Chopping the Copywriting and Creative Writing Salad

Copywriters that have a clearly defined niche—”I write sales letters for mid-tier businesses selling nuclear-powered rabbits”—are both constrained by their choices and freed by them. They are constrained in that they may have always dreamed of writing sales letters for nuclear-powered goat companies, but instead they are known as the rabbit guy, and thus they don’t want to dilute their focused offering, and potentially blur the boundaries of their defined space.

However, they are freed from casting their “I-need-new-work” lines in the thistle-tangled fields of businesses small, medium and large, who might peddle soap made from recycled comic books, or tongue scrapers for denture wearers. Generalist copywriters tend to a casual work garden of mingled (and sometimes flopping) stalks, colors and scents, while the specialist might have a sturdy monocrop of clients and cutoff dates.

You might guess that I’m a generalist.

The 360-degree Rotating Exorcist Head
I’ve thought about trying to restrain my 360-degree rotating Exorcist head (minus green spewings) of writing endeavors, but it’s just not my nature. While I can admire the ferocity of focus some copywriters employ, I can’t join their ranks—I don’t think I could breathe. And, genial bigot that I am, I have to sing the praises of the generalist’s keys, because polymath writing pursuits are inherently interesting for their variety. This month alone, to wit:

  • I finished an article for Fine Books and Collections magazine on the makers of exquisite and zany handmade books, touring the U.S. in their gypsy wagon.
  • Finished editing a book on social media for nonprofits.
  • Edited the first in a series of short books on Nonverbal Communication in Dentistry.
  • Wrote logo taglines suggestions for a home design and remodel company, and begin writing their brochure copy.
  • Discussed writing “replies” for a company that’s developed an advanced virtual personal assistant chatbox app; the replies will cover the branching potentials for suggested questions that users might want answered.
  • In discussion with a company that needs someone to update the documentation for the new version of its novel-writing software.
  • Am writing my two monthly articles (a recurring gig) for the Airstreamer, Airstream’s email newsletter.
  • Sending out queries for a variety of articles, many of them travel-related (though a few are about whiskey and one about old cars).
  • Sending out short older short stories of mine to some lit magazines.
  • Berating myself for pausing in what had been a steady (and productive!) half-hour of writing per day on my novel, having used Thanksgiving and then Christmas and then my father’s death for an excuse for not doing the work. Get after it, man!

Building Expertise, by the Paragraph and by the Project
Now, I have varying degrees of expertise in the areas above, but having written and edited nonfiction books, having written question-and-response dialog for software products, having written a novel (unpublished), having written travel pieces, having written brochures, heck, having written lots of grocery lists, I’m confident I can deliver what each organization needs, granting the many iterations of review and rewrite that some projects necessitate. For many writers like me, once you write website copy for a company, they may call you later to write headlines for an ad.

You might not have written headlines for ads before, but the good generalist will always pipe up with a merry “Yes!” when asked about their ability to write a heady headline. Many fundamental writing skills translate across boundaries—cross-writing is often more comfortable than cross-dressing. (High-heeled pumps just don’t work well with my size 13s.) So, if you are breaking in to the copywriter’s fold, and you’re thinking that you could write sales letters not only for the nuked goats and rabbits, but perhaps for radium-isotope gerbils too—go for it. Next thing you know, you’re a reptiles-with-battery packs specialist too.

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8 thoughts on “Chopping the Copywriting and Creative Writing Salad

  1. I believe in specialists, really I do. I just can’t be one. Not even in music; country, rock, Arabic trance, German drinking songs, Irish folk songs. Can’t do it with my writing, and I can barely do it with my work, but this woman who lives with me keeps saying “That’s not what you said you were gonna do . . . ” and she’s so pleasant about it that I cave.

  2. Ah, so many points to ponder and reply to:

    -Your unpublished novel met my criteria for excellence- I cared deeply about the characters. Except the ones that played the music insanely loud in their van, but I was supposed to dislike them, right?

    -“books on Nonverbal Communication in Dentistry”- do tell us more! Having mastered DISC and even stepped into the alchemic realm of NLP a bit, I’m quite curious.

    I’m with you and Joel, feeling that the working life of the generalist is often richer due to the simple fact of the variety.

  3. I laughed! I cried! I rejoiced to be a card-carrying member of Generalists Anonymous!

    One more little tidbit about niche writing: I lost a huge part of my business a few years back because I specialized in an area that was easily dispatched to writers in other countries willing to create poor documentation for a pittance.

    Never again!

  4. Joel, considering all those voices, er musical types you hear in your head, it’s a wonder you can even drive. But yes, I like a simple meal as well as the next man, but not consistently. Sometimes you want the panoply of the larded table, all the spiced appetizers, the sides, the delectable sauces. So while I continue winging metaphors like ninja shurikens, I’ll put it straight: Variety. Dig it.

  5. Rick, I appreciate your comments on the novel. And I appreciate your promise to buy the first 100,000 copies. I will start signing now. Actually, I am closer to some form of electronic publishing on it (Smashwords?), but as with the multiple projects I’m juggling, it’s just another chainsaw.

    As for the dental books, maybe I have your regular email address wrong—I sent you a message about them, but it may have gone into the mouth of the ether. Perhaps you can be a reviewer—I know you’d be interested in the content. I’ll try your Triiibes email…

  6. Michael, good man, thanks for stopping by! Yes, I am horrified at the “how low can you go” contracting trade these days, where you see on places like Elance people willing to write 500-word articles for $3. But I’m glad to know that you and I sing in the same generalist’s choir, and are happy to pick up low, high and medium notes in our work. (Though I don’t always sing in tune.)

    I’ll be in touch, T.

  7. So much fun stuff here, Tom. Curious about the before and after of the nonprofit social media book. Also, enjoyed the Airstreamer piece; tried “Hey Cupcake” as a pickup line with my wife…

  8. Hey Tom, thanks for strolling through. Not sure what you mean by the “before and after”—the book actually hasn’t been published yet, so there isn’t an “after” in that sense. If you mean the give and take that takes place with editing such a book, it’s an iterative process of handoffs, where I put in definitive corrections (typos, factual errors), but also many questions on the intent of a passage, and suggested rephrasings of sentences. So there’s a fair amount of back-and-forth. Is that what you’re asking?

    “Hey Cupcake” sounds like a frisky line to me, but you probably shouldn’t try it on your local cashier or the mailperson.

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