Well-Fed Writer Peter Bowerman’s Advice on Commercial Writing

We recently caught up with Peter Bowerman, author of the critically acclaimed Well-Fed Writer and Well-Fed Self-Publisher titles, and got him to answer a few questions about commercial writing, the subject of the quadruple-award-winning edition of The Well-Fed Writer.

Can you give us a definition of freelance commercial writing?

Peter BowermanIn the course of marketing to prospects and clients, as well as communicating with their own employees, any decent-sized company creates an enormous amount of writing. Everything they create is an example of commercial writing. That includes things like newsletters, brochures of all sizes and complexities, direct mail programs (postcards, letters, etc.), advertising campaigns, customer case studies, white papers, web content, video scripts, speeches, and countless others project types.

The big difference between it and say, writing for magazines, is the pay. Bottom line, companies have a lot more money (AND put a priority on effective marketing) than magazines and newspapers do (and that’s truer now than it’s ever been). $60-100 as an hourly rate is not at all uncommon, and veterans can make well in excess of that.

Amongst your coaching clients and students, what common mistakes or incorrect assumptions do you regularly have to correct?

A lot of writers looking at the commercial field, but coming from journalism (both magazines and newspapers) ask questions using terms like “queries,” “editors,” “pitch letters” and “serial rights.” And I remind them that they’re in a totally different world.

Peter BowermanYou’re not querying editors – you’re approaching clients. You’re not sending pitch letters (though you might be sending a sales letter). And given that our field is a “work-for-hire” proposition, you’re definitely not holding onto any rights to what you create for a commercial writing client. More to the point, what are you going to do with, say, the copy for a brochure on building materials? Use the same copy for a competitor? Not likely (if you want a long and happy career, that is…).

I also have to disabuse people of the idea that they’re going to make 10-15 calls and have $5K jobs falling into their laps. Our business is not an easy one. It takes a lot of hard work to get established, but, for that reason, it’s a bona fide solid opportunity.

Also, you don’t find work by bidding on projects on online sites like elance, odesk, guru, etc. Yes, a tiny sliver of folks get good rates on those sites, but that’s the rare exception to the rule. In the commercial field, you go right to the companies you want to work with, and through any number of prospecting methods (cold calling, email marketing, direct mail or networking), you reach out to them directly.

What sorts of jobs or employers do you recommend commercial writers avoid?

Our field pays far better than most writing, and for that reason, unless you’re just starting out and want to build your portfolio, don’t work for clients who try to beat you up on price. $5 for a 500-word article is NOT what we do. More like $500-$1000 for a tri-fold marketing brochure, $1000 for a two-page case study, etc. That said, starting out at lower rates (or even pro bono) to get traction is a common way to begin.

What are the steps people can be taking now, before launching their business, and even while they’re still working at other jobs, to build a foundation?

One thing they can start doing is building their “book” (or portfolio). I built mine with free work for clients (in The Well-Fed Writer, I offer up a bunch of ways to go about doing this). In addition, you might want to shake your grapevine for any connections you have in the business world—especially those companies in your area of career expertise—and perhaps asking them what kinds of writing opportunities might be available. Just know that 75-80% of companies won’t be interested (i.e., they handle their writing tasks in-house), so you need to contact a bunch to get a good idea.

Where can people go for more information on commercial writing in general and your resources in particular?

At The Well-Fed Writer, you have access to a free report (Why Commercial Writing?), a free knowledge base, and can subscribe at no charge to both my e-newsletter (The Well-Fed E-PUB, coming out monthly, without interruption, since May 2002) and The Well-Fed Writer Blog (since 2008).

For a good soup-to-nuts primer on commercial writing opportunity, I invite people to pick up the award-winning “standard” in the field, The Well-Fed Writer, available through the above site, Amazon and bookstores. I also offer additional ebooks, coaching services and more on my website.