Business Writers: Did You Destroy Your Craft and ‘Sell Out’?

Carol Tice

Business Writers: Did You Destroy Your Craft and 'Sell Out'?.

There are a lot of opinions out there about what freelance writers do. One of the big ones I’ve heard lately is that business writers are selling their soul and writing crap just to fill their bank accounts.

In other words, we’re not ‘real writers’ like novelists. Business writers are just paid copywriting hacks.

Writing for businesses also ruins our writing chops for any ‘meaningful’ personal writing we aspire to, such as poetry, essays, or novel writing.

I used to think like this. For many years, I was a reporter who thought advertising writers were part of the Dark Side of the Force.

By contrast, I was finding facts, revealing truths, enlightening readers with vital news and information they needed. Good stuff!

Then I happened into my first business writing gig, ghosting blog posts for a startup’s CEO, and decided to give it a try. Suddenly, I remembered how my first career as a songwriter went wrong, all because of a similar misconception I had about ‘selling out.’

Here’s what happened…

The 3 roads to writing success

When I was an aspiring singer/songwriter, back in the ’80s, there were basically three ways to pursue this career.

  1. Starve while you live in a garret above a shop and write songs.
  2. Work a day job and play your own songs with your band at night.
  3. ‘Pay your dues’ by playing Top 40 in bars multiple nights each week. Play with your band on the other nights.

I opted for path #2, working as a legal secretary at MGM during the day and practicing and playing my own songs at night.

Playing Top 40 crap all night? Puh-lease! That was definitely not for me.

My songs were brilliant and important compared with that garbage, and I wasn’t going to sully my pure little artiste fingers playing it. I was hot to skip the dues-paying phase and go straight to super-stardom.

What happened?

  • I didn’t get to perform much. Getting a booking wasn’t easy.
  • As a result, I didn’t improve rapidly.
  • I got older — old enough to tire of hanging around smoky bars ’til 2 a.m.
  • I won an essay contest and decided to go into another kind of writing.

Boom! End of rockstar dreams.

How to become a great writer

As the years rolled on, while I loved being a journalist, a little part of me was still sad that I hadn’t become an acclaimed songwriter.

I realized that if I’d been willing to ‘sell out’ and play Top 40 in bars, I would have gotten hundreds of additional hours of performing practice. That no doubt would have improved my performance confidence and my stage presence. My keyboard playing and sense of songwriting craft both would have improved exponentially.

Probably, all that work would have inspired lots of new songs, too. Playing Top 40 is a chance to study what makes a hit song, so those songs might well have been better than my early ones. (See also: Piano Man by Billy Joel, about his days grinding out piano-bar requests. Hmm…that sort of launched his whole career.)

I had refused to sell out. Victory! I was a pure artist. I was also an unsuccessful one.

Building muscles allows for heavy lifting

What had I missed with my ‘I won’t sell out’ attitude?

Just this: Writing improves your writing.

Over time, I learned how many truly great writers (business writers, copywriters, journalists, novelists, and others) had taken writing ‘day jobs’ and come out the better for it.

From Salman Rushdie’s stint writing copy for Ogilvy & Mather (other copywriting alums include Don DeLillo and Joseph Heller), to the time Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway spent as newspaper reporters, great writers seek out opportunities to write a lot. They write tons, and they learn.

Why business writers learn faster

Clearly, writing copy doesn’t ruin your fiction writing or turn the brains of business writers into mush. It gives you a lot of experience with crafting prose that holds peoples’ attention and moving their emotions in your desired direction.

This is a transferable skill.

Taking on the challenge of meeting a client’s writing needs makes you stretch, and grow. Yes, it’s not your novel — but it can be fascinating, challenging, and fun.

It’s an entirely honorable way to feed your family while you sharpen your writing chops.

Busting the myth of the sellout

Despite all the great examples of writers who earned fame and success for their novels later, the myth persists that doing other, more ‘commercial’ kinds of writing will ruin you for fiction.

I can only shake my head when I see comments like this one, which I recently got on my Facebook page:

Are business writers sellouts? Discussion on Make a Living Writing

I’d bet there are far fewer successful writers with the attitude you see above — who only focus on making themselves happy and won’t ‘sell out’ — then there are successful business writers, copywriters, and freelancers who seize any opportunity to write for a living. (And of course, you can’t help but notice all the grammar errors.)

Every assignment is a chance to flex those writing muscles and learn.

Here’s the thing about being a successful novelist — it’s not usually about expressing your opinion. It’s about serving a reader.

So is copywriting. So is newspaper reporting.

If I had it to do over again, I’d be belting out Heart, Madonna, and Whitney Houston songs, night after night, until I figured out how to win at the songwriting game.

Instead of spinning your wheels, if you feel like you’re getting nowhere with your writing career, try finding a client you can write for. Your payoff won’t just come in dollars, but in improved writing skills.

Are you a business writer? Let’s discuss the ‘sellout’ issue in the comments.

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    For your facebook commenter…not sure anyone would pay them to “right” anyway. It’s easy to say you would not do something you don’t have the requisite skills to perform. *turns up nose* I would NEVER sell out and be a professional ballerina, where someone else tells me what to do. Instead, I’ll keep dancing in front of my mirror.

  2. Dotty

    GAH!!! THIS HURTS! Sincerely, one former-aspiring-songwriter to another.

    On the other hand, I spent PLENTY of time as an unpaid worship leader for Churches. (I was in Christian music.) I spent 20+ hours a week sometimes, belting out songs for Jesus–but I wasn’t supposed to get paid for it, because it was “for the Lord.”

    Nope. Done with that.

    But this makes me want to send the Washington Post a LOI, & see if I can get in their freelance pool. <3

    • Carol Tice

      Well…that’s still on the publications side, Dotty. You’ll have to go to businesses to qualify as a sellout. 😉

      And yes…I’m always impressed with how the Christian opportunities never seem to pay. It fascinates me that Jewish pubs and music pay well, when our audience is so much smaller! I wish I could change attitudes there.

  3. Michael LaRocca

    I tried to sell out but I couldn’t find a buyer.

    • Carol Tice

      LOL — rim shot!

  4. Adrienne Kitchin

    Hi, Carol:

    Thank you for this post! It comes at a timely moment in my own career, where I am looking to build my freelance writing platform and agonizing over how I can make money on a more predictable basis (i.e. business writing) and continue working on my craft and love of novel writing. I have been sincerely fretting over the notion that if I promote myself as a business writer, then I will lose some (all?!)credibility as a creative writer. Thank you for reminding me that I was wrong!

    • Carol Tice

      I like to say, if it was good enough for Salman Rushdie and Mark Twain, it’s good enough for me. 😉

  5. Anne P.

    I hid my non-academic writing for years because I knew my academic advisor and colleague would brand me as ‘not serious’ about being an academic. What a shame. It would only have made me a better and more skillful researcher and academic writer.


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