Is coworking right for you?

mugsCoworking sites offer many benefits of traditional office spaces, but do they make freelancing seem too much like a regular job? Here’s a quick take on the pros and cons.

Working alone can be, well, lonely at times. This might explain the growing number of creative coworking locations popping up around the country.

So when I had the good fortune to win a one-month membership to a coworking startup, I tried it out. After just a few weeks I concluded that creative coworking has a lot going for it. While it may not be the best fit for everyone, many freelancers can benefit from giving it a try. Here’s why:

It’s cheaper than office space

Coworking gives you an instant workspace outside the home, typically at a fraction of what you’d pay to rent an office. That’s great if you frequently contend with distractions — such as noisy kids or roommates — or if you have trouble focusing on work in your home environment. There’s usually a variety of payment plans, including day rates for occasional drop-ins, unlimited plans for full-timers, and everything in between.

Most coworking sites have areas you can use for meetings with clients, though this sometimes involves an extra fee. Many also allow you to have your business mail sent to the coworking site, which enables you to keep your home address confidential.

The flip side of is you’ll get everything else that comes with working outside of your home. That may include commuting during rush hour, packing or buying lunch, and accidentally leaving important files at the “office.” You’ll also want to check with an accountant to make sure you stay compliant if you’re deducting expenses for a home office.

There’s ample networking opportunities

Coworking is a great way to meet other freelancers. You can bounce ideas off your “coworkers” and you don’t have to eat lunch alone.

You can also forge partnerships with people whose skills complement your own, enabling you to offer more services. For example, within a few months I teamed up with a graphic designer to offer turnkey website packages to industrial companies.

If you prefer to work alone in a quiet area, coworking may not seem right for you. The site I belong to is smart about this. Some rooms are designated as places where people can talk and exchange ideas, while others are set aside as quiet working areas. There’s also a “phone booth” so that cell phone conversations don’t distract or irritate others.

Equipment and other resources are available

Coworking sites provide many resources you need to run a business. This can be especially helpful if you’re just starting out as a freelancer.

Amenities vary depending on the location, but often include Wi-Fi, color printers, and that all-important necessity: coffee. Some places also have limited kitchen facilities, storage lockers or other perks. The only drawback here is that you’re sharing these resources with everyone else working there, with all that can entail.

A change of scenery is healthy

Early in my freelance career I learned the value of getting out of my home office once in while. I use other locations to inspire my creativity and for “big picture” work such as long-term planning. A coworking site is an ideal place for this kind of activity. Even though the environment can feel relaxed, it’s still focused on getting business done. I’ve found that I prefer it to working in a coffee shop.

Ultimately, I decided to continue coworking when my free membership ran out. I still get a lot of work done in my home office, but I look forward to the days when I go coworking.

Your personality and work style will determine whether or not creative coworking is a good solution for you. But if you’re on the fence, I encourage you to give it a try.

  Kill your darlings (and other dark edits)

Red pen on draftSometimes the secret to great creative work isn’t what you produce, but what you throw away or leave out. Think about cropping a photo. The role of white space in a clean design. Skylights or extra windows letting in more light.

And while it may seem counter-intuitive, similar strategies play a role in writing.

So if you’re struggling to get a concept onto the page in just the right way, the problem might not be what you need to add. Something already there may be holding you back. When you’re stuck or pushing your word limit, it may be time to go to the dark side of editing and look for stuff to cut. These “subtractive” strategies can add a lot to your copy.

Kill your darlings

“Darlings” are bits of writing you really love and just have to include somewhere. The witty phrase that makes you sound so clever. A conversation where your favorite character shines. That snappy smackdown of the cause or competitor you loathe most. Even experienced pros fall prey to them.

The trouble with darlings, unlike truly great ideas, is they just don’t seem to fit anywhere. They make you crazy as you bend over backward trying to include them where they don’t belong.

Signs you might be grappling with a darling include:

  • The idea came to you early in the writing process, before you thought the whole piece through.
  • Your darling doesn’t drive the reader toward your conclusion or call to action.
  • No one cares about your darling but you. (Sorry.)

