What Freelancing Taught Me About Fiction Writing (and Vice Versa)

If you’ve been reading my writing advice, you may wonder: why is my “writing advice” section a mishmash of notes on “creative” writing (fiction, poetry, etc.) and notes on “commercial” writing (copy)?

Here’s why:

It’s all the same thing.

When people ask what I do for a living, and I tell them I’m a “writer,” the next natural question is “What do you write?”

It does not matter what answer I give to this question. It doesn’t matter if I talk about the newsletters and books I ghostwrite for professional clients, or if I mention that I’m working on yet another novel. No one is ever impressed by the answer to this question.

There are a lot of reasons for that. No one really understands what writers do all day, for one thing. No one really thinks of written communications as work, as labor requiring effort to produce, much less as skilled work (yet watch many of these people struggle to send a single email). And even fewer people realize that there is no material difference between writing a novel and writing a guide to breast augmentation (to cite just the last two book-length works I, personally, have produced).

But there really is no difference. Here’s how writing web copy made me a better novelist (and vice versa):

1. I understand why audience matters.

Who are you writing to, what do they already know, what do you want them to get out of reading your words, and what do they want to get out of reading your words?

I’ve tried teaching this to college freshmen in various genres: creative nonfiction, letters to the editor, research essays, and so on. I’ve also written marketing and ad copy for the better part of a decade. And the second one taught me how to understand and manipulate an audience better than anything ever has. If I could put every one of my students through it, I would.

By the time I sat down to write a novel, understanding my audience’s perspective was easy. So was sitting on information until exactly the moment I wanted them to have it – exactly the moment that would get me the reaction I was going for. I’d been doing it with web copy, email campaigns, and advertisements for years.

2. I’m in the habit of writing 10,000 words a day, no matter what.

When I started writing for money, I was making one to three cents a word.  I also had no other job or job prospects. It was 2009, and I was bedridden. To make enough money to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table, I had to write a lot, and I had to write fast.

I had to develop the habit of banging words onto the page, along with the skill to do it right the first time. Every second I spent proofreading or editing was a second that turned my penny a word into a fraction of a penny a word – and yet I couldn’t turn in error-riddled work, or I’d be making nothing at all.

For years, I have been writing five to ten thousand words a day for pay. Some days, I wrote considerably more. Rarely do I do less than five thousand. And that’s before I write for Patreon, or write poetry, or work on my novel. That’s before emails, before text messages or Facebook updates or tweets that only I think are funny. Five to ten thousand words a day, every day. For eight years.

By the time I sat down to start my first novel, a year ago, writing was relatively easy. I don’t bang out five to ten thousand words a day on the novel, unless I’m having a particularly good day and/or am deep in Act Three (which is where the “ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES” instinct kicks in). But I can sit down and do some writing on it, every day. And that is, of course, the only way 70,000 words get put on paper – one word at a time.

3. I have learned not to care what people think of my work, or what happens to it once I click “Send.”

Writing five to ten thousand words of throwaway copy that didn’t even have my name on it every day for years taught me something else, too. It taught me to not to get attached to my words.

A lot of aspiring writers get bogged down here. They feel like they must produce the next Great American Novel, or that no one will ever truly understand their genius. Years ago, on a dating site, I got a message from a guy who tried to “connect” with me as a “fellow writer,” only to admit that his work “never sees the light of day” because “either I feel that I am not expressing myself and my ideas adequately, or no one except my friends will ever understand it.”

In other words, dude is so attached to his own work he can’t have confidence in it.

I get stuck here too, sometimes. The hardest point in any novel draft for me is the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. I’ve set up my characters, I’ve given them a problem to solve, and I’ve got them poised right on the edge of the abyss…and what comes crawling out of that abyss is my own boiling insecurity. “What is this crap? This is boring. Nobody is going to want to read this.”

The exact same thing could be said of the 5600 words on Texas professional license revocation that I wrote this morning.

Writing copy makes it easier to ignore the voice of the abyss. It makes it easier not to confuse my writing with my own identity. Which, in turn, makes it easier to keep going, even when I’m convinced no one will ever want to read this crap. And lo and behold, people want to read this crap.

Once in a while, I’ll be writing in a coffee shop and get approached by an art-student type who wants to know if I’m a writer and what I’m writing. Art Student Type then smugly informs me that he (it’s always a he) is writing a screenplay (it’s always a screenplay).

I’ll say, “that’s nice.” And go back to banging out five thousand words on the latest commercial trucking regulations.

I’ve stopped being pretentious about writing. Although I enjoy writing fiction more than I enjoy writing copy, I don’t think the former is inherently better, or has any more cachet, than the latter. Or vice versa. They inform one another; both of them have made me better at the other one. I wouldn’t be a novelist if I hadn’t written copy for years; I wouldn’t be able to make $700 in two hours writing copy if I hadn’t grasped the perseverance and narrative vision it takes to finish a novel. It’s all worthwhile.