WANTED: Accomplished career ballet dancer with at least two years of experience in the professional nut-cracking industry. An employment history with Planters is preferred.
This is what most online advertisements for freelance writing opportunities look like to me. The client would like not only a professional writer with the skill and creativity to bring their product or service to life in a way that they and their coworkers are unable to achieve, but they would also like that writer to have already spent years working in that industry.
On the surface, it’s an understandable notion. Of course the ideal candidate would already be an accomplished professional in both fields. The perfect actor to play a superhero would also already possess and have spent life living with super powers. Instead, we just have to find someone who looks and sounds like they might.
The problem is when the potential client believes the ideal to be a necessity.
Most professional crane operators aren’t also professional writers, nor vice versa. And when that hypothetical superstar responds to this to prove me wrong, I’ll ask them if they’re willing to write a 2,000-word trade magazine article for $35. It’s just an unrealistic expectation.
So what is a client in a specialized industry to do if they need something informed but appealing written? Well, they really have one of two choices: 1) They could try to hire someone who already works professionally in that specialized field to write something well enough that it meets their needs; or 2) they could hire a professional writer to learn the specialized information well enough to write an informed piece.
By the time a client’s post hits the freelance job board, I’m assuming they ahve already at least considered, and perhaps tried, the first option and determined it wasn’t going to work out that way. That’s not to say that it never can; it’s just to say that the first option may not be available to this particular client at this particular time.
Thus, they find themselves facing the second option, and we find them desperately hoping that some writer who just happened to retire from that exact same specialized industry will see that posting and feel compelled to do the job for the price they’re offering.
What they usually find instead is me. I’m currently a freelance commercial writer who doesn’t specialize yet in writing about any particular professional field. I do have some specialized knowledge and experience in a few different areas that I picked up from previous schooling, jobs, or training, but I tend not to limit my writing to only those areas. In fact, if you’re hearing from me on a freelancing job site, you can probably go ahead and consider me an uninformed, inexperienced writer in your specialization.
So, why am I even discussing this or considering it for myself when the client clearly wants someone who is already intimately familiar with their industry? Because the client probably doesn’t actually need what they think they do. And, even it they did, it probably either doesn’t exist, isn’t available, or isn’t interested in being hired for their task.
It’s not that I have some irrational level of unwarranted confidence in myself to master all realms of specialized knowledge to a degree of mastery. It’s just that I’ve been convinced that what’s necessary to know in order to write effective copy is often possible to learn. It’s not a faith in myself at all, but a recognition of those who’ve gone before me.
Earlier this year I attended a few discussions on commercial freelance writing at a local book and author conference. The freelance writers who were kind enough to share their experiences in the craft shared a virtual treasure trove of information, but some of the most shocking to me among it was that many of them didn’t start out with even the slightest bit of experience or knowledge in the areas in which they currently focused their writing.
One woman had been recommended through word-of-mouth to write for a friend of a friend about the funeral industry. She shared that, at the time, she didn’t know the slightest thing about the industry and really had nothing of her own, aside from her ability as a wordsmith, to contribute. Still, she went on from there to become one of the most popular and respected voices in funeral industry trade publications and advertising materials.
One of the other women admitted that she’d kept her active portfolio slightly more varied, but was quick to point out that she’d started out in and primarily relied on a very similar situation. In her case, the core of her success had been formed and sustained writing promotional content for the sales of bulldozers and other heavy equipment, again a field in which she’d started without even a basic level of knowledge.
Both women laughed and joked about how little connection they’d started out with relating to the industries around which they’d built their freelance writing careers. I left the writing conference and went on to discover the exact same sentiments in seminal freelance writing books like The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman and The 30-Second Commute by Stephanie Dickison.
Armed with a confidence inspired by these testimonials, I dove headfirst into opportunities to write for niche industries with which I was not already familiar. I relished the challenge of the obscure and complex. I wrote nationally published trade magazine articles on corpse discovery area clean-up services and on gold prospecting and mining in the state of Wisconsin.
I was also able to “hang with the big dogs” in professional areas in which I knew that some writers were starting out with specialized knowledge and I was not. I wrote web and marketing/promotional content for digital/graphic design and financial planning companies. I wrote travel guides, dog blogs, and relationship advice. I ran the local library out of books on geology, arcane philosophies, and economic strategies. I filled my browser with folders of bookmarks to information on dietary trends and contemporary arts movements.
When possible, I also worked in areas in which I did have some previous knowledge. My experience as an intelligence professional with the government helped land me an assignment writing about national security law, and some education and test preparation clients had been impressed with my experience in areas related to theirs. In the end, though, while my undergraduate degree in Audiology would probably save a little time and effort on my end if I were tasked with writing an article on hearing aids, I know the final product would look no different to a client than if I learned the information specifically for their article.
The bottom line, really, is that a good freelance commercial writer has the ability to effectively research and write about topics with which they may have no previous experience. Sure, it would be nice if a master electrician was willing and able to weave together some hypnotic prose at market cost for your light bulb brochure, but it’s not necessary to require that person.
Previous specialized experience and knowledge offer no guarantee that a particular freelancer is the best person to express a client’s vision, message, or brand to potential customers. That is more closely related to a freelancer’s writing abilities, research skills, and work ethic. A more accurate testament is contained in the scope and quality of the freelancer’s portfolio, not in the years they spent as a non-writer in another industry.