”He said it right.”
There’s a great scene in the season two episode of the TV show ‘The West Wing’ titled ‘Galileo’, between Sam Seaborn (the (speech)writer on the President’s staff) and Scott Tate, a NASA public affairs guy:
Sam: Who wrote this intro?
Tate: I did.
Sam: You’re from NASA Public Affairs?
Sam: You mind if I give it a polish?
Tate: Is there a problem?
Sam: No, it’s great. You mind if I change it?
Tate: I’d prefer if you didn’t.
Sam: Just the same…
Tate: The Public Affairs has cleared the text. If it’s gonna be changed, I’d prefer that the President change it.
Sam: See, that’s kind of what he pays me to do, so…
Tate: Look, I don’t want to step on your toes. You don’t want to step on mine. We’re both writers.
Sam: Yes, I suppose, if you broaden the definition to those who can’t spell.
Tate: Excuse me?
At this point President Bartlet walks in with CJ , and starts reading off the teleprompter which leads to the following:
President Bartlet: “Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which…” Whoa, boy…
Sam: How you doing, Mr. President?
President Bartlet: Who wrote this intro?
Tate: I did, sir. I’m Scott Tate from NASA Public Affairs.
President Bartlet: Scott. “Unique” means “one of a kind.” Something can’t be very unique, nor can it be extremely historic.
CJ: While we’re at it, do we have to use the word “live” twice in the first two sentences like we just cracked the technology?
CJ: We’re also broadcasting in living color, right?
President Bartlet: Sam?
President Bartlet: He’s gonna make some changes.
Tate: You’re going to clear them with me?
Sam: I doubt it. Write this: “Good morning. Eleven months ago a 1200 pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago…” Is it eighteen hours ago? We’re on the air at noon eastern.
Sam: “Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars. You, me, and 60,000 of your fellow students across the country along with astroscientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V.”
(Kudos for the ability to copy-paste the script to West Wing Transcripts, because while I do have a fairly complete recollection of most of the show’s dialogue, I probably would’ve made a couple of mistakes otherwise.)
This scene is really funny — and I have nothing against NASA’s or anyone else’s Public Affairs department (or their fictional version in a TV show) — , but it also perfectly illustrates the point I’ll be trying to make here.
Just to make sure it comes across, let’s compare again:
“Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which…”
“Good morning. Eleven months ago a 1200 pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars. You, me, and 60,000 of your fellow students across the country along with astroscientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V.”
The difference is obvious, right?
The poetry, the rhythm of the well-crafted sentence, is just rolling off our tongues and into our hearts. It works.
I’m a writer, and damn proud of it
Aaron Sorkin is a writer, and a damn good one at that. The West Wing, being a show focused on politics, and those characters who are behind the scenes (like the screenwriters) is obviously somewhat biased toward them and shines a light on their qualities.
I’m a writer as well — not as successful (or, frankly, as talented) as Aaron Sorkin, my hero Joss Whedon, or any of the brilliant writers I know and look up to, but I, too, have the privilege of “living my life inside of words”.
And I’m proud of what I do, even to the extent to assume speaking for my heroes and say that they are, too. The scene above is the kind of jab (i.e. “if you broaden the definition to those who can’t spell”) that’s a great — and funny — way of expressing that pride.
I’m saying all this because what follows may sound like an endless complaint that’s easy to dismiss with a “go and do something else”. I don’t want to do anything else. I love writing, I’m pretty good at it (that’s according to other people), and all I ask for is what’s fair.
Because, as funny as Sam’s response is to Tate’s line about “we’re both writers”, it’s also a perfect example how the overwhelming majority of businesses are regarding copywriters.
Writers (and freelance copywriters in particular) are constantly undervalued and overlooked.
Someone once told me the story of the guy who had a dripping pipe in his apartment. Not knowing what to do, he called a repairman, and when he arrived, he told the owner that he can fix the problem but asked for $2000 right away. Not wanting a flood ruining his carpets, the owner paid the money. The repairman simply reached up, and turned a knob around, and the drip stopped. “There, it’s fixed” he said, and the owner started arguing that he could’ve turned the knob himself, and save the $2000, so the repairman should give it back. The repairman simply answered: “True, but I knew which knob to turn.”
