Thursday, 14 January 2016

How to get rid of writer's block (or, what it's like to be a professional writer)

There are all sorts of perceptions out there about what it must be like to be a professional writer in an agency environment. For example, there's the notion that we sit before our screens, and the words just flow abundantly as our fingertips dance elegantly over the keys, masterpieces flowing as our souls soar with the joy of creating the perfect on-message content. 

There's the idea that we get to imprint our creative stamp onto every piece of content, an invisible signature to our art that is so subtle as to not be obvious, but clear enough to be recognized as the work of a master (or mistress). 

There's the vision of constant creative elation as we sit, overjoyed at the magical imagery we create, telling stories in erudite ways that nobody else possibly could. 

There's the expectation that every word we write will tell a brand's story in such a way that product will fly off the shelves, making companies millions while we sit in our garrets starving and drinking cheap red wine, plying our craft for the love of it (or for the exposure). 

The reality? 'Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed onto the page.' That's according to Paul Gallico (ish). Another favourite of mine is 'Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then for a few friends, and then for money.' So said Moliere, who I've never heard of, but who really does capture the essence. 

Being a salaried writer certainly has advantages over being a freelance writer - with the most significant ones being a regular paycheque, and paid leave. There's also the absence of fear that your clients will be fickle and fire you based on a single piece that they don't like, or that they simply won't pay you, once you've worked on a Sunday morning while feeding your baby (don't laugh or cry - it's happened) to meet their crazy deadline. 

There's also the joy of being part of a team (or several teams, actually), and the tremendous satisfaction that comes with knowing that you played a pivotal role in the success of a particular campaign. With freelancing, you seldom get to see where your copy went or who did what with it - working in a public relations agency gives you the ability to keep tabs on your written children, watching them grow up into (good) news stories. 

When it comes to the actual business of writing in an agency, there's a lot to be said for the variety of topics - and for the massive boost that this gives to your general knowledge. In my four and a half years in my current job, I've written about everything from sunscreen to prepaid cards, from printers to military defense equipment, and from smoothies to student accommodation - and a whole bunch of other stuff too. There's a caveat to that though - nearly every client has their own style, preferred vocabulary and structure, and sometimes it's a challenge to switch between voices fully, within one day. 

With working across more than 20 clients at a time, you also don't get to be a specialist on any one account - although there's a great satisfaction in having an awareness of what's going on across the agency, and being able to link products and projects in a way that sets up partnerships and collaborations that gives them added impact from their communication activities. 

Another lesson you learn quickly is to park your Precious at the door, and I won't lie, it took me a long time to embrace this one, even though I really didn't think that I minded it when people made changes to my work, when I first started here. Any agency worth its salt won't let copy go to client without at least three people proofing it - and everybody has their own preferences when it comes to grammar. Often, a change made really is six of one and half a dozen of another, and it's not worth getting offended. There's a fine line to be trod, between writing what you're told to and sending out to the universe and not caring what happens to it further, and taking constructive criticism on board and never ceasing in your quest to create the perfect content. 

There are days when the words really do dance off your fingertips, and there are days when writing a 140 character tweet is like drawing blood from the proverbial stone. I haven't yet figured out how to solve the latter problem, but it often works to go completely off message (gah! agency speak!) and write something completely unrelated or irrelevant (like this blog post). It may not be very good for your deadlines, but it does help unblock the creative juices. There's also that whooshing sound of the deadline as it goes flying by that often helps to motivate, but one's colleagues generally don't take too kindly to receiving content long after it's due. 

That's all the long way of saying: being a writer for a living has its moments - good ones, bad ones, and great ones. I guess that's true of any job in a creative environment though - so if you're going to earn your living by putting your heart and soul down onto paper (or a screen) , be sure that you've got the right mix of creativity, insight, a willingness to learn, the ability to park your preconceptions, a good dose of grammar Nazism, and a clear lack of Precious. 

Make the time to understand how you fit into the teams that you work with, and find ways to make their lives easier. Never miss a deadline. If you know that that's inevitable, remember that you're in the communications business, for goodness' sake, and let them know. Find an environment that really does place a value on content and team spirit, and on the input that a writer can give to the success of a campaign or project. 

I'm one of the lucky ones - Tribeca Public Relations and I chose one another nearly five years ago, and while there were tears shed over copy in the early years, they've been few and far between in more recent times. We've grown together, and I've learned volumes about myself and my writing, and I work with an amazing group of people who really do believe that content is king. Working together as a team and applying our different skill sets, we get great results for our clients, using what I have created. What more could a writer want, really? 

1 comment:

Sandi Krige said...

Must surely be the best worded recipe for a writer - think it should be included in every writing course around the world! if you're going to earn your living by putting your heart and soul down onto paper (or a screen) , be sure that you've got the right mix of creativity, insight, a willingness to learn, the ability to park your preconceptions, a good dose of grammar Nazism, and a clear lack of Precious.