Over the course of my career, I’ve been able to write for a variety of blogs, websites and other projects. Those have generally fallen into one of four categories:
- Personal blogs
- Industry news
- Client (agency or freelance) work
Each one has required me to establish and adhere to a different writing style.
Flexibility is an essential skill in any writer. While it’s great to idealize the idea of writing as one that allows you to unreservedly express yourself, the reality is that you’re going to have to adapt and conform your writing to the expectations if you’re going to make a living at it. At least if you’re going to make a living at it while working for other people. The dream is still alive if you’re working on becoming an author (which I am) and taking control of your own destiny. Until then, you get to play someone else’s game by their rules and in their own style.
For each one of the above categories, here’s how I’ve gone about making my writing work with the grain of what’s expected by myself, the audience, and the company and/or client I worked for.
It should be obvious this is the category that’s allowed the most freedom of self-expression. I can do basically whatever I want here or on Cinematic Slant and in whatever style I choose. There’s no one to answer to or hold my feet to the fire about tone or anything else.
That doesn’t mean it’s the wild west here, though. There are goals I want to achieve, including getting more freelance work or finding a full-time job. So the tone I strike here still has to be in service of those goals. This may be the field on which I have the most control and can experiment most freely, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work to make every post as good as it can be. If I’m failing in other regards, it may be that I’m failing here.
Still, if you’re looking for a clear and relatively accurate representation of the voices in my head, this is where you’ll find it. This is me sounding out my thoughts and working out the issues I have.
I’ve contributed to five employer blogs – Bacon’s Information, MWW Group, Spout.com, Voce and Porter Novelli/PNConnect – in the course of my career. While I’ve always enjoyed a generally favorable amount of latitude in terms of what I’m allowed to publish and what style I effect, there are still restrictions. Sometimes those have been stated outright, other times they’re more implicit. At the very least, they’re present in my mind as I write a post.
My primary consideration when writing for one of these blogs has been that I am, by publishing a post, putting forward my thoughts, opinions, and perspectives as being representative of the company employing me.
Sorry, but if you’re not humble and careful in light of that, you’re just not paying attention. Countless people over the years have been fired because of what they’ve posted to the blogs or social media profiles of the company they worked for. Indeed, I’ve had a couple close calls myself. It all means I need to be more thoughtful, more well-reasoned and more balanced than I might otherwise be. An opinion is certainly (at least usually) allowed, but you have to back it up and show your homework to make it viable. Otherwise, you can damage not just your own reputation but that of your employer, which puts the fate of others in jeopardy as well.
My employer-driven contributions haven’t been limited to public blog posts, of course. I’ve written a number of internal documents and white papers meant to use as sales lead material as well. Each one of those necessitates their own voice depending on who the intended audience is. These are often more dry and factual than compelling and engaging.
Beginning with AdJab and running all the way through Adweek, I’ve written about one facet or another of the marketing industry via bylined posts/articles for professional blogs and publications.
The freedom to “express myself” has varied somewhat from one outlet to the next, but they’ve all had in common one factor: They’re meant to speak to other industry professionals. Yes, that’s the same basic audience as a corporate blog, but in a different way. These posts are just meant to be educational and informative, not carrying the additional goal of converting to new business.
There have been a few times where, in retrospect, I was essentially hijacking a freelance outlet like this as my personal blog, writing something cheeky or sarcastic on a topic that was on my mind. By and large, though, I try to fit in with the overall tone and goals of the site.
That’s sometimes tricky considering these sites have multiple authors, all writing in their own styles. There’s no “house style” as there might have been in the glory days of print magazines controlled by iron-willed editors. Everyone is free to do their own thing, but as with an employer blog, I never want to abuse the trust that’s been placed in me. That can get access cut off in a hurry.
A significant percentage of my writing over the last 10 years or more doesn’t carry my name and in fact may be presented as coming from someone else entirely. That’s alright, though, since part of the job when you’re a writer is doing a little ghostwriting here and there.
That means I don’t just have to keep other business-related goals and considerations in mind but I have to actively work to sound like someone else. In some cases that’s relatively easy because it’s someone I work and talk with regularly. In others it’s more difficult because I’ve never met the person and don’t know who will be attaching their name to my words.
So I have to work from an overall program style guide. I have to use the preferred terminology and positioning statements as well as adhere to a host of other guidelines and standards.
That’s largely not a problem not only because of my experience in doing so but my background in creating just those sorts of documents. I know the rigor that goes into their formation so can appreciate the *why* behind a particular decision and don’t just have to blindly accept it regardless of how much it does or doesn’t make sense.
Adapting my own writing style to the needs of any particular assignment isn’t what I’d call easy. Draft 2 is usually a lot closer to what the client is looking for then Draft 1, which is usually me hearing myself talk. But it’s a necessary reality for the working writer. Indeed I’d go a step farther and say the challenge of conforming to the stylistic choices I wasn’t part of creating has made me a better writer over the years. That may not be true for everyone, but it’s certainly true for me.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.