We all know that youth is king in pretty much any arena. It reigns supreme with online dating and in the world of fashion. It is also the hip thing to be in the workforce. But, given that writers are often out of the public eye (well, physically), and that they also tend to get better with experience AND age, does the youth culture matter when it comes to being hired?
Wrinkled Writers Rock Fine wine. A well-seasoned cast-iron pan. A writer who has been around the block more than a few times. All of these things tend to get better with age. Let’s face it–a youthful, dewy-fresh writer can be a breath of fresh air for a corporation. They bring new insights, ideas, and culture to their position. They also bring less than a few years of writing experience to the table, and perhaps haven’t written for the gamut, from brochures and eblasts, to white papers and press releases. Knowledge comes from experience in having to craft copy for a variety of niches, and oftentimes from falling flat on your face. This is where an older writer has the ace up their support hose.
Looks Aren’t Everything As I mentioned above, writers are usually out of the public eye. We aren’t the ones going out into the field selling stuff. We usually aren’t on television, even if we become famous for something such as writing a blockbuster novel. So, if we look a little blotchy, have some gray hair, and our parts are dangling more than standing at attention, then we should be good regardless. Granted, eye candy around the office is always a tempting treat, but if you want good copy, you may very well be better off with the older writer.
But Isn’t This Ageism? Not really. We are judging a writer on their ability and expertise, and both are usually honed with experience. The writer who is older than dirt (just kidding) knows how to come at a project from varying angles because, chances are, they’ve seen this project before but for a different client or job. Snags and snafus have likely also been addressed in a previous lifetime, enabling the older writer to pull from their bag of tricks and make magic happen to save the day.
Age is a Number Surely (not Shirley) age is just a number, or so we tell ourselves. But the fact is that with age, our bodies and minds start losing elasticity, gumption, energy, and a host of other things. We may not have the steam of a 20-something writer for long, arduous projects that require midnight runs for Del Taco to keep the momentum going. However, we haven’t lost the desire to do a job well, and see it through to fruition. So take your eyes away from the crows feet and wrinkles, and let the work in front of you speak for itself.
I’ve often heard fellow writers say that their stories are based on real experiences. You know, things that they went through that somehow, some way, propelled them to write about it. More often than not, they came at the story from another angle, touting it as fiction based on real events or something like that. If so, what happens when the writer releases their personal story onto the page?
Ahhhh… cathartic release!
Cathartic writing has been an effective method of getting feelings about experiences out of the psyche, without necessarily having to sit down in front of a psychologist. The simple release of tension that builds from contained personal stories is almost enough to dispel the ghosts and relieve the writer of the pressure within. However, no matter what method the writer chooses to share this experience, be it a work of “fiction” or a journal hidden in the bowels of a bathroom drawer, one question continually nags–is it really enough?
Many of my stories are based on personal experiences. How else would I know what teenagers say while driving 100 mph down a hill, drunk, and in a flurry of angered emotions? Research, while an important part of writing, is sometimes not enough to get to the heart of the character experience. For this, the authenticity must come out, and for that to truly shine you need personal experience.
Granted, some writers have faked it till they made it. One book about 50 Shades of Grey comes to mind. The writer was never involved in BDSM, and even though she did her research, the authenticity just isn’t there. Sure, I could write about what it’s like to be the ice cream man. I could watch trucks drive by and stop for neighborhood kids in the summer. I might even ride shotgun on a run to see what all the fuss is about while handing out Eskimo Pies. In the end, though, I never become an ice cream man, and therefore I just don’t know the reality of what it’s like to be one.
Essentially, if you’re going to write something, do it from experience. And make sure it’s something you need to get off of your chest. Plus, you ideally should want to write your story for the sheer joy of it (or the relief, as with cathartic writing). Then maybe you’ll get a great story out of it. Or at least a release.
My first job in publishing was with Gun World Magazine. You could say that my career started off with a bang. That is a particularly negative connotation these days, given the severe increase in gun violence seen in schools. However, it’s literally how all of this writing business got started, and I want to share the experience of being around guns and gun enthusiasts while trying to write and edit, what it taught me, and my thoughts on the whole matter of guns.
