Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Time to Please

A popular post from January 2011

by Annette Lyon

After yesterday's inspiring and fun post from Julie, today's topic will sound downright dry. Maybe even wrong. She made some fantastic points about loving what you do and that if you aren't having fun, if you aren't writing for yourself, it'll show.

And yet.

There is a time to write to please. Learning how to do literary acrobatics can be useful and profitable.

But I'd better back up. First of all, know that I'm not talking about fiction here. Everything Julie said applies to fiction, and I say a big, "amen!" to her post.

Today I'm talking about freelance non-fiction.

While I'm a novelist, first and foremost, I make twice as much from freelance work each year as I do in royalties, split pretty evenly between editing work and other freelance writing projects. (I'd like to think some day that will change, but most writers who make a living at it earn more on non-fiction than on novels, alas.)

In this economy, the extra money has been useful. When a child comes to you with dreams in their eyes to join a school team and perform, the last thing I want to do is squelch that with, "Uh, sorry, but we can't pay for it." So I continue to wear three hats: novelist, editor, freelance writer.

With one of my first freelance writing gigs more than a decade ago, I also got one of my most valuable educations. Fortunately, the editor who'd hired me was willing to teach me (and rehire me, because I'd learned from her lesson).

I finished and sent off an article she'd requested, pleased with how it turned out. It was published with a completely different opening. Several phrases and words were changed rather dramatically. My gut reaction was annoyance; I knew full well that everything I'd written was grammatically correct and just fine.

But with a second reading, I clued in: What I'd sent in didn't match the voice of the publication. Their voice was far less formal that I'd written the piece, more like good buddies having a chat. I studied the final version and realized that if I wanted to keep writing for them, I'd have to learn to write in that voice, stat.

Writing that way was hard; their voice was so specific, and it didn't come naturally to me. (Ironically, when done right, the voice came across as easy and breezy, but each word was wrenched out of me.) But I did learn. The result: I was hired again for several other projects for about two years, when the editor changed jobs.

I was lucky; not everyone would be willing to train a newbie. I knew that. So moving forward, I studied magazines in a different way, looking for length of pieces, voice, evergreen topics, angles, the advertisers, and much more. Even if I never wanted to pitch to a particular magazine I was reading, I still tried coming up with article ideas, just for practice. And it's paid off.

Recently, the lesson of writing for an audience/boss was hammered home again, in a good way. I was hired by a company to write technical scripts. (That alone is funny to me; there's a reason I freak out when the printer fails and I cry out, "Honneeeeeey!")

They gave me two trial scripts. Before starting, I read the company's style guide, which took a couple of hours all by itself. (And whoa, what a style guide it was! SO specific on phrasing and terminology and usage . . .) I researched my tail off on the topics and worked hard on those trial scripts to make them as close to what the company was looking for as I could.

When they came back edited, a comment said, "Wow. I don't think I've ever seen a trial script so clean!"

I was promptly asked how much work I could handle a week.

Just a hunch, but I'm thinking not all their first-time writers spent as much time studying their style guide. My extra effort paid off in spades. (And helped finance some Christmas presents and several other things.)

Booyah, people.

Lesson of the day: She who reads the style guide, does her research, and turns in the copy they're looking for, comes out on top.


Raejean said...

Thanks for the article. I write non-fiction articles for a couple of websites. I know I'm a novice writer, but feel like you have to write fiction to be a "real" writer. Thanks for the validation and the advice.

What kind of education, experience and training do you need to become an editor?

Annette Lyon said...

If you have the skills, you technically don't need specific training or education--although it helps.

Showing you have the chops is what counts--and what gets referrals and continued business.

Kimberly said...

That sounds like such hard but rewarding work. What a fascinating glimpse into that side of the industry!

L.T. Elliot said...

Way to go, Annette! You ROCKED that "interview!" Smart of you to study up before sending it out because, clearly, that worked out!

Heather B. Moore said...

Great advice!

Julie Wright said...

Amen to all of this. It was a lesson hard-learned for me. I wasn't nearly as teachable as you :)

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