“Killing” your darlings is the only cure. Can’t bear to hit the delete key? Cut and paste your darling into another document and save it for later. More likely you’ll forget about it, but you’ll get over it. It’s hard to kill darlings because we looooove them so. But the needs of effective words outweigh those of words that are just showing off.

Omit needless words

Rule 17 from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is perhaps the most famous maxim of that famous writer’s guide. And while E. B. White admitted “the huge task will never be accomplished,” it’s still the key to clear and concise copy.

In fact, it’s so tough to beat Strunk himself on this one that I won’t even try. Here’s rule 17 verbatim, which White called “fifty-nine words that could change the world”:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Strunk goes on to slim down numerous examples, including cutting a paragraph down to a sentence with half the words. His biggest pet peeve is “the fact that”, which  “should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.”

The thumb test

This simple trick ties in with rule 17, though it applies equally to words, sentences, and even paragraphs. Not sure you need something? Try covering it with your thumb (or a sheet of paper, or whatever). If the remaining copy is just as good or better without the words you covered, they don’t belong there.

Like athletes, writers often need to “warm up.” So it’s a good practice to try the thumb test on the first few paragraphs of any given piece. Don’t be surprised if paragraph 4 turns out to be a much better introduction — it happens all the time.

Copy that fails the thumb test might work somewhere else in your piece, especially if it features relevant details. Just be willing to let it go if it isn’t necessary.

Breaking up isn’t hard to do

Jane Austen could get away with writing sentences 109 words long. She wasn’t competing with YouTube videos of adorable puppies. Your job is a bit tougher.

Shorter sentences make copy easier to read. Gurus differ, but holding most sentences to 20 words or less is a common guideline for marketing copy. Break longer sentences into smaller pieces if you can.

Just as designers use fonts and spacing, writers use punctuation, subheadings, sections, and chapters to shape the reader’s experience. In some cases, bullet lists can also be more effective than sentences or paragraphs packed with information. Tools that break copy up give readers visual “breathing room,” making them more likely to read to the end.

Takeaways

Deleting words can feel demoralizing, especially if you’ve worked hard to create them. But don’t let that stand in the way of writing great copy. Your draft is like the first chisel blows on a marble sculpture. It may look promising, but there’s still work to do. Editing is the process of smoothing and finishing the rough edges. Apply these rules mercilessly and take pride in the masterpiece that remains.

  Why you’re not a freelance fraud

Fingers crossedMany freelancers, and even some small agency owners, struggle with the fear they’re pulling a fast one. They worry they’re not as good as they claim to be. That they’re just puffing themselves up. And that one dark day, all of their clients will discover they’re just a freelance fraud overcharging clients. In fact, they’ll all figure it out on the same day, bringing their solo creative career to an ignominious end. Followed, without fail, by poverty.

Relax. For most of you, these fears have no basis in reality. Here’s why:

Most of the time, the “freelance fraud” fear is triggered by money. We find it hard to believe anyone in their right mind would pay a living wage for what we do. And it doesn’t help that most creative types are their own harshest critics. We have encyclopedic knowledge of every “flaw” in our work. Who cares if anyone else will ever notice? We know.

Here are five of the most common misconceptions that get this lizard brain fight-or-flight response working overtime in our heads, and some down-to earth reasons why you can let it go.

“They shouldn’t be paying me this much.”

Yes they should. You have a valuable skill that requires training and talent. Clients hire you because they need the service you provide and think you’re the most efficient way to get the job done. They’ll push back if you ask more than the market will bear, but don’t be afraid to stretch the envelope. The price they consider reasonable might be higher than you think. In fact, great clients may actually turn you down if you don’t charge enough, because they’ll assume you aren’t ready to work at their level.

What’s more, if you’re undercutting the market with lowball prices, you’re not just doing a disservice to yourself. You’re harming the industry as a whole by giving clients unrealistic expectations about what creative work should cost.

“It’s so easy for me to do this. How can it be worth what I’m charging?”

Strange as this may seem, what’s easy for you — whether it’s design, photography, writing, or any other creative skill — isn’t easy for a lot of other people. That’s why it has value.