It All Began in the Boom Room
That’s what the owners of Gun World Magazine called the locked room where all the goods were stored. In a little California town called Capistrano Beach, tons of guns and ammo, including high-powered assault rifles and antique handguns from the days of the wild frontier, were held under lock and key. Nobody was allowed in the “Boom Room,” except for said owners and a few Gallant Charger staff writers (Gallant was the group publisher of Gun World, as well as Horse and Horseman and Bow & Arrow Hunting). These guys (I say guys because most of the employees were men) were ex-Marines, trained in weapons and trusted to use them to protect God and country. As a new copy editor in the publishing field, I felt safe working there, just in case the next revolution started.
Gun World Magazine was started by Jack Lewis, a military man with Hollywood side gigs. By the time I arrived on the publication’s doorstep in 1991, it had been around for 30-plus years. And by the looks of it, so had Jack. Bloated, unhealthy, and sporting a Baby Huey body, he’d sit in his office coughing and hacking from the COPD and emphysema he got from years of smoking Sherman cigarettes. As a substitute for smoking, Jack chomped on toothpicks. Quite the character, Jack made sure everyone in the office knew what gun ownership meant—freedom and the right to bear arms. It was also clear that hunting was a part of this, given the multitude of yellowing trophies that lined the office walls. I had an aging ram’s head above my desk, complete with cobwebs and nicotine-stained wool.
“Do you have a problem with guns?” I looked at my interviewer, a small Third-Reich looking man named Mark, and shook my head to indicate no. Of course not. I grew up with a dad who had a shotgun in the closet, a handgun in the dresser, and ammo in his sock drawer. My brother and I never touched the guns. We knew we weren’t supposed to, and quite frankly I wasn’t interested in them. I also wanted the job, so nodding seemed appropriate.
“Good, because we’re about guns, and you’re gonna see people walking around with them all day, every day.” And he was right! It was no big deal to see writer Steve walk down the hall with an assault rifle, on his way to the range to try it out and then write about the experience. I was the copy editor, so I got to read these gun stories and make sure they flowed. And flowed they did. This SoCal girl learned about reloads, caliber, powder, recoil, and how to follow the blood trail of a shot buck. Foamy and pink meant you’d hit the lungs. Dark blood meant you got a shot at the heart.
There was lots of opportunity at Gun World to learn computers, which at the time were new in the publishing world. I had a Mac Classic, which I could barely read copy on because the screen was tiny and black, with green type. This little machine, along with my AP Style manual and other tricks of the copy editing trade, helped me to hone my craft even though something felt off about how excited these guys got about their guns. I even had a chance to train on how to use a gun with famed firearms instructor, Massad Ayoob, but that fell through. I was never offered another chance to learn how to shoot.
It’s About Rights, Right?
The Second Amendment was a hot button at Gun World. Of course, it is about the right to bear arms, and these guys weren’t having any talk about gun control. Jack would kvetch about Sarah Brady, the wife of James Brady, who was gunned down during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, and how stupid she was to even think about taking away the right to bear arms. I didn’t think much of it, but I did know that gun violence affected Sarah Brady’s life and left her husband paralyzed, and so she must have had a different take on the Second Amendment and guns in general.
I realize now, over 25 years later, that the men of Gun World Magazine were ferociously protective of their rights because they did not want to be stripped of the joy they found with guns and the right to own them. Everyone has something they are enthusiastic about, and guns can be one of them. However, many of these men did not live to see what happened at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas, or the countless other schools across the country experiencing mass shootings and the deaths of children at the hands of disturbed people (sadly, many of them also children) who had access to a gun. Even so, chances are the men that I worked with would still say, “Don’t you dare take away my goddamn right to own a gun.”
Freedom and the Right to Feel Secure
Owning a gun is a personal liberty, written into the Constitution that was created to protect our freedom. I believe we have the right to protect ourselves, and that responsible gun ownership can be a part of this. But the type of gun, and how that gun is earned and managed by the owner needs to change. Assault rifles should not be available to the public. Weapons of ANY kind should go into a locked safe to keep them away from kids. This is not taking away the Second Amendment or guns from responsible owners–it is common sense and a way in which to keep guns out of the hands of people who are not capable of restraint.
(Note: Gun World Magazine was sold after I left the publication. This post is about my experience during the Gallant Charger days in the early 1990s.)
