Good freelance writing requires that you choose a voice for your message or narrative.
Voice refers to the relationship between two particular components of each sentence – the verb and the subject.
OK, let me be right up front with you here. I hate grammar lessons. I started writing professionally 40 years ago and, to this very day, I know next to nothing when it comes to language mechanics.
For instance, ask me to explain the difference between a noun and a pronoun. In response you hear the sound of crickets.
I bet, though, you can tell the difference because you’re a good freelance writer. (Oooh, did you like the way I sneaked the keyword phrase in there? No? You think I harmed the dignity of the profession by doing that? Well, we can talk about SEO another day, my good freelance writer friend. For now, let’s stick with the topic at hand.)
So, anyway, as I was saying, I hate grammar lessons, and I am determined not to get all technical on you here. That said, I still need to explain this business of voice and its importance.
Up until this sentence, nearly every line I uttered used “active voice.” Dictionary.com defines active voice as a situation where the subject performs an act. Example:
“Joe parked the car.”
Dictionary.com defines passive voice as a situation where the verb acts on the subject. Example:
“The car was parked by Joe.”
Dictionary.com adds that “it is usually preferable to use the active voice wherever possible, because it gives a sense of immediacy to the sentence.”
I completely agree. That sense of immediacy gets readers of good freelance writing turned on and begging for more.
Granted, there is a time and place for passive voice (like in this sentence). One place it works poorly: a press release.
Let me show you what I mean. This morning, I grabbed two press releases hot off the wires. One used active voice. The other used passive. Passive first:
You may know The Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts (SBLI) as the company that has provided generations of families with affordable, dependable life insurance and annuities. Now, SBLI is going above and beyond by offering a product to customers which they can use long after they’ve purchased their coverage.
Now the one with active voice:
Synagro today requested a building permit to develop its Slate Belt Heat Recovery Center tying directly into the Green Knight Energy Center and within the township’s solid waste zone….Synagro expects to spend up to $26 million constructing the facility.
Basically, your sentences speak in passive voice if they contain the words “has,” “was,” or “is.” You need to use those constructs sparingly if you want your readers to really engage with your writing.
So, a tip of the hat to the folks at Synagro for speaking in active voice.
Meanwhile, Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts must see me after class. I want to show them how to convert passive voicing into the active form of it.
Heck, let me just demonstrate it now in front of everyone.
RICH SMITH SUGGESTED REWRITE:
Known for providing affordable, dependable life insurance and annuities to generations of families, The Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts (SBLI) now goes above and beyond by offering a product designed for use long after the purchase of coverage.
In addition to giving crisper tone and pacing, this active voice conversion also makes the key points of this narrative much more accessible to readers.
That’s really important, so let it sink in. Accessibility to information counts for everything in writing.
BOTTOM LINE: Use active voice in your freelance writing whenever possible. Use passive voice sparingly. Active voice commands reader interest and encourages engagement (plus sparks action) better than passive voice.
Like I say at my website, a good freelance writer should not only march to the beat of a different drummer but should in fact BE that different drummer.
This advice makes sense only if you recognize that you, as a freelance writer, make music with your words.
OK, wait. Let me clarify that. You make music, yes, but not a melody. The music you make with your writing is purely rhythmic.
It’s my opinion that words are a type of percussion instrument. There is a beat that sounds out as a word is read or spoken. When you string words together they form a rhythmic pattern.
If you string the right words together the right way, the rhythmic pattern is pleasing to the brain.
If you string the wrong words together (or string the right words together but in the wrong way), the resultant rhythmic pattern is unpleasant.
So, basically, a good freelance writer is like a drummer.
A drummer uses sticks to strike the drums (and cymbals) to produce a pleasing rhythmic pattern. A good freelance writer uses words the same way – and to the same effect.
It’s important that you, as a freelance writer, think of yourself as a musician of sorts because readers and listeners get thrilled being immersed in words that rock. Indeed, the more the words rock, the more immersed the audience becomes.
This is why I’ve counseled freelance writers who want to be really good at their craft to forget about learning the difference between a preposition and a participle and instead concentrate on learning the difference between a paradiddle and a pataflafla.
RUDIMENTARY DRUM BEATS
Paradiddle and pataflafla are rudimentary types of drum beats. People who take drum lessons learn to do paradiddles and pataflaflas not long after they learn the proper way to hold a set of drumsticks.
I learned how to execute a paradiddle and a pataflafla when I was a kid (that’s when I took drum lessons). I never played drums professionally, but I do like to jam a little to recorded music every now and again to keep my skills intact.
However, one thing drum lessons did is they gave me a strong appreciation for the music that words make. That appreciation has practical application in that it gives me an ear for how a sentence, a paragraph, and entire story should be constructed in order to maximize reader or listener engagement.
Engagement is key. Engagement is the name of the game these days because your clients – the editors and companies that retain you – want you to give them writing that audiences will truly dig.
You can go a long way toward satisfying their wants if you think of yourself not just as a wordsmith but also as a drummer.