If your creative projects don’t feel like work but your results look professional, congratulations! Doing what comes naturally to you is an ideal way to make a living. Recognize all the work you’ve done to develop your talent into a marketable skill.

“Creative work is subjective. Do I have a right to claim it’s worth this much?”

All value is subjective. For example, many people think diamonds are valuable even though they’re one of the most common gemstones on the planet. Their value has its roots in a de facto monopoly established by the De Beers Group of Companies, which created artificial scarcity by limiting production in the 20th century.

These efforts were enhanced in 1947 when a young copywriter named Frances Gerety coined the classic slogan “A Diamond is Forever.” Those four words were so valuable that Advertising Age magazine named them the best advertising slogan of the 20th century in 2000 — definitively proving that it pays to work with a good writer.

In any case, the subjectivity that matters here is in your buyer’s head, not yours. If clients think your work is worth the rates you charge, they’ll pay it. Otherwise they won’t. And since you can’t work for everyone, you have a seat at the table when the haggling over that value is taking place.

So if the occasional client isn’t willing to pay what you believe is a fair price, it doesn’t make you a freelance fraud. More likely, they’re probably not a client you want because they’re not willing to invest in professional creative work.

“I don’t have that much experience.”

Maybe not, but you’re committing to earning your living as a creative professional. That requires investments of time and money. You may not be able to charge top dollar out of the gate, but you still have the right to earn a living wage.

Even if you’re fairly new to your creative skill, that’s all relative to someone who doesn’t have the same training. For example, I’m not an engineer, but I do a lot of work for engineering companies because I can translate technical concepts into plain language.

“They could pay an in-house person a lot less to do this.”

You can still be a valuable resource — and someone your client will come back to — even if they have some internal resources.

For one thing, they could also pay a big agency a whole lot more than they’re paying you. Compared to that, your top rate probably looks cheap.

There’s also a good chance they’re calling you because all their in-house people have their hands full. Many of the corporate managers I’ve met at the HOW Design Live conference the last few years have said their biggest challenge is finding enough freelance talent to back up their in-house team. I also see the same trend closer to home. One of my best clients has multiple full-time writers on staff. They recently hired another one, and they’re still keeping me busy.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: even if you’re doing identical work to an in-house person, you’re also paying for your own equipment, insurance, and taxes. Even though these expenses don’t show up in the paychecks your in-house peers receive, their employers are still paying them. So if you’re not charging more than a comparable in-house salary, there’s a good chance you’re actually charging less than they’d pay one of their own people.

And don’t forget many companies use freelancers specifically because they want or need something they can’t get in-house. You may have a specialized expertise they don’t have on their staff. One of my design partners, Doug Klocke, has a client with a few in-house people who can do production work, but they rely on him to create templates and do other work requiring more design skill. “I get to do the fun, high-level stuff, and they run with the rest of it,” he says.

Finally, even if you don’t have a skill they lack, you still have an outsider’s perspective to offer. No in-house person can give them that.

Give yourself a break

Just because you’re making good money for creative work doesn’t mean you’re a freelance fraud. In fact, several mentors have told me if a freelancer doesn’t get turned down for being too expensive at least once a year, it’s a sign you’re not charging enough. The most important thing is to be sincere, and to do the best work you’re capable of for every client (yes, even the annoying ones).

Remember too that your rate is an agreement between you and the client. If they’re letting you get away with it, they probably think you’re worth it.

Who are you to stand in the way of their happiness?

  I know that (brand) voice…

Brand voice in actionDriving home down I-71 a few months ago, I looked out the window and chuckled. Standing in an open field was a lonely billboard asking: “Does this board make my ad look big?”

There was no phone number. In fact, there was no other copy at all. The tiny logo below the board was barely visible. But I knew exactly who had written it. How? The brand voice.

While there are a lot of great reasons to make people laugh at marketing copy, a joke that’s “too good” can easily outshine everything else on a billboard. But in this case it works, because the advertiser — Lamar — is known for snarky messages like this one.

Can the reader tell it’s you even if they can’t see your logo or design? That’s the ultimate test of brand voice. But how do you “craft” a voice for your organization? The key thing is to make sure your organization speaks in a way that appeals to your audience. Here’s a handy list of characteristics to consider.

