this writing life

Valuing the individual voice

One of the first things I did after jumping feet first into freelancing was sign up to receive all sorts of industry information. Regular email updates from all corners of the wide and varied copywriting world now land in my inbox each day.

Many of them are useful and I squirrel such emails away for some untold future purpose. Equally as many, however, are not. Well, I say this but of course it's not a universal truth. I'm sure plenty of people read, enjoy and learn from the content in the kind of emails I am referring to. I'm just talking of my own experience.

How to guides on SEO, top tips on writing for the web, content marketing dos and don'ts, know your buyer, sell more stuff, the list goes on. I'm not saying these things aren't important, of course they are and best practice is, after all, best practice. It's just that titles like this and the information that sits under them often leave me a little, well, cold.

Don't get me wrong. I am a professional and I know these things matter, but I sometimes feel that they fail to address one of the things I love most about being a copywriter: connecting people with words.

Many of my clients are similar to me, creative individuals who are just starting out or continuing to go it alone down their chosen paths. These people have taken a leap of faith to follow their passions and they come to me to ensure that their written voice reflects their ideals. They know what they need to say but not always how to say it. Finding the right words for them is a pleasure and a skill I am only just beginning to fully appreciate.

I consider myself lucky because writing has always come fairly naturally to me. I'm not saying it's not hard work because it most certainly can be, but finding the right words to express ideas and emotions has never troubled me all that much. And as a lover of words I think of this as a blessing. An even greater blessing, though, is affording this ability to other people, enabling them to say exactly what they want to say in a voice that rings true.

I know this is pretty basic stuff, copywriters are essentially pens for hire and honouring a client's tone of voice is a fundamental building block upon which all sorts of other technical skills must be founded. I suppose what I'm getting at is this: in the world of industry email updates that shout of buying, selling and search engine optimisation, it can be easy to lose sight of the quiet, individual voice and the value that lies in honouring it.

Pen for hire

Although I've been writing since childhood and throughout my working life, going it alone is a whole new world. It's not just the realm of self-employment and all that brings. One of the biggest challenges, I have discovered, is explaining what I do to people. Not as easy as it sounds.

I've had some practice. When employed as an internal communicator, for example, my response to "What do you do?" was met with faces equally as blank as they are now that my reply has become, "I'm a freelance copywriter." But somehow explaining my role as a writer of government communications aimed to motivate staff was easier to understand.

These days people tend to respond to my new job title with questions like, "What sort of writing do you copy?" or "Oh, you mean legal stuff? Like patents?" or simply "What's copywriting?" I say this with no judgement; why should they know? I mention it merely because as I find my freelancing feet, as I establish myself and refine what I have to offer, it seems that defining myself to others is an integral part of that process.

At the moment I work with a Holistic Massage Therapist writing copy for a blog that is at once personal, unflinchingly honest and a marketing channel with several business objectives to meet. I've just taken on a new project for Creative Director of an independent record label that aims to get more women into music, an industry that is (like so many) dominated by men. I do ad hoc work for a Bristol DJ who often needs a few words of summary for his website or various bar and club listings. I edit student essays. I blog about a documentary I'm making. I write press releases for my own and other projects. The varied list goes on.

But when people ask me to expand on what I do I generally draw for something which, although true, is fairly bland like, "Copy is writing that informs people of or persuades them to do something. It's everywhere [cue vague gesture to the nearest packaging / billboard / website] and can be anything, really. Brochures, leaflets, adverts..." By this point the person I'm talking to tends to glaze over and nod, a gesture that is less, 'I see what you mean' and more, 'I still don't get it but please stop now.'

So, what's the problem? Why this difficulty? Well, for one thing the world of copywriting is vast. If you'll excuse the hyperbole, there are almost as many different areas of work as there are copywriters. For the average dinner party conversationalist this isn't such a big deal, they're just making small talk after all. For the fresher freelancer though, it's a little more problematic because defining yourself and what you have to offer, finding your niche in an ocean of varied expertise, can be overwhelming.

But I have come to the conclusion that what I have to offer is as simple as it is effective. Me. And my pen.

I am a writer. I put words, sentences, paragraphs together. I am intuitive. I understand what makes my clients and their customers tick. I help businesses and the people they're made up of find the words they need to say what they want to say. This makes me a pen for hire. And the next time someone asks, that's what I'm going to tell them.