By Kim Perez, PR Consultant, Writer
Novelist Isabel Allende shared this anecdote at a recent book signing in Pasadena, California: At a cocktail party, a man approached her and asked what she did for a living. She said she was a writer. “Wonderful,” he said. “When I retire, I plan to write a novel.”
Allende’s response was classic: “And what do you do?” His answer: “I’m a dentist.”
“Wonderful,” she replied. “When I retire, I plan to start pulling teeth.”
As a freelance PR writer who works from home, I’ve encountered this attitude a lot. “I would love to work from home. How can I do what you do?” Uh, you could write. You could study writing. You could write some more. You could study some more.
What disturbs me, lately, is that I encounter this cavalier attitude more and more in the world of freelance PR. People willingly admit that they’re writing simply because it’s a billable activity. And I have to say, I am mystified as to why anyone would want to be a writer if they do not love — and yes, I mean L-O-V-E — to write.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 1996, and before that I worked at Fleishman-Hillard in Los Angeles. I left the agency because my bosses wouldn’t let me just hole up in my office all day and write. That’s all I wanted to do: no pitching, no event planning — just writing. I did ask, and I thought I made a good case. It’s what I do best, why not let me specialize?
Alas, big agencies don’t work that way, so I packed up my two photographs and my one Ansel Adams poster and repositioned them in my new Ikea-furnished home office/spare bedroom.
It was the best move I ever made, except for one thing: Today, I work harder than I ever did at the frenetic agency, because there are not enough skilled writers to go around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard potential freelance PR writers say: “I’ve mostly done media relations, but now that I have kids, I’d like to do more writing because it fits better with my schedule.”
You want to write because it fits better with your schedule?
This troubles me. Writing is not a default skill. Just because someone has done it, doesn’t mean that person can do it well enough to charge money for it.
In the freelance world especially, PR expertise breaks down into two primary and very different skill sets: media relations and writing. They overlap, of course, and anyone who’s worked at an agency has done both. It’s also possible to excel at both, although in my experience people usually favor one or the other.
But there’s a certain point at which every professional — especially those who bill clients for writing expertise — must decide: Am I committed to being a great writer? Not just passable or good, but great. If you’re charging other people money for your writing, professionalism dictates that you know what you’re doing. From what I’ve seen, many PR writers do not.
In the past week alone, I saw writers use “it’s” when they meant “its,” alter the meaning of a phrase by omitting a comma, and brutally mangle sentences with unnecessary words and an indecipherable structure. Bloated corporate-speak and passive voice also are common sins.
I’m sorry if this sounds elitist. Wait, check that: I’m not sorry. Writing is an elitist activity. It requires a relentless pursuit of perfection. (Case in point: I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a fellow writer debating the use of the word “elitist” here.)
Writing takes study. It takes practice. It takes talent. Perhaps most important, it takes an acknowledgement that it is an art and a craft, and a commitment to mastering both. In other words, if you want to bill people for your writing: Be a writer.
My high school track coach once asked me how I felt immediately after running a 400-meter race. “I feel pretty good,” I said.
“Then you didn’t run it right,” he replied.
I see writing the same way. Sometimes the words flow, sometimes they don’t. But whether we’re writing an inspirational speech or a news release announcing the new director of sales, it’s our duty as writers-for-hire to know grammar, to obsess over every word choice, to approach our craft with creativity and flair, and to wrestle every sentence to the ground to make it clear, concise and readable. We should be spent after crossing a project’s finish line, having exerted all available energy to achieve excellence. That’s what our clients are paying for.
Effort like that requires commitment, which is why I believe it’s so important to love to write.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of days when I curse The Muse for her habit of playing hide-and-seek when I need her most. And just this morning I found myself envying the gardener for his ability to be outside not writing (after first condemning him to hell for the wails of his leaf-blower, which tore through my eardrums and pierced my brain). But when it comes down to it, there’s nothing I’d rather do, and there’s nothing else I can do, but write.
If this doesn’t describe you, don’t bill people for your writing.
Kim Perez is a freelance writer. For 17 years she’s helped organizations and individuals tell their stories through public relations and other communications materials. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.