Brand voice development checklist

  • Attitude — What’s your brand’s approach to life? Does it have a sense of adventure, or would it prefer to stay home watching TV? For example, many handyman brands (Lowes, Home Depot) try to present a “can do” attitude. Coke, Pepsi, and most alcohol brands want to be around when you’re relaxing or having fun.
  • Traits — What characteristics does your brand have? Is it helpful and friendly? Cynical and confrontational? Many brand voice descriptions include a short list of traits ranging from level of expertise (“XYZ brand is an expert in widget defenestration”) to communication style (“Bobbie Brandvoice never talks down to customers who have questions about installation.”) Sometimes traits are simply listed (“HealthBrand Q is effective, thoughtful, caring, compassionate, and understanding”).
  • Values — What’s most important to your brand? Protecting the environment? Making a tough job easier? Influencing the next election? While most items on this list shape how you “talk” in print, values help you identify what to talk about.
  • Formality — How casual is your brand? Brands that want to be hip and cool often cultivate a “laid-back” tone. Medical, legal, and financial services are typically at the opposite end of the spectrum. Hotels, restaurants, and the like often fall somewhere in between, adjusting their level of solemnity to the type of business they want to attract.
  • Humor — Is your brand funny? This tends to make your band tilt toward the informal, but not in every case. Some brands are serious in traditional channels, but let their hair down a bit on social media. For an excellent example, check out the Merriam-Webster Twitter feed.
  • Education level — Did most of your buyers go to college, or are they high-school dropouts with a knack for taking things apart? Your brand voice needs to talk on their level. Aim too low and they’ll feel like you lack the proper expertise, or worse, are insulting their intelligence. Go over the top and you can come off sounding arrogant, pretentious, or condescending. This is especially tricky if you’re dealing with multiple related audiences, such as architects and general contractors. In such cases, it’s often worth segmenting your message for each set of readers.
  • Word choices — There’s often more than one way to say the same thing. You can “implement a scalable solution to expedite the elimination of excess vegetation on the enterprise campus,” but it’s usually a lot less effort just to “cut the grass.” Be particularly clear about how you will handle words that create “in” and “out” groups, such as industry jargon or slang. These can make you sound knowledgable and trendy to the right people — if you use them properly — but they can also come back to bite you by confusing potential buyers or making your copy sound dated. When in doubt, stick to words that communicate clearly and quickly. Will your brand use contractions (I’ve, isn’t, he’d, etc.)? If so, does your brand use informal ones like “ain’t” or even “y’all?”
  • Sentence length — Character limits in texts and Twitter posts aside, sentence length influences how “fast” your copy seems to read. Shorter sentences seem quick and punchy. Good for billboards or creating tension. Longer sentences seem to take, well, longer, to deliver their content, which can be good if you want to sound scholarly, clinical, scientific, or otherwise brainy.
  • “Pagans” — No, I’m not talking about your wiccan customers. The term in this sense was coined by Patrick Hanlon in the book Primalbranding to describe people who are wrong for your brand. You don’t have to cater to your pagans, and can actually create a closer relationship with your buyers by poking fun at them.
  • Make up your own stuff — “Finger-licking good,” “drinkability”, “uncola,” and the ill-fated “Fahrvergnugen” are just a few examples of phrases and made-up words associated with specific brands (with varying degrees of success).

Summing up: documenting the brand voice persona

What ultimately makes a “brand voice” is when your organization agrees on where it stands on each of these points, and — most importantly — documents those decisions. That way they can be implemented consistently, over and over, by everyone who writes for you. Even outside providers like freelancers can match your voice reliably if they know the “rules” it lives by.

An easy way to jump-start this process is to ask this question: if your brand were a person, what would he or she be like? If you’re in the design business, you might envision your brand as a slick hipster in tune with all the latest trendy fashions. On the other hand, if you sell tools for fixing industrial machinery, your persona is probably wearing blue jeans and driving a pickup truck.

