hear from writers all the time: “My title is ‘writer’ but it’s not really a writing job.” I’ve said it myself. I’ve also heard people who hire writers complain that the writers they hire want to phone it in, or think they’re too good for the client’s project. Any one of those perceptions is a red flag that the writer and project have been mismatched. The mismatch can be in project definition, hiring, or a failure of self-awareness on the part of the writer. Sometimes it’s all three.
Three distinct tasks are tangled up in writing work.
Mechanics are the foundation. Writers or not, we all learn mechanics — or should — in school. Mechanics includes grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation. It includes what a paragraph is. Since we can’t learn mechanics in isolation, we’re taught to apply the lessons to basic forms. In elementary school, we write “what I did for my summer vacation.” In middle school we prepare a book report on Johnny Tremain. In high school, we crank out five-paragraph essays on topics like “the use of Christ symbolism in Magic Mountain.” In college, we write ten-page research papers according to the standards of our major field.
Most professionals add a few more of these forms to their repertoire, for example, the grant proposal, the business memo, and the cover letter.
If your company needs a high volume of formulaic writing, offering your employees a course in basic writing skills may be a better investment than hiring professional writers.
Craft skill entails mastering text structures, forms, at an abstract level. To realize an idea as a novel, a documentary film, or a newspaper article — or as a white paper, business book, or a television commercial — the writer must apply the conventions that make the final product recognizable for what it is to the intended readers. There’s room for innovation and experimentation, but at some point the form breaks. Some craft requirements are technical and practical. There is no such thing as a 2-hour television commercial or a 1,000-word tagline. Other requirements are not so tangible. For example, sales pages use emotional language, while technical manuals typically do not. Skilled crafters concentrate on mastering the forms required for various jobs.
On these kinds of projects, hired writers offer excellent value. An executive can hire a business book ghostwriter. A content marketing manager can hire a white paper writer. The company can hire a creative team to produce blogs, product descriptions, and sales pages.
Meaning is not really a skill; it is having something to say. People with something to say either master the mechanics and the relevant craft forms, or they hire other people who have done so to write for them. The meaning may be philosophical, artistic, instructional, or informational. Jerry Garcia once said, “There are guys working in instrument shops who are much better musicians than I am; they just don’t have anything to say.”
Jerry had something to say and spent a lifetime developing the chops to say it. The rub: Artists such as he was can’t easily turn it off. When Jerry Garcia plays on someone else’s record, you know he’s there. Writers like this perform best when given creative license. They can do commercial work; only this kind of writer will make a top-notch ad person, for example. They will happily lend their craft skills to well-scoped projects. There is likely to be a clash, however, if you engage this kind of writer to clean up other people’s grammar or sloppy thinking.
If you have something to say but lack the skills to say it, decide whether you are – or can become – an adequate writer for the text. If you cannot, delegate to a writer. If you can, hire a teacher, a coach, or an editor instead. Also, consider whether you do have anything to say. Maybe you need to purchase content rather than create it.
Trouble arises when people confuse these facets of writing. The client blames the “arrogant” writer; the writer blames the “cheap” or “disrespectful” client. One of my clients handed me a case study to rewrite. The subject was how a company was capturing waste methane gas and using it to generate electricity. The piece read like a mystery novel. The previous writer, I suspect, was not a prima donna who refused to suppress his creativity to serve the client; most likely, this writer lacked craft expertise in case-study writing.
A common source of frustration among writers is being asked to “polish” work created by managers or subject matter experts. The assignment, to improve the mechanics of the writing, doesn’t match what’s really needed: the author of the piece has not applied the proper structure to the work or, worse, has completely failed to articulate the meaning he or she wants to convey.
The most dreadful moments in any commercial writer’s career come when an “editing” assignment arrives and it is impossible figure out what the person is trying to say. In these cases, the authors need either a ghostwriter to draw out the ideas and write in the author’s voice, a delegated writer who owns the project but publishes under the author’s byline, or writing instruction.
Writers: Know your strengths as well as your interests, and get clear on what you will be expected to do. Are you a synthesizer of information, a formulator or ideas, or an organizer of data? Do you excel at interviewing people to gain your own understanding, like a journalist or scholar? Are you more adept at helping people articulate their thoughts, like a coach? Or do you have the skill to do both, like a psychotherapist who diagnoses, intervenes, and guides? Are you a perfectionist? Will it drive you crazy to “edit” material that doesn’t meet your standards for logic?
If you need a writer: Use the right selection criteria. For your Web project, a Web content writer who has not worked in your industry may be a better choice than someone in your industry who has never written Web content. A senior-level author may, paradoxically, have a harder time than a less experienced one churning out a quick article with no context. If you need someone to create “the voice” of your company, hire someone with samples that demonstrate an original style or point of view.
Whether you are taking on a writing project or hiring someone to join one, ask, “Does this project need a language mechanic, a text crafter, or an author?”