I’m going to be honest with you.
I was very apprehensive about creating RE: Writing.
Even though I pitched it as my journey as a writer . . .
Even though I clarified that I’m still in the middle of that journey . . .
In the end of the day, I would be posting writing tips. Tips I would share with other writers. Tips I would advocate as being crucial to know.
And yes, RE: Writing has other things, too. Musings. Personal stories. Inspiration. Whatever this was. But it also has tips.
My apprehension wasn’t because I felt I didn’t have the right to share those tips. The things I write, I whole-heartedly believe. They’re things that I have used over and over again to shape my own career.
I was concerned, however, that my wellspring of tips would eventually run dry.
And after I shared everything I’d learned, what else would I have to post?
Well, I haven’t quite reached that stage yet. But I did come to a realization recently. I don’t need to have all the answers right now. Because I’m still in the middle of my journey.
I’ll learn them as I go.
So here are five things I learned over the past few months. I’m sure I learned more than just five things in that time period—at least, I’d like to think that I have—but these are the ones that spring to mind.
Yeah, I know. Not very original, right? You could probably find a hundred posts on your LinkedIn feed right now, droning on about how you should learn from your mistakes. It’s a great catchphrase for when the mistake’s over and done with, but when you send confidential information to a client or order a huge shipment to the wrong customer, it doesn’t tend to placate your boss. Because sure, mistakes help us learn.
They also can be rather costly.
I used to feel I had to avoid mistakes like they’re the plague, to the extent that I felt it was a betrayal of my job if I made one. But then, several weeks ago, a rather amusing—and embarrassing—occurrence happened that shook me of that view.
Our entire marketing team is signed up to receive emails from BuzzSumo. We received one about a new post titled New Research Answers: Is Content Marketing Sustainable? I immediately opened it. Content marketing is what I do—if it’s not sustainable, then I’m kinda out of a job.7
The post dealt with a 2014 article from Mark Schaefer, arguing that content marketing was dying out from something called Content Shock. Simply put, there is just too much content out there for any one person to consume. The chances of anyone getting to your piece of content out of everything else there is available is so low, it’s practically a waste of time to create it.
There are ways, the post continued, to counter this. More than ever, quality content is key. You need to stand out if you want to be heard. Likewise, if you can find a small niche—called an unsaturated market—and cater to that, then you are more likely to succeed.
After reading the article, I replied with an email to the rest of my team. I wrote that I had read the post and that, though it was interesting, I felt like I was missing something. The answer was nothing new. Just keep posting quality content, and try to narrow down your focus as much as possible. These are basic tips everyone knows. Is the answer really that simple?
I finished writing the email, and sent it to the team.
Only I didn’t send it to the team.
I actually sent it back to BuzzSumo.
To make matters worse, I got a reply back from BuzzSumo several minutes later.
I was mortified. I had publicly represented the entire marketing team without asking permission. True, I hadn’t really said anything wrong, but the emails weren’t being sent to me. It wasn’t my place to represent the team.
So I got up and told my manager about it.
Rather than being annoyed, he was thrilled. He said any chance to learn something is valuable, and I did learn something. Not only had I received an answer, I’d also proven to the entire team that BuzzSumo values their readers and are willing to respond to their questions. That’s a big deal.
He ended off by telling me that I should feel free to make these types of mistakes in the future.
I learned that day that not only do we learn from mistakes, but I need to stop treating them like they’re the bogeyman. I’m going to make mistakes.
And that’s OK.
2. Good writing is subjective
I’m going to have to be a little vague with this story to protect confidentiality, but here’s the gist of it.
Several months ago, I was writing a newsletter that would be sent to a client’s employees. It was a big company, and I knew that the employees received a lot of emails they weren’t interested in. So I wanted to write a humorous lead-in—something that would entertain them enough that they would take a few minutes away from their workload to read the newsletter.
I wrote the following:
There’s nothing like kicking back at work with a good read. If you haven’t got one, this newsletter will make an OK alternative.
I liked it. I thought it was both funny and a little self-deprecating—two standards I think are important for brands in today’s day and age.
So I sent it to the client for review, and he told me to get rid of it.