Writers are often hailed as being introverted. The quiet type. And sometimes considered shy. These traits are not truly detrimental to the creative process, as writing often requires putting intense thought to paper. However, they can also hamper the ability of a writer to make their way through the corporate mire towards this brass ring everyone talks about (and seemingly few writerly folk truly reach). When you’re a writer, which way should you grow?
Career paths are often seen as a trajectory. You start at the bottom, work your way up, manage people, and eventually get the corner office. Well, then what? And is it really that simple? What about the process of career growth for writers who don’t want to necessarily manage people? The still and quiet voice that stirs the fury and passion of composing words can be overlooked in loud, boisterous corporate environments that encourage squeaky wheels with polished presentations and project management skills. Granted, people with these skills are needed to run the work machine, but for those who do not see themselves going down that path, how can they make progress toward something more than being just a writer?
You may think, “Oh, you can become a senior writer or even creative services manager. Heck, let’s shoot for creative director and there ya go!” Nice try, and you would be right to think of these elevated positions as being ideal for writers. But getting noticed in the first place by the Powers That Be can be an intense challenge for those who hunker down at their desks, typing away and concepting the bright, informative ideas behind the corporate machine. We don’t want to talk loud at meetings, talk over people, pound the desk with our fist and get excited about spreadsheets and margins. Those things simply do not tickle our fancy, but give us a story line and we are all over that like butter on toast. So, how are we, as writers, to exist in the corporate world? And what if that’s like trying to pound your head against a brick wall?
Get to Know People: It’s all about who you know in life, and that especially applies to the business world. When you get to work, do more than go to your desk and bang out a few projects. Instead, see who is moving the ideas and work along. Key influencers are those who decide on the things that eventually funnel down to you. It is good to know these people, or at least the people that work under them, who can lend your ideas and expertise an ear and hopefully send that up over the executive plate. Plus, it’s always nice to know who in the office can get you the information you need to write something.
Tow the Line: Doing a good job and what you’re told to can earn you a paycheck, but what kind of satisfaction do you get from that? You may not want to move up, down, or sideways, as long as you’re not moved out the door. It may seem easier to just move through projects, apply the knowledge you learned in school, and call it a day at 5. Many writers simply cannot live this way for very long (at least the ones who care about what they’re doing).
Get Strokes From Different Folks: A nice blend of work life and personal life can give you the paycheck you need, as well as the praise you desire. If your boss isn’t saying, “Nice job,” and talking about promoting you in some way, shape, or fashion, you can always get your kicks elsewhere. Some writers see this as meaning to jump ship, but the downside of that is you’re always looking for a new job just because the one you’ve got isn’t giving you the ego strokes you need. So, go out there and write in your spare time, whether that’s for freelance clients, your personal blog (hey, that’s what I’m doing!), or your mom. When you put your creativity in your own hands, it doesn’t matter much what the boss thinks (again, as long as you remain INSIDE the corporate door).
Get Lucky: Maybe you’ll hit the work jackpot and your boss will adore you so much that you’re promoted to associate creative director. Here, it is really about who you know and how well you get on with them. Good writers abound in corporate America, but not all of them go to lunch with the creative eirector every Tuesday and Thursday, and attend their holiday parties. You won’t stand a chance against that writer unless you are that writer.
Whatever happens in your writing career, be sure to not get your trousers in a bunch and become personally hurt about it all. It’s not about you. It’s about how business works, and whether you’re a writer, spreadsheet magician, or a receptionist, you would do best to detach from the emotions surrounding praise, that raise, and your hectic days. Instead, stay real to who you are and pat yourself on the back for getting the words out.
Maybe it is the imagination. Or perhaps it is the breadth of experiences as a human being. But whatever it is, I became a storyteller. I am not with the program tonight, as my main influence as a writer has left the planet and passed on to where we ultimately move on to. My mother, a silly, often paranoid, very emotional and empathic lady, left the earthly plane this morning at 1 a.m. I am numb, more than devastated, and perhaps a bit too far into the merlot at the moment, but I wanted to pay her the respects due for what I consider my craft. Living with her gave me so much material, and I am thankful that she and my late father did not reign me in with constraints, groundings, restriction, and all that silly shit that parents do to teach their kids to behave. Freedom gave me the ultimate opportunity to explore the things that gave me the young adult stories I write about. Thank you, mama. I love you and I will miss you so, so very much.