One agency I write for designs each brand voice in this way. The end result is a lot like a customer persona, complete with a name, photo, and distinguishing characteristics. This might be the founder of the company, a spokesperson prominent in the organization’s marketing, or a fictional character who’s only used in-house. It’s a useful exercise whichever option you choose.

Do you know your organization’s brand voice? If not, try defining it now. Having clear, documented guidelines about how your organization “talks” will make everything you write easier to create, more consistent, and — if you do your job right — a lot more recognizable.

Even if we can’t see your logo.

  Just write it

Document 1. Just write it.You sit in front of the blank screen. An endless sea of white, like the ice planet Hoth. If you could just write like Hemmingway — right now, please — life would be a lot less stressful.

You want the copy to be perfect — snappy, on target, compelling. But it’s soooooo hard. And the clock is ticking. And a million other things are clamoring for your attention.

If this situation sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many writers — even seasoned professionals — struggle with getting a first draft on the page.

The solution? Stop caring about getting it right in one go. Just write.

The perfection problem

I’ve argued in the past that writer’s block is a myth, and I still believe it. But sometimes writers get in the way of their own success by focusing too much on knocking out a perfect draft right away.

This is different from not knowing what to write, because the “perfection problem” often shows up when you already know much of what you want to say. What messes you up is agonizing over what to say when, or how to say it in the first place. You’ve got all the background information crammed into your head, but don’t know what to do with it. It’s crazy-making.

Stop worrying and just write

There are a lot of details that make writing great. Don’t think about any of them when you’re writing a first draft. Don’t think about SEO, how many units you need to sell, how well the last promotion performed, or how soon the deadline is looming.

The only thing to worry about, if you need to worry now, is this: will the reader keep reading?

To answer that question, you need to know who are you writing for. Try to get into their head and think like they do. What will motivate them to take the action you want them to take?

With that in mind, do a brain dump. Write down everything you think you want to say, in whatever order it comes to mind. If it helps, you can make an outline first, or re-arrange everything later. What matters now is to get letters on the page. You can make everything perfect in subsequent drafts. That’s what they’re for.

Don’t start at the beginning

It’s tempting to try and nail the lead (the first headline or sentence) before you write anything else. Yes, it’s the first thing the reader sees. And yes, it’s the most important part of the copy, because if it doesn’t catch their attention, they’ll ignore everything else.

Unfortunately, the first thing you put on the page isn’t likely to be your best work. Most human brains start to “warm up” as they begin writing, making the words on the page more compelling after you knock out the first few paragraphs. Often it’s best to just start a brain dump, then go back and re-arrange things later.

In fact, it’s often more effective to think backwards, or to quote Stephen Covey, to “begin with the end in mind”. When writing, this means to focus on the response you want your writing to create, then figure out how to lead your reader to the same conclusion.

I once took this idea to extremes by writing the first draft of an entire direct mail promotion backwards. First I wrote the final call to action, then the second-to-last paragraph, and so on, finishing up with the lead. I don’t recommend doing this every day, but this type of thought process makes it easier to stay focused on where your writing needs to go next.

Don’t be afraid to cut stuff that doesn’t work completely. I often delete the first two or three paragraphs I write in a given session, or move them later in the piece. There’s no shame, and no one will ever know.

I won’t tell your readers. I promise. 😉

  Being the best is overrated

We're Number 2!Less than a stone’s throw from my favorite coffeehouse is a small driving school that caters to teenagers approaching the magic age of 16. The company’s roadster is tricked out like a racing car, featuring the tagline “if you’re not the first, you’re the last.”

Setting aside the hazardous implications of this motto (do you really want your teenager driving like that?), this fixation with being the lead dog implies a mindset that is particularly dangerous, not only for new young drivers, but for solo creative professionals.

For one thing, setting a goal of being the best at all costs can make you overlook other stuff that matters just as much, if not more so. The recent meltdown at Uber is a classic example of a company that went off the rails by sacrificing good business practices on the altar of “high performance.”

Obsessing over being the best might provide useful motivation for professional athletes, competitive salespeople, and politicians. But it can also be seriously depressing. You’ll always be able to find examples of people who outshine you in some way.

