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How to Break into Corporate Writing

If you think this type of work isn’t for you, think again. Businesses offer some of the most rewarding, creative and lucrative freelance gigs available today. (Really.) by I.J. Schecter

There are a lot of very smart people in business today; there are not a lot of good writers. Couple this with the fact that companies need to produce more words, via a greater number of channels, than ever before, and you quickly come to realize that the corporate landscape is rife with opportunity for those who know how to communicate, you know, good.

Oh, oh—I can hear the murmurs already. All right, before we go any further, allow me to dispel three all-too-frequent demurrals I hear about corporate writing.

CORPORATE WRITING ISN’T “REAL” WRITING. A few weeks ago, one of my clients, an executive for a financial services firm, asked me to write a hypothetical story about a working mom. The purpose of the story was to show how hard the typical mom works to succeed in her career, raise her kids, maintain a healthy marriage and still get home in time to make dinner. This executive, you see, wanted to pitch to her senior committee an idea for a new credit card tailored specifically to working moms, and this story was to be the opener for her presentation. My assignment, in other words—a corporate assignment, remember—was basically to write a short story.

When someone asks if you’ll write the copy for a marketing brochure, that’s a writing job. When a contact asks if you can write the presentation script for a conference, that’s a writing job. When he tells you the product proposal he has drafted is a dog’s breakfast and he needs a writer to fix it, that’s a writing job.

You know how I can tell these are all writing jobs? First, the word “writing” or “writer” is in all of them. Second, nonwriters can’t do them. Third, they have only one requirement: to put together words in a compelling way. Damned if that doesn’t define writing.

My attitude is this: Anytime someone comes to me with a corporate writing gig, I’m essentially being asked to tell a story as well as it can be told. That story might be, “Here’s why you should buy our product, customers between 29 and 45.” It might be, “Here’s why you should give me a ginormous budget to run this initiative, Oh President of the Division.” It might be, “Hey, average investor, here’s why the economy is rebounding—no, honestly.”

They’re coming to me because, no matter the story they need to tell, they think I can help them tell it better than anyone else. My profession is storytelling, and it runs across many different contexts, so it makes perfect sense to me when I receive such requests. When my son asks me to read him one of my own stories at bedtime, my heart swells. When a senior executive at a multinational conglomerate asks me to write some marketing copy for him, I may not turn into a puddle, but I’m just as flattered, and it’s no less real.

CORPORATE WRITING IS SELLING OUT. We writers spend half of our lives answering the question, “Can you really make a living doing that?” I make a living doing it, in large part because of the network of corporate clients I’ve developed over the years, and I’ll be honest: I love it when cousin whatshisname the investment broker asks me if one can make a living writing, and I get to say, “Yep.”

Selling out? Hardly. Maximizing my skills in a variety of different ways? Definitely.

CORPORATE WRITING WILL UNDERMINE THE ARTIST IN ME. Follow my logic, and tell me if it goes off the rails: You’re a writer, so you enjoy writing. You’re naturally better at it than most others. Writing is a skill, and it’s also an art. It produces great literature, fascinating historical accounts, important texts and persuasive marketing brochures. If you’ve worked hard to develop your writing skills, they’re transferable from one area to the next and immediately make you a versatile and valuable resource. So, while writing haiku may give you the biggest lift, why not also use your talent to make a little coin? Is the artist in you going to balk at the check you receive for writing the CEO’s keynote at the annual gala? If so, the two of you need to have a little talk.

Test the waters.
OK. We’ve established (I hope) that there’s no reason not to pursue corporate writing, and that it can be a lucrative, gratifying, fun part of your career. So how do you get your foot in the door? Glad you asked.

There are plenty of fish in the sea, as the saying goes. When it comes to corporate writing, that’s never been truer than it is today. The fragile economy’s corporate downsizing is, in an odd way, a boon for freelance and contract writers. Why? Because the fewer people those companies have around who can put a decent sentence together, the greater their need to seek outside help.

Your job, then, is to let them know who you are and how you can help save them from their own rampant incoherence (though of course you’re going to say it a little more tactfully than that). There are a number of specific things you can do to make this happen.

