what I did there?
A unique voice showcases the vibrant personalities of the characters and narrator. Which brings me to my last point –
The Human Story
Give readers and clients someone to root for. I am talking about both your characters and you as an author. At the company I work for, we gather case studies of happy clients who love our brand. The implication is simple – This could be you.
The other thing you want to do is reveal truths about the world, the character’s state of mind and you as an author. The readers must feel that they know you and are having a conversation with your work. In the business world, we do this through social media marketing – frequently posting pictures of co-workers visiting clients or doing yoga in the studio! We call this transparency.
Was that long enough? No? Alright, then here’s the second most important lesson:
You Don’t Own Your Words
It’s a bad news/good news situation. This is something that is tough for writers to understand. It’s still tough for me. Writing is a deeply personal process.
Here’s the Bad News
When you write an article for a business – unless you are a ridiculously brilliant freelancer – at some point you hand it over to someone else. They will bloody that page with red “Track Changes.” They will replace deleted words with words that are not nearly half as good as your own. They will tell you to start over, and over, and over, until you get it right.
Same thing is true for all other writers. Agents will tell you to scrap it and give up. Friends won’t understand it. Editors will tear your work apart with serrated teeth.
Here’s the Good News
Being open to critique and learning from others will make your writing better, whether you like it or not. Sure, right now all it looks like is that they sent your baby through the shredder, but writing is a process of creation, and creation only comes from destruction. You will emerge from the ashes a better person and author, but first you have to be in the ashes. See numbers 14 and 15.
Good News Part 2
If you don’t own your words – if you have input from editors, readers, colleagues, mentors, bosses, gods, demons, and the almighty muse – it isn’t entirely your fault if you screw up big time.
If every piece of work is a collective endeavor, it becomes less personal. The author is able to remove herself from the work without feeling overly sensitive. In fact, it makes it easier to objectively edit your work and mix and match the best words possible.
So don’t be afraid to get messy and get creative. Get feedback wherever possible, and listen to those people with experience in the industry. Also listen to people who don’t have experience in the industry – remember, they’re still your readers. Play with words. Cobble together a few different stories to make them laugh and cry. The human need for rich, wonderful story is universal, and has evolved to keep us alive. So give readers what they want, whether they’re reading an epic novel or a sales proposal.
About Rebecca Ann Jordan: Rebecca Ann Jordan is a content writer for ACI Specialty Benefits, an employee assistance company based out of San Diego. She is also a freelance editor and ghostwriter, a science fiction and fantasy author, and a published poet with a penchant for prose poems. She loves talking with authors about great stories and arguing over grammar. Visit her blog here or follow her on Twitter @piratequibbles