One of the most rewarding epiphanies in my life hit me a few years ago. I realized Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ, William Wordsworth, Jack London, and many others had all completed the works and achievements for which they are best known by time they had reached the age I was then. (In fact, most of them had done it all — because by that point most of them were dead.)

Yet despite my “failure” to change the world in any obvious, earth-shaking way by then, I was keeping the lights on by working for myself, loving my job, and enjoying a happy personal life.

Not a bad accomplishment, that.

So instead of stressing about being the best, simply strive to be your best. It’s a lot less frustrating and you can still push yourself to succeed. Here are a few tips to keep your achievement level high and your anxiety low:

  • Choose your own yardstick. You’re far more likely to achieve in your niche if you select it for yourself. Make it as specific and personal as possible.
  • Be your own competition. It’s far more motivating to measure yourself against your past performance then to compare yourself to others. If you outdo yourself, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve improved. If not, you can still take pride in past achievements while striving to meet or exceed them in the future.
  • Remember: there’s only so much of you to go around. Do your job well, and your business will reach a point where you have more work than you can handle. When that happens — and it will — you’ll want other colleagues around who can take up the slack for you.

Ultimately, the notion that being the best is the only way to win is, in fact, complete nonsense. If you’re a solo creative professional but not “number one,” big deal. You still have a better chance than most to have a great life. You’re more likely to be working when you like and not working when you don’t like. Your work is more likely to satisfy and matter to you. And you’re probably living a far richer, happier, and more productive life than most people who’ve ever lived on this planet.

For me at least, that’s enough.

  Retronym revival

Taco FlavorSometimes words wear out. Those that fall out of fashion get labeled “archaic,” such as forsooth, rapscallion, or thee and thou. But other words get stuck in awkward places by change. People still want to use them, but they don’t quite mean what they did before. Enter the retronym.

Birth of a retronym

Retronyms appear when an existing word is no longer adequate to describe something. The word “analog” is a good example. No one wore an “analog watch” until digital watches came along. The miniature clock on your wrist was just a “watch.” The need to distinguish old from new also gave us analog recordings, analog signals, and analog circuits.

Here are a few more:

  • “Plain” M&M’s (now called “Milk Chocolate”) didn’t exist until 1954, when Peanut M&M’s were first introduced.
  • “Manual typewriters” were “typewriters” until electric ones were invented.
  • “British English” was just “English” until rambunctious colonists started throwing tea overboard and writing their own dictionaries.

Where retronyms come from

Changing technology creates many retronyms. “Acoustic” guitars. “Hard” copies. “Landline” — and later “flip” — phones. The term “broadcast television” was coined in response to cable and satellite television. More recently, e-commerce has given us the “brick-and-mortar” store.

But retronyms can also be used as a branding and marketing tool. One of the most famous examples is “Coca-Cola Classic,” used to re-introduce something close to the original formula after “New Coke” flopped.

Pepsi went one step further a few years ago, using “throwback” as a kind of retro-retronym. These alternate and vintage versions of their products — from soft drinks to chips — appeal both to nostalgia (“This is what it tasted like when we were kids!”) and the modern preference for real sugar over high fructose corn syrup.

Some marketers try to slap retronyms on competitors’ products when pitching new ideas. “Traditional,” “old-school,” “conventional,” and “legacy” are just a few words that can make the competition sound so last year. The same strategy can be reversed to make your own product sound cutting edge, as in “Web 2.0.”

The language it is a-changin’

From a writer’s perspective, retronyms highlight the reality that language is not a fixed or rigid thing. It’s constantly evolving to meet the needs of humanity. And while changes to structure and grammar are often slow and gradual, retronyms show how new words can appear literally overnight — transforming the way we speak, write, and even think.

And that can be a valuable tool to anyone who wants to change the conversation.

  Writer’s Block is a Myth

Writer's block is bad for pencils.You’ve heard the “writer’s block” story hundreds of times. Maybe you’ve even experienced it yourself. It usually goes something like this:

  1. Writer sits at desk to create amazing masterpiece.
  2. Nothing happens.
  3. Writer stares at a the wintery wasteland of a blank, white piece of paper/screen.
  4. Nothing happens.
  5. Agony/weeping/gnashing of teeth.
  6. Nothing happens.