The morale of the story is of course that a lot of things can be seen as simple in retrospect, but when you’re faced with them initially, they appear complicated and out of your reach or understanding.
The freelancer market seems to be following the above principle: you, or your business, needs someone to solve a problem, and you will pay them.
It also follows the story in the way of reluctance clients seem to have when it comes to determining payment.
From Tales of a Graphic Designer
It seems to me — after spending countless hours on sites like Freelancer.com, Upwork (formerly Elance), PeoplePerHour, and the others — that writing (in most people’s minds) is something that has no value other than not having to do it yourself — and even then it’s not valued at the fraction of what your freed up time would worth.
Freelancing, in general, seems to be valued backward.
Via A. Wong
It just eludes me how does that make sense.
In the case of a regular employee you’d need to pay a bunch of extra things (health insurance, taxes, you name it). With a freelancer, you don’t pay any of this, and yet people aren’t willing to pay the stripped down amount or even a fraction of it.
On the other side, freelancers do have to deal with taxes, paying their own health insurance (which is more expensive when not covered with a package deal or government aid that businesses usually take advantage of) and other costs, while earning less money than they would if they were a regular employee.
From the RSI Community Forums
Does that seem right to you?
Fair enough, a freelancer can work with multiple clients and manage their time more freely than a full-time employee, so there’s that; but the amount of overhead of dealing with clients (not doing the work for them, but negotiating the contracts, follow-up on unpaid bills, finding new clients, and so on) takes up a lot of time — time that we could spend on doing, you know, actual work.
But I’m not here to talk about freelancing in general (even though it’d be just as interesting), but specifically about freelance writers.
From Writer’s Edit
Because this is where things get really disgusting.
We’re all writers
This seems to be the general consensus.
Unlike those with expertise in design, programming, system administration, or something similarly technical — and, apparently, sufficiently “exotic” — writers seem to be regarded as a commodity.
Well, we’re not.
Go back, and read that two quotes again. That’s what happens when you take the “we’re all writers” sentiment and poke it with a stick.
I’m in the fortunate situation that I know both how to write good marketing copy in 500 words, and how to set up and maintain a web server complete with a website and email, and I’m here to tell you that it takes a lot longer to do the former than the latter.
But while I can charge $1000 or more for the latter without anyone raising an eyebrow, I can barely get $50 for the former without people screaming at me that I’m overpriced and should get over myself (and my head out of my ass).
(I’d also like to state right here, right now that I have no problem with technical skills valued high, especially in today’s world, even if they are valued higher than it would be warranted (in my opinion) — it’s a less straightforward-appearing knowledge, and it’s also in high demand, so natural market forces are in play.)
What I’m saying is that (copy)writing is tragically undervalued, and it makes me absolutely crazy.
What’s copywriting, anyway?
While researching this article and gathering images, I came across a brilliant infographic on my current “day job” (if there’s such a thing for a freelancer — let me put it this way: the stuff I do to pay the bills, but not what I actually do with my talent), copywriting.
All six of those descriptions are very well said, but I’d like to further emphasize three of them.
“Copywriting is not just about writing, it’s about using words to make an idea come alive.”
Anybody can put words down on a piece of paper. A popular expression for this is the theory that if you gave a thousand monkeys typewriters, eventually they’d come up with the complete works of Shakespeare. As funny as that is, ever since the internet came about I think this approach has been disproven. :-P
I like this quote from ‘Person of Interest’ (yes, I’m a sci-fi geek, I watch a lot of TV shows, and I like to quote them, get over it) better, here I bolded the part that I think is important for our current purposes:
Pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and this is just the beginning; it keeps on going, forever, without ever repeating. Which means that contained within this string of decimals, is every single other number. Your birthdate, combination to your locker, your social security number, it’s all in there, somewhere. And if you convert these decimals into letters, you would have every word that ever existed in every possible combination; the first syllable you spoke as a baby, the name of your latest crush, your entire life story from beginning to end, everything we ever say or do; all of the world’s infinite possibilities rest within this one simple circle.
