Have you ever wondered about the back story when you see ho-hum articles in great publications? Have you ever scratched your head trying to figure out how someone who clearly lacks your level of talent is out-earning you?
I’d like to think that I’m a half-decent writer. People don’t often insult my writing and some even say they like it. That could stem from a combination my good luck and their good manners, though. I know that I string together sentences better than most people, I can churn out a quickie keyword article that’s better than 99.76% of what one usually encounters and that I can pen some ass-kicking sales copy when I really, really, really work hard.
But am I a good writer? Who knows? I have my moments, but I can’t say that makes me a truly great writer.
I do know that GMAC hasn’t repossessed the car and that my kids have clothes that fit. I know that I manage to indulge my love of a good medium-rare porterhouse a little more often than is necessary. I don’t get a queasy feeling when they run my card or check for groceries through the little scanner thing at the store. We take a vacation. We keep a few billion channels worth of cable television. We cover prescriptions and co-pays, never really worry about next month and occasionally spoil ourselves and our children with things that no one really needs. The numbers are, quite frankly, pretty good.
That means I’m a “professional.” I make a living and most of that living is either a direct offshoot of my writing or stems from things I’ve learned as a writer.
I also know that isn’t really evidence of writing talent.
I know that many of you are very good writers. I know that some of you think you’re good, even if you’re not. Some of you may not be sure if you’re any good but you’re making a wholehearted effort to get better.
And that’s why it pains me to share one other thing that I do know.
Your ability to write well may have very little to do with whether or not you’re going to make any money in this racket.
We all like to talk about quality, skill and art. We sell it to clients. We pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t produce crap and we have this little part of us that believes that our talents with words will be the reason we succeed.
I don’t think that’s really true, though. Writing talent is a plus, but it isn‘t necessarily a key determinant of success.
Even if your words are lightning from the mountaintop, you can’t count on them escorting you to the bank with regular deposits.
There’s a quality threshold one must meet, of course. You can’t hope to make a mint if you write like a D+ junior high English student. You need to have a basic command of things. You need to be good enough, but not necessarily good.
Beyond that, talent is gravy.
Every once in awhile, someone will tell you that they hired you because they just love the way you write. More often than not, they’ll tell you that they appreciate your quick responses, your ability to meet deadlines, your understanding of their needs, your ability to accurately communicate the appropriate message or something else that has very little to do with that glorious, poetic third paragraph.
You don’t even get any of that feedback if you don’t first roll up your sleeves and figure out a good way to find work. You don’t get any of it unless you actually make a habit of doing the work after you do secure it. No one can love your responsiveness if you don’t respond. No one can love your punctuality if you’re late.
I’ve asked scores of people who regularly pay for freelance writing in a number of different markets about this. “What makes you happy? What do you want?”
Great writing usually shows up on their lists but it rarely snags the top position. In some cases, it doesn’t show up at all–and that’s true of serious clients with money to spend, not just low-ballers looking for good bulk deals.
Maybe the quality of the writing is subliminally influencing their decision making and they’re just not aware of the way it toys with their subconscious minds. That’s a pleasant thought for those who do consider themselves exceptional writers. However, I’m willing to bet that most buyers will opt for more workmanlike text from a reliable, consistent, business-smart provider than they will for a unpredictable genius.
I’m not saying that you should stop refining your craft. Being a literary bad-ass can only help you. Plus, creating truly wonderful stuff brings its own intrinsic rewards. When you’re good and it’s obvious, you have something to sell that others don’t.
Just don’t assume that your talent will pay off on its own. As much as we might like to see ourselves as cousins in the family of fine artists, freelance writing is, first and foremost, business. Your professional development in areas unrelated to the avoidance of split infinitives and dangling participles will have a massive impact on your ability to make a living.
That means you need to spend time understanding client motivations and needs. You need to get a handle on the time management thing. Become a marketing wizard. Learn how to speak your clients’ language. Develop efficient systems. Explore new developments. Master new technologies. Own the business side of this whole thing.
Being an expert writer is awesome. Being an expert in the business of freelance writing pays the bills.
I could be wrong. It happens. I was fairly convinced that Bert Blyleven would make the Hall of Fame before Jim Rice and that cherry Dr. Pepper would actually taste good, after all. What do you think? Is great writing talent of secondary importance when it comes to making a living or is it a trump card?