When I asked him why, he explained to me that the company was currently suffering from a perception problem. Some employees believed that the company wasn’t living up to its quality standards. So, rather than having the desired effect of the reader smiling and being entertained, the lead-in could instead make them agree that their company really was only “OK”—and their time was better served reading something else.
Good copy is subjective. Was the lead-in funny? I think so. Was it entertaining? I think so. Was it good?
Depends on where it’s being used.
3. If you’re reliant on technology, know that technology.
This is another embarrassing story that happened at work.
We have a lot of incredibly experienced and talented employees working at our company. So, several months ago, I began writing feature articles about those employees to share with the rest of the company. To do that, I interview them first.
For my first interview, I brought along a pen and paper and a Zoom h4n recorder—which I borrowed from a coworker—for backup. I soon discovered, though, that I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with the interviewee, so I stopped writing and just relied on the Zoom—which has become my process since.
Cue the embarrassing story.
It was just after my third interview. I sat down at my desk, extracted the file to my computer, and started to listen . . .
And heard nothing
There was no audio.
I double-checked that I’d extracted the right file—I had. So I got up and asked the coworker who’d lent me the Zoom, who showed me that the person who’d used it before me had switched the Zoom from built-in mic input to external mic input. Basically, the Zoom could either hear the audio through its own microphones or external microphones, and it had been switched to hear the audio from an external mic.
And no such mic had been plugged in.
The first thing I did was write down what I could remember. I then sent an email to the employee I’d interviewed, owning my mistake and telling him I was going to work with what I had but I might have to come ask him for details that I’d forgotten.
Ultimately, through some hard work on my end and a lot of patience on that of the interviewee’s, I made it work. But, before my next interview, I made sure to sit down with my coworker and asked him to show me how to use the Zoom.
Because if I was going to be reliant on it, I needed to know how to tell if it was working.
4. An About Page Shouldn’t Be Better than the Brand
I’ve recently begun writing about pages for clients. I’ve written a bunch of them now—including, obviously, the about page for RE: Writing—but I still remember the first one ever I wrote.
It was for a brand that sold accessories for high octane, adventurous photographers. So I started off the about page as follows.
Life is meant to be enjoyed.
And then I wrote the remainder of the copy.
When I sent it to the client for review, he told me he liked the opening lines, but he felt that it contained more personality than the brand itself had. It was a very generic brand, with no unique products at all. It was basically just an affordable way to buy the same accessories sold elsewhere. So if we were to stick with the copy I’d written, we’d be faking a personality the brand doesn’t have.
It was an interesting lesson for me. About pages are exactly that—telling you what the brand is. And we, as writers, are supposed to make that story interesting and entertaining.
But we can’t give it something it’s not.
5. Copy has to be earned
This is a lesson that has been drilled into me, over and over again. New copywriters, I feel, like to ask themselves what’s the best thing they can write for this job. When asked to write something—web copy, an advertisement, a product display—they try to find the best way possible to tell the story they’ve been asked to tell.
An experienced copywriter tries to find the best way possible to tell the story for this brand.
It’s a big difference. Suppose you’ve been asked to write a home page for a brand. You do some research and look around at what the big names are doing. You see they’ve taken a very assertive stance—they’re the best, and they know it. They don’t mince their words. Their home page is all about why you can’t get what they have anywhere else.
So you figure that you should do something similar for your home page. After all, if it works for the big names, it should work for you. But that’s the difference. They’ve earned the right to make those claims. Decades of hard work, a proven record for high quality products, and a reputation for incredible customer service has earned them the right to claim they’re the best.
Have you earned that right?
This lesson can be applied in a very micro way as well. I was recently asked by a friend to review a landing page he’d written. He was writing about studio monitor headphones and why you need them, and he explained that if you’re an audio engineer, you can’t rely on poor quality headphones or “some celebrity-endorsed fashion accessory.” When I told him that I felt that it was condescending, he said that it was his goal. He was trying to imitate the tone other brands were using on the subject.
To which I replied that yeah, they’re condescending. But they’ve earned that right.
Eli Landes is one of those weird writers who just can't get enough. A marketing writer by day and a fiction writer whenever he can squeeze in the time, he spends his spare time working on his novel, writing short fiction, or daydreaming (I mean, researching). His main genre is Jewish fiction, but he's been known to dabble in the weird, the absurd, and the truly dark.