This is my way of saying that the mathematically finite amount of combinations language offers the possibility of brilliance springing from the randomness.
But that’s usually not how it works of course.
The difference between a good writer and someone who’s able to construct grammatically correct sentences is what that you’re paying for. Or, rather, what you should pay for, but nobody seems to be willing.
“It’s not just about selling: it’s about making people feel good about the brand.”
Copywriters are part of the marketing funnel. Thus, our ROI is not as easily calculated since you can’t draw a single line between the article and a numeral value of a sale. But without us your brand would be unknown, your sales would be random, and your business would probably fold.
From Oink Copy
I’m clearly biased, and I do understand that there are many more components to that. Writers alone can’t take credit for a brand image, nor do we want to. But it’s a foundational part of it, since using language is still the number one medium of communication, even in an age of visual impulses.
“Copywriters have to find the right words to talk to different groups of people. You have to speak their language.”
I like this one, because this is the most “practical”, and the easiest to translate into the numerical values of time and money.
Imagine how much time it takes to learn a new language. It takes a very similar effort to research and learn about an audience for a blog post or advertisement. While technically it’s obviously less time, it’s also harder, because instead of the fixed grammatical rules and vocabulary, we have to be intimately familiar with the cultural idiosynchracies and subtle, unique communication of each group we need to write for.
So we have these layers to copywriting, which seem evident when you think about them, but are in no way reflected in the apparent market value of freelance copywriters.
I use that distinction, because within a more permanent setting (even in the case of an agile agency) we’re more recognized for our constant stream of creative input — but in the case of a freelancer, this is rarely exposed, but often exploited.
But let’s go deeper, shall we? There are some things about writing that make it look simple and easy, but in fact, cover up most of its difficulties.
Writing is not flashy
The hardest thing is to make something difficult effortless. And it’s true in writing, even more so than anywhere else: if the writing is good, you don’t even think about it. It becomes a feeling that you begin to make your own, and as an extension of that you buy the product.
On the other side of the mirror, there are countless rewrites, experimentation with phrases, restless testing, and a barely visible progress.
It’s not inaccurate to say that for every thousand words that get published you write about four thousand that will never see the light of day.
Think about that, the next time you think that writing down 500 words is the same as writing a 500-word article.
”Writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
I like this phrase that’s a paraphrasing of a Thomas Edison quote. Another — and in my opinion much funnier and, frankly, accurate, but maybe that’s just me :-) — way to put it is to say that “writing is 1% inspiration, 9% hard work, and 90% trying to stay off Twitter”.
Whether jokingly or not, the writing process is not easy. Everyone has ideas, but to make them come to life (and, in our current case, make them come to life in a very particular way) is hard work.
You have to be focused. You have to be persistent. You have to deal with constant failures until you can find that right combination of words that’ll work, and then you have to discard these gems of language because at the next turn they become unusable or off-sounding.
It’s grueling work. You can’t get attached to anything until you’re done, at which point you no longer want to anyway. That’s not to say we don’t take pride in our work — just recently I wrote two articles I’m really proud of, and keep going back to re-read — but as a copywriter, we’ll never be able to take credit for it.
Which leads me to my next point.
Writing is not glamorous
It’s not. Even if in recent years writers in certain industries got a lot more recognition than they used to (particularly screenwriters and TV showrunners), when it’s part of a bigger entity (as in the case of movies, TV shows, or marketing campaigns) writers tend to fade into the background.
An audience needs to be enchanted.
The ‘suspension of disbelief’ is the lifeblood of any creative endeavor if it hopes to be successful.
The audience needs to believe that it’s the character in the movie or TV show who’s indeed that witty, and not the actor, director, or writer; that the brand they choose is the one making the impact on their lives, and not the agency who did the advertising.
