Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writers, You're in the Sales Biz!

Back when I was entertainment editor at a metropolitan daily, my phone used to ring several times an hour with calls from publicists. I anticipated these calls with about as much enthusiasm as a cat displays for a vet.

Most of the publicists began the conversation by asking something like, "Did you receive the press release I sent last week?" (Yes, I'm ancient. These incidents were in the late 1980s, pre-dating email.) Although I'm a polite person, I made a policy of always answering, "I receive several hundred pieces of mail a day. If you sent it to me, it's probably sitting in my in-basket."

The retort was not only true — it also usually silenced the PR hacks. This meant I was able to get back to my real job — supervising a large and talented group of reporters and filling half a dozen pages of broadsheet paper with interesting stories.

But, in addition to the hacks, there were also a few PR professionals. How I loved talking to them! Instead of telling me their woes — and outlining what they demanded of me — they thought to reframe the issue. They anticipated my problems and, best of all, they came up with a solution for them.

In other words, they took the time to explain how they would help me. There was no "you owe it to XYZ Theatre to support our new show." It was: "Here's how this story will help/entertain/inform your readers." They didn't expect that I owed them anything. They always sold me.

And, guess what? Writers need to do the same thing.

Yes, I know this is hard to believe. You chose writing because it meant you didn't have to leave your nice, safe computer and you could spend your work playing with words? (Bet it was a shock if you became a freelancer and had to sell your services, eh?!)

But in addition to whatever clients you have to deal with, you're also always selling your readers.

That's right — you're a salesperson. You need to convince readers they should take the time to read your copy. It doesn't matter whether you're writing a newsletter, a website or an annual report. If your readers are going to invest their time in your writing, they need to be convinced it's going to be worthwhile.

First, you have to get their attention. The best way to do this is almost always to tell a story (the way I began this column!). Stories are everything to readers. They provide context; they make the dull interesting. Most of all, they are "sticky" — that is, easy to remember.

Second, you have to focus on what the reader wants to learn. This may not be the same as what you want to write. But if you don't give the readers what they want, then they're not going to read. As I explain in my book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, it's a good idea to prepare a Venn Diagram showing where your interests match those of your readers. And — here's the kicker — write only about the area that intersects.

This may sound ruthless but if you want your writing to stand out among the millions of words that are published every day, then a little ruthlessness is not such a bad thing. Especially if you're a salesperson.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 11th 2010, 10:21 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
I am aware of the direction that Ms Gray-Grant, as a publication coach, is coming from and so my comment is one of respectful disagreement.

I used to be a preacher. If I had written only what my congregation wanted to hear, they would never have been challenged to grow spiritually, to chew on hard truths about the Christian faith, and to wrestle with God, as Jacob did, instead of accepting bland truisms about him.
I do agree that writers, even sermon writers, are in the selling business. Not everyone 'bought' what I wrote - and not everyone will 'buy' this comment! But I believe my story can serve as a model for a lot of writing, in that if we only write what people want to read, we are in effect servicing the lowest common denominator.
Many people want to read about scandals, falls from grace, sexual misadventures, and so forth - the dark side of human behaviour. Does that mean we should write about those things because then our writing will sell?
Don't writers have a duty to write from the heart, to write what they believe, even if they can't be sure it will sell? That may sound naive, and certainly not businesslike, but there have surely been enough instances of writers who did this and, because their writing was passionate, truthful, and brilliantly crafted, they created their own market.
I doubt that Lynne Truss expected her book about punctuation (punctuation?!) to be a bestseller, but she must have felt it was a book that she simply had to write. 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' was passionately written, it was truthful, and it was brilliantly crafted, and it created its own market.
Is it fair to draw a distinction between writing as a profession and writing as a calling, a vocation? Professional writers service an established readership, tailoring their writing to the proven taste and demands of their particular market. They are indeed selling their wares, and would be advised to heed all the principles of marketing. Those writing because they feel called to tell a particular story or put their point of view don't even know if they will have a market. Sowing seeds on the wind.
The Mad Men of advertising built an industry on the amazing fact that words have the power to create markets where once there was none. They realised that cleverly written words can sell products that people don't even know they want or need - such as a book about punctuation!

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