A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who has long wanted to be a novelist called me out of the blue. She’d quit her job to concentrate on her book, but was taking freelance writing gigs to pay the bills. She was distressed because she’d been hired to write copy for an insurance company and was now suffering from writer’s remorse.
Apparently, the nameless company was launching a new line of products and wanted sales sheets for its agents to use. She’d taken the job (which is apparently fairly lucrative), but as soon as she’d signed the contract, she felt like she’d sold out her art.
It made me think of something one of my clients once said to me nearly ten years ago, "We love to work with you, Cara, because you're the perfect blend of artist and hack."
Now. I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment. It’s actually fairly hard to find any complimentary interpretation of the word “hack” especially when applied to a writer, but I knew what he meant.
There is a difference between being a pure artist or a pure hack. My client had need of neither. He didn’t need a poet to write his annual report. (I don’t quite see the shareholders enjoying reading excerpts from the 10k in iambic pentameter or even free verse – however much subversive fun it might have been to write). But neither did he want a complete hack who would take no care over the writing and no pride in the creation.
My client needed applied artistry. The use of metaphor or fresh phrasing in otherwise dry copy stands out like my grandmother trout-slapping people on FaceBook. It’s unexpected, entertaining, delightful.
Everyone deserves to read good writing. Every client deserves the best I can do. And if I'm writing copy for insurance companies rather than the Great American novel, don't those policyholders still deserve to read clear, engaging writing? A fresh metaphor? Don’t they deserve clarity? (Actually, I can think of few people more in need of clear writing than those trying to decipher information about the insurance industry.)
I am always happy when I find something unexpected in the copy I’m reading, whether it’s one of the inserts in my credit card or the newsletter from my bank. I cut them out and save them and give thanks for the anonymous copywriter who took the time – and had the talent and the skill – to get my attention in a good way. (I also cut out and save the really atrocious bits of copy, too. I’m afraid I have more bad examples than good, but that’s another post).
So in the end, I had two bits of advice for my friend: embrace both your artistry and your hackiness. Look for every way possible to bring art to commerce within the bounds of your project. (No existentialism in the sales sheets, please.) And if all else fails, I told her, she could always subcontract the work to me.