Hello! I’m back… at least for a brief moment in time to address an issue that recently came up for a friend. I have also experienced this common phenomenon, and no doubt you have as well. It’s about when a client or potential client doesn’t want to pay you for your writing expertise.
Yes, all those years slaving over a hot keyboard, relentlessly beaten down by bad bosses, impossible deadlines, and countless hours of learning subject matter and interviewing God-knows-who, count for something. Even if you are just starting out with freelance writing, chances are you went to school for several years to graduate and become, hopefully, a writer. You should be paid what you are worth.
Going off topic, sort of…
Granted, setting freelance rates is a fine line that takes into account the project scope, such as hours estimated to complete the job, how many rewrites will be included, how often you have to meet the client to discuss the project, et cetera. If you have several years of writing experience (I just realized I am going on 25 years as a copywriter alone!), you must throw that into the pricing mix. And this adds up.
Freelance rates in my experience have been as little as $20/hour for a friend and up to $100 for serious projects that involve research and interviewing. It is a good idea to suggest a flat fee for a project with a built-in prorated fee if the project scope goes outside of the estimated lines. That way, the client won’t be constantly watching the clock and making you feel rushed and crazy, like they are hanging over your shoulder.
A flat fee also takes into account the little goodies such as phone calls, followup, copying, Internet fees and other overhead, and rewrites that often go along with a project. The client then has an all-inclusive project fee they can count on.
Okay, back on topic…
If you’ve been approached by a potential client, or even a current one, to write a project they have, and you’ve quoted them for said project and they’ve balked at your fee, what should you do? Perhaps they are a non-profit with a tight budget. Or a startup with limited funds and a desire to have a seasoned writer compose their stuff. In these instances, you can determine what you can provide these clients within your rate range, and present it accordingly. For example, I had a new startup client ask me to write four blog posts per month. I quoted the project, and they came back that they didn’t have the money for my services. I said thank you for thinking of me, but that was my fee (in the past I would have backed down and truly cheapened my deal just to get the work – I do not recommend doing this). They came back with an alternate proposal wherein I would write two posts per month at my fee. This is an example of modifying what we can do to make sure something good and effective gets done. They get quality writing, and I get paid my rate.
There are ways to work around this common issue. Some jobs will require that you walk away. Others will call on your creativity to figure out a Plan B. Either way, know your worth and stand by it (gee, this sounds a lot like online dating!).
It is fun to walk off of the beaten path, mostly because it’s been beaten to death and you’d rather suck on a piece of dry toast than taste another day on Boredwalk (pun intended). My recent dip into my Editor persona certainly qualified as a slice of cinnamon swirl toast with lots of butter slathered on top.
By chance, the opportunity to do a little editorial work for a large pharmaceutical company fell into my lap. I am with several creative agencies, and one of them delivered the chance to sit and read pharma copy all day and get paid for it. So, that is what I’ve done this last year, and there are definite differences with style and protocols when it comes to working with pharma copy, such as:
AMA style – Who knew that a bunch of medical folk could get so stylish about how words and things that accompany words work? I’m an AP style gal, so AMA was a challenge (even though I used it previously as a chiropractic magazine editor).
Rules of Engagement – Whereas medical marketing requires that one know what can be said, and what cannot, pharmaceutical copy is all that much more stringent. You can promise the world, but you better have the data to back it. There is an extensive amount of fact checking with this line of work, as well as regulatory hoop hopping.
Eye strain – Yes, I admit that my eyeballs fell out with the pondering of 9 point type on a daily basis. Quite a bit of pharma copy is made up of disclaimers, and these can run small. Even with a magnifying glass and good lighting, I would go home at the end of the day with packing tape holding my eyes in their sockets.
There were some editors brought in to help the department that sank like lead to the bottom of the word ocean. Others thrived in the chaos that is pharma, including yours truly. For a brief period, I batted around the idea of writing for the company, but felt that pharmaceutical copywriting wasn’t quite my niche (at least for now). Besides, I loved the editorial department and its funky bunch of candy addicts with red pens. A little sugar, a little ink, and a lot of dedication goes into this world, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.