Get your gear.
Before you say boo to anyone, you need to undertake a few steps to establish yourself as a freelance professional, as distinct from an author or journalist. The junior associate tapped to find a writer for the new company website isn’t concerned with whether or not you’ve been published in The Fiddlehead; she just wants to know if you can write snappy copy, thereby making her look good. Which means you need four things: a business card, matching letterhead, and a website and proprietary domain.

Your business card, which you will attach to every piece of correspondence you send out, needs to have either your name or the name of your entity. When you take on corporate gigs, you are not the devoted short-story writer who occasionally writes marketing copy. Just as the author in you must be 100-percent committed to his side of the overall pursuit, the corporate writer must be likewise devoted. These two creatures occupying the same body have no productive reason to overlap. In other words, your business card should not say “The Wizard of Words,” “The Write Stuff” or anything of the sort. It should say “Moore Communications,” or “The Business Writing Expert” or, as in my case, simply “Writer.”

Your website—and you do need one (this is a non-negotiable point)—should be simple and direct, letting prospective clients know about your credentials and the kind of writing you can provide. Need examples? Just do an Internet search for other freelance writers’ sites; you’ll quickly get a feel for what works.

Purchase a Web domain that (ideally) matches your name or the name of your business entity exactly. Do not engage in correspondence with prospects using a third-party common e-mail provider like Hotmail, Gmail or the like. My e-mails with clients or anyone else in the corporate world are sent exclusively through

Prepare your lure.
Once you’ve got your business cards and letterhead printed, your domain registered and your website set up, it’s time to draft an introductory letter to the sorts of companies you want to approach. But before you start fishing for clients, you need to decide what you want to catch. Trout from your local lake? A majestic ocean swordfish? Or are you just looking to fill your hold with anything that has gills?

Your target clients will depend in part on your background. If you’ve been a lawyer for 20 years and you’re now going to try your hand at professional writing, law firms are a logical place to start. If you’ve volunteered extensively in hospitals, you could impress medical firms with your familiarity with their subject matter and the industry lingo. If you don’t have any readily transferable expertise of this nature, that’s OK, too: There’s nothing wrong with being a generalist. In that case, your best strategy will be to start with small or local businesses, then work your way up.

Once you’ve identified who you’re targeting, draft a template for a one-page letter that will serve as your introduction to the corporate world. The goal of this letter mirrors that of your website: to let potential clients know you’re out there, to tell them about yourself and to say a little about the kinds of corporate writing you can do. The letter, printed on your own letterhead, simply does this in a proactive way. (Note: proactive—a very corporate word. Learn to love them.) Mention any relevant expertise or general experience with the subject of the business and/or with various types of corporate materials, from white papers to speeches, brochures to annual reports, case studies to buckslips.

If you don’t yet have expertise in any areas that seem directly applicable to corporate writing, don’t worry about it—just emphasize your overall writing or communications skills and experience. Businesses simply are looking for people who can take information and convey it well, just as when they hire employees they’re usually looking for smart people who demonstrate an ability to adapt to their environment more than people who have specific experience in a particular realm. If you have applicable credentials, note them. If not, that’s OK, too.

When you’ve got your letter drafted, compile a list of companies you plan to approach. First and foremost, tap your personal network any way you can. Word-of-mouth recommendations and personal relationships can be some of the best ways to get your foot in the door. Don’t let this discourage you: Nearly everyone you know works somewhere, right? Start your list there, and don’t be shy about distributing your letter to existing contacts.

A good next step is to contact your chamber of commerce to request a list of local businesses. When you’re going local, there’s also the old-fashioned way of finding and approaching potential clients: walking in and dropping off your introductory materials in person. It really does work. Finally, conduct simple Internet searches for the types of businesses you’re looking to target. The more lines you cast, the better your chances of getting a bite.

Practice fishing.
No doubt you have umpteen friends in the corporate world. Ask them to sneak home as many samples as they can of the internal and external materials their companies produce. Anything will do, from 50-slide PowerPoint presentations to one-page memos.

Getting a look at these materials helps you in three ways. First, it gives you a chance to assess the general quality of that company’s communications. Second, it gives you the opportunity to see how much you can improve on them. Third, it offers you a glimpse into the consistency of the company’s brand. A number of organizations produce individual pieces that stand on their own respectably enough, but a surprising few have taken the time to put in place an overall branding or communications program that enforces a consistent voice and style. That’s where you come in.