There are few things more miserable for a writer than not knowing what words to put on a page, especially when there’s a deadline looming.

Yet despite its infamous reputation, “writer’s block” isn’t some wordsmith’s disorder that strikes without reason. In fact, it’s not what’s “causes” the block at all. It’s a symptom that appears when you haven’t done your pre-writing homework.

Writer’s block: fiction vs. reality

There’s a common misconception that writers just go into their lonely writer’s garrets, sit down, and start plopping words onto the page. This can work if you’re a fantasy novelist who practices “discovery writing,” but it’s a different story when it comes to marketing copy.

Writer’s block, then, is a sign that your brain needs you to do one or more of the following things before you hit the keyboard:

Listen to the client

What does your client want to communicate? If you’re working with someone who already has some marketing savvy, you’ll probably get a creative brief with background on the topic and some strategy guidelines. If not, you may need to ask the client for more details. Try to think like a member of the target audience when the client is filling you in. This will help you spot information the client may not have thought to provide because of their intimate familiarity with what they sell.

Identify the desired action

Every piece of marketing copy should focus on encouraging the reader to take one specific action. Download content. Request a consultation. Attend an event. Make a purchase. Make sure you know what it is before you write a single word.

Do research

Writer’s block sometimes strikes when you don’t know a key piece of information. For example, if you’re dealing with a very specialized or technical subject that you’re new to, you might need to learn about it before you can write about it. You’ll also want to learn as much as you can about the people you’re writing for. Who are your client’s buyers? What do they want and need? How do they talk? Do they think like your client, or do they have different motivations? The more you know about them, the more effectively you’ll be able to communicate your client’s message and encourage the action they want.

Focus

Another common cause of writer’s block is being overwhelmed with information. When this happens, your job is to get organized. First, figure out what you don’t need. Compare your material to the goals of the project, and set anything that isn’t relevant. Next, organize the remaining information in a logical order for the reader’s action journey. Stuff that attracts and excites their interest needs to appear first. Everything else should build on that, with each additional point of information guiding them one step closer to the desired action.

Low-tech solutions often work best here. I frequently tackle complicated projects by making 3×5 cards with summaries of all the key copy points. I spread them out on the table, move them around to find the most compelling flow of information, then gather them up into a stack and use them as my guide for the finished piece.

Outline

Still not sure where to begin? Try mapping things out in outline form. Once it makes sense there, you’ll literally have a roadmap that tells you exactly what to write. All you’ll need to do is add a little polish and detail.

If you’ve done the 3×5 card exercise described above, you’ve essentially built your outline already. Just pick up the stack and start at the top.

  What goes in a copy style guide?

A copy style guide doesn't need to be this complicated.Every set of brand standards should include a copy style guide to keep your writing team on track. Just as you define rules for how logos and other visual elements should be used, a style guide will help your writer(s) present your brand in the proper way.

A good copy style guide is especially useful if you’re working with multiple writers. It encourages a consistent “voice” that supports your brand strategy even if you have more work than one writer can handle.

But even if you only have one writer, it’s still a good idea to have clear standards. Freelancers and in-house writers who work on multiple brands will find it easier to stay on target. A guide helps maintain consistency over time, especially if there’s a lag between projects. Your guide will also make it simpler to bring new writers up to speed if you need to add or replace a team member.

Here are six tips for creating a great copy style guide:

Know your audience

Before you define anything else, create at least one audience persona that represents your target readers. Give this person a name, a photo, and a story that makes them seem real. If you have multiple audience segments, create a different persona for each one.

Define your style

The “voice” of your brand should complement its look by using a matching style and tone. If your logo is colorful and playful, you don’t want copy that’s stuffy and formal. A good voice should be distinctive enough that buyers will know it’s you even if they can’t see the logo. (Check out these five tips for creating an authentic voice.)

Show AND tell

Don’t just describe the type of writing you want. Back up your guidelines with specific samples. Most copy style guides include several examples of good writing that match the desired voice. Some guides also show copy that doesn’t fit the style, often followed by corrected versions. This “do this/not that” approach is especially useful when updating an existing copy strategy.