(Or, in the cross-section of these two in today’s social platforms, that it’s their favorite celebrity that’s always funny/insightful/engaging/caring, and not the agency their agent — and not even them — hired.)
Even fiction writers, who — of all our wordsmithing brethren — get the most exposure, need this suspension of disbelief to a certain extent, or their stories will never be re-read, talked about, or even finished otherwise.
Once the work is done, the writer dies and the characters come to life. They cannot exist in the same time and place, otherwise the spell is broken.
Yes, when we view it less poetically, everybody knows about copy-, speech-, and scriptwriters, and all the other members of our family. But nobody should think about them because that means they’re not doing their job well.
Long story short: we’re not looking for the spotlight. We understand and accept the rules of the game, and the price we’ll pay.
But, speaking of the similarities between writers who work as a part of a longer creative process, there’s a huge difference in the credit and exposure writers receive, and how that’s translated into financial compensation — it’s a bizarre, backward situation.
Writers who are identified and recognized are earning more than those who aren’t. And not only that, but they’re more protected, too.
There are writers’ guilds, such as the Writers Guilds of America (East and West), or the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). They gather people who are writing material for the entertainment industry, provide registries to protect their works, common rules to help negotiations and protect both the writers and the other members of the long process of making a movie, TV show, or publishing a book, and — to the point of this current article — have set up a minimum price to be honored when purchasing creative works.
Copywriters, and freelancers especially don’t have that. There’s no safety net (the ones provided by the aforementioned websites are arbitrary at best) for us.
And we’re not even recognized as the authors of our own work.
Hey, I get it: we work for brands, and when we do our jobs right, there’s no place for our name. It’s part of the deal. But especially for this reason it’s unfathomable to me how can we be paid less. At least in the case of a screenwriter or novelist, they can point to their work and take credit. The best approximation that we have is the hope for a word of mouth.
Even in the case of companies who run closed-circuit freelancer marketplaces there’s no way to build a portfolio for us. What we have is an almost completely dysfunctional system of a simple number of completed jobs and a similarly simple — and largely optional — rating that clients can give.
It baffles me.
We need a Copywriters Guild
I’m not even kidding — if I had the financial power to make it happen, I would, or at least get it started.
We need an organization that is, at the very least:
* non-profit: the for-profit freelancer marketplaces need to place their business first; and because they do, it becomes a numbers game that easily plays out at the expense of their users;
* recognized and accepted by both freelancers and clients;
* able to set up and maintain a registry of all completed work: not just number of completed jobs, but an accessible database of the works themselves, so we can create a portfolio;
* can provide a set of common rules for both writers and clients, act as an independent arbiter of disputes, and give (or withdraw) a trusted certificate: that way freelancers can know that the clients they work for will abide the rules, and clients can know that the writers are able to deliver quality work.
This way similarly to the writers’ guilds mentioned above, we’ll be able to have an ecosystem where exploitation is rare and difficult, and able to set a fair monetary value on quality copywriting.
In fact, we should extend the range of such an organization to all content creators (designers, graphical artists, and so on).
The International Content Creators Guild. (ICCG, because who doesn’t love acronyms?) I think it has a nice ring to it, don’t you?
As I said, if not for the lack of capital, I’d have made the necessary steps to establish it myself.
I wanted to drop an email address here, and actually start coordinating something that can bring results: start the incorporation, and connect with those who see the value — on both sides of the aisle, clients and freelancers. But it’d have been a mistake.
Original image from Wikipedia
At the end of the day, I’m a writer: and we’ll need those who are better suited to lead, negotiate, and maintain it.
I don’t really want to take on this responsibility. I have my copywriting work, short stories to get published, my book(s) to finish, and I don’t want to screw up something this important simply because of a lack of bandwidth or a temporary lapse of attention.
But if you agree that something needs to be done, and believe like I do that making it happen isn’t out of the realm of possibilities, please share this article, add your comments, and talk to people!
Perhaps with the right combination and amount of like-minded people talking about it, someone with the sufficient ability, the right talent, and the financial backing will step up, and set things in motion.
Cover image via Copywriter Karen Goldfarb.