While you don’t want to divulge having seen a firm’s propriety materials, you can make indirect reference to what you’ve learned from reviewing them. Say your friend showed you a marketing brochure the company produced for its last big product launch, and you thought the writing was awful. Chances are someone inside the company thinks so, too. Alluding specifically to your experience with, or interest in, writing marketing brochures might cause the proverbial bulb to light up over the right person’s head.

Use the proper bait.
You’re now in business; therefore, you need to give potential clients as many reasons as possible to name you as their vendor of choice.

Your hourly rate, for example, can vary slightly depending on the prospect you’re trying to woo. There’s a $30 range between my lowest hourly rate and my highest. The level at which I set my rate for a given client is a function of the size of the company, the size of the project, the difficulty of the work, the timeline surrounding it and any other factors that present themselves.

I do several other things to stand out to clients. For instance, in my standard agreement, I include two rounds of back-and-forth revision to whatever extent the client deems necessary. I also cap every one of my quotes: If I tell you it’s going to be $800, it’s going to be $800 and not a penny more, provided we stay within the two editing rounds. Clients love this because they don’t have to live in fear of being charged for extra hours. I also guarantee, in writing, that I’ll hit the deadline. Sounds obvious, I know—but you’d be surprised how many people maintain a different approach. And any edge you can get over the competition is worthwhile.

Reel in your catch.
Getting a foot in the door is one thing. Being invited to cross the threshold is another. And becoming a preferred guest is really where it’s at. How do you get a company to want your services again and again?

OVERDELIVER. Sammy Davis Jr. said he always maintained the philosophy that you give them the show of your life no matter how many people are in the crowd. Apply the same attitude to your corporate writing. The shareholder newsletter you’re being asked to edit for a few hundred bucks may not seem like a big deal on its own, but never underestimate the importance of doing a stellar job on a small piece. Perform great work for one person, and that person might refer you to half a dozen others in the organization with similar needs. Knock the ball out of the park on an assignment you think is trivial and you might find out they were giving you a trial run before pulling the trigger on that major project, which is now going to pay your bills for the next two months. Put in a few extra hours gratis to help the company get a brochure out the door in time, and you’re nothing less than golden to those on the inside. The ripple effect of doing an impressive job is always larger than you think.

Creative types can sometimes be, um, a little testy when it comes to their art. For your own good, don’t be that type. Be flexible. Be accommodating. Be pleasant to work with. Don’t nickel-and-dime. Don’t get upset when the client asks you for the third time in a week to please resend the file because he accidentally deleted it.

WRITE IT HOW THEY WANT, NOT HOW YOU WANT. It’s your job to figure out what the company wants to sound like and then to tell the story in that voice. It is not your job to tell them how to do their jobs. If they feel like trimming that sparkling line of copy you know would probably sell the product on its own, take a deep breath and say nothing.

Certain battles are obligatory, like the time my client wanted to add a random comma to the first line of a brochure I’d written, which would have created a splice and a useless piece for my portfolio. But even in such cases, tact is the watchword. Once you begin writing for corporations, you’ll be stunned at how ghastly their understanding of grammar rules can sometimes be. You must never act condescending, snappish or rude. Calmly explain why the appearance of a comma in such a spot is like the sound of nails on a chalkboard, and move on.

Attract other fish.
When you finish a project, ask the most senior person you’ve been in touch with for a testimonial. Collect these endorsements over time and categorize them according to industry, type of project and so on, so you always have them at the ready for prospective clients. Once you have a few, add a testimonials page to your website.

Also, gather samples of your pieces as you go. In your standard agreement, include a clause that stipulates you are permitted to use all or part of the assignment in your own promotional materials. This is no different than being able to include published clips when you pitch a story to a magazine. Companies will often ask you to sign nondisclosure agreements before writing anything for them. These simply mean you agree not to divulge any of their secrets or work for direct competitors while writing for them. That’s fine, but make sure you always add the clause I mentioned above so you can include the work in your own portfolio.

It’s a writer’s world. Strong communicators are worth their weight in gold. Start testing the corporate waters and see for yourself!

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