Document your quirks

Clearly spell out any style or grammar practices specific to your brand. One popular toy brand I’ve written for has a two-word name that can never be broken up by a line, column, or page break. Your writers will need to know how to deal with conflicts if your brand deviates from common grammar practices. (Should “eBay” or “iPhone” be capitalized at the beginning of a sentence?)

Depending on your brand, you might also list specific words to use (or not to use). This works best as part of a positioning strategy. For example, your brand may want to define everything it sells as “solutions” instead of “products,” or avoid terms that have strong associations with a competitor. Your guide probably isn’t the best place for SEO keyword lists, which need to be flexible enough to respond to changing market conditions and strategies.

Know your backup plan

Your guide can’t cover everything, and shouldn’t try. Instead, wrap up your playbook by designating a broader style guide as your go-to source for grammar and other style questions. Some of the most commonly used by marketing people include:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style. Published since 1906, Chicago is one of the most respected style guides used in the US. If you’re a professional editor or come from a publishing background this is probably your bible — and it’s almost as thick. It covers several different style formats and is great for squishing spiders too. Thankfully there’s also a searchable online version.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (usually called the “AP Stylebook”) is designed for professional journalists. It includes guidelines for writing about major organizations and brands. You’ll also find useful comparisons of similar words, such as when to use “it’s” instead of “its”. AP is updated every year to stay current with changes to language, usage, and law.
  • The Business Style Handbook is specifically for people who write on the job (as opposed to journalists), based on surveys of communications executives at Fortune 500 companies. It was last revised in 2012 to add best practices for online communication.

Keep your copy style guide current

Market trends, customer needs, legislation, and even the language itself are all moving targets. Effective marketing teams review their copy style guides at least once a year, adjusting as needed to keep their messaging on target.

You’ll also want to update your guide any time your own brand objectives change. One of my clients recently realized most of their buyers were outside their target age demographic. Part of their response was to create a completely new style guide to shift their marketing focus.

  Managing Multiple Writers

Rubber ducks in a rowHaving a writing partner who knows your business inside and out can be a great marketing asset. But what if you have more work than one writer can handle? Working with multiple writers makes the process a bit trickier, but it’s easy to manage if you have the right process in place.

Make consistency your goal

While your audience may not realize it, they expect to have the same experience every time they read something you publish. For example, if you’re serious one day and cracking jokes the next, your prospects might get confused or question your credibility.

The primary challenge when working with multiple writers, therefore, is to make sure you still “sound like you” no matter which member of your team does the writing. In fact, it’s more important for your writers to be consistent than it is for them to be clever, witty, or even brilliant. You can try to standardize your approach by having conversations with your writers, but it’s much better to have your expectations documented in writing.

Build a playbook

One of the best ways to keep multiple writers on the same page, as it were, is to set up a style guide or “playbook” that spells out what you’re looking for.

I’ll talk about what goes into a writing style guide in more detail in an upcoming post, but at a glance it should include:

  • Guidelines for the voice and tone of your brand, including who you’re writing for
  • Examples of good writing in your desired style
  • Writing examples that don’t fit your style
  • Specific words to use (or not use)
  • Any style or grammar practices you care about
  • A default stylebook for anything you haven’t covered, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook

Be generous with feedback

A good writer will eventually have an instinctive idea for how your brand should sound. It might even seem like he or she is reading your mind. Until they reach that level, the more feedback you can provide the better.

One of the most effective ways to give constructive feedback to multiple writers is to refer to the playbook, and to be as specific as possible. For example, you might suggest keywords that could be added to the copy, or indicate where the tone could be altered to emphasize the needs of a particular market segment. Don’t just say “this is wrong.” Be as specific as possible about what isn’t right, where relevant guidelines can be found in the playbook, and what could be changed to improve it.

As you give feedback, be open to the suggestions your writers come back with, especially if they work outside your organization. They may provide insights that hadn’t occurred to you. If they make sense, consider changing the playbook to accommodate them. If you’re not ready to go that far, try an A/B test to see which approach gets the best response.