HERE’S WHAT TO DO, FREELANCER
After you write a sentence or a complete graf, go back and read it over to yourself. As you do, try to hear the beat those word strings are making.
You know you’ve got a potentially great sentence or graf if you like the way the beat grabs you. It’s probably a piece of smokin’-hot prose if it has a pulsating feel to it.
Bottom line: a good freelance writer has an ear for the rhythms that words make and knows how to string those words together in a way that will get audiences dancing to the tune being played.
A bad freelance writer is one who spels words incorectly.
Freelance writurs who make typoz or who make garmatical erors on there werk are deserving of all the ridicule that can be muster on thim.
What’s that you say? I’m a hypocrite because you spotted spelling and grammar mistakes in this post, and here I am telling you that you stink as a freelance writer for making spelling and grammar errors? You say you’ve never been angrier?
Well, then, just imagine how your freelance writing clients feel when you deliver copy riddled with defects.
I’ll save you the energy required to imagine it by revealing that your spelling and grammar errors make them angrier than you felt a minute ago when you saw all my spelling and grammar errors and decided I was a hypocrite (which, naturally, I am, so congratulations to you for being such a perceptive person).
I know spelling and grammar errors make freelance writing clients mad because I’ve upset many of my own peeps by turning in less-than pristine product time and again.
Having been guilty of multiple counts of this crime myself, I’m perfectly positioned to tell you why spelling errors and grammar mistakes don’t get corrected before the client receives your work.
There are three reasons. They are:
I’m tempted to add ignorance to the list, but let’s not go there. Anyone smart enough to be a freelance writer isn’t likely a dodo when it comes to spelling. Unless you’re me.
So let’s go through the three reasons cited above, one by one.
You get to the end of the assignment, you bang out the final word, you lay down the ending punctuation mark. You’re done. That’s all, folks. The body-positivity lady has sung. Put your feet up on the desk.
The last thing you want to do now is go back to the beginning of the story and read it with an eye toward catching all the mistakes that are guaranteed to be in there, even though you had your spell-checker or grammar-fixer software running live as you wrote.
You want nothing more at this point than to pack up this story and ship it over to the client. Being done is gratifying. Lifting not a finger more is heavenly.
But you’re not done – and should take no gratification or pleasure – until you’ve double- or even triple-checked your work for accuracy of spelling and grammar.
If you don’t feel like doing it right away, it’s OK to put it off until tomorrow (unless you’re right up against the deadline).
In fact, if you do have the luxury of time, you should put off your copy proofing until morning for the reason that you’ll be looking at your story with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you catch in a piece you thought perfect at bedtime if you edit it after an overnight break. You’ll spot other things too, such as choppiness of transitions, flaws in organization, and weaknesses in sentence construction (those that cause the reader to abandon the story because they’ve been confronted with an impenetrable word jumble).
This is a problem when you do a Sonic the Hedgehog impersonation to speed you through the assignment.
Maybe you hate the assignment and want to wash your hands of it ASAP, so you race to complete it. In the process, you make spelling and grammar mistakes – and don’t really care because your magical thinking leads you to believe the client will be glad to receive it in whatever shape you submit it.
Maybe you’ve got other, higher-value freelance writing projects clamoring for your attention, so you dash this one out in order to attend to those awaiting you in the queue.
Or maybe in a classic Rich Smith move you goofed off for the first 14 days of a 15-day deadline and now, suddenly, the due date is at hand. If you had started the project when or soon after you received it, you wouldn’t now be in this bind. But here you are, racing to play catch-up. The ensuing haste is bound to make waste.
It’s possible that you’re submitting work with mistakes in it because you’ve completely convinced yourself that you were sufficiently careful as you typed.
I’ve done that one. A lot. And am endlessly surprised to see how many goofs that I was sure I wasn’t making were actually made.
I can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t matter how careful you think you are being as you assemble the product. You are going to make spelling and grammatical mistakes.
Also, don’t put total confidence in your real-time spell-checker to keep your copy mistake free. You may have noticed that it doesn’t catch all the misspelled words. This is especially true of homonyms – words that sound identical but have different meanings and, hence, different spellings. The problem is your spell-checker may not be able to figure out from the context of your writing which of two or more possible meanings you intend.
Bottom line: you should make it a habit to carefully review your freelance writing copy for spelling and grammar errors. Take your time in working through the text – proceed word by word, line by line. This is important because clients don’t like receiving work pockmarked by typos and grammar errors.
Rummaging around the other day in the cobwebby back of my freelance writer portfolio, I came across a campaign I used to drum up freelance writing business.
I thought I’d share it with you as an example of how humor can be used to promote your own freelance writing services.
This was a direct-mail campaign. However, it can be easily refashioned into an email outreach.
COUNTDOWN LIST MAINTAINED INTEREST
The strategy was to deliver to targeted prospects five mail pieces over a two-week period. The pieces had similar dimensions and formatting (which allowed recipients to recognize that the five pieces were related to one another).
As for content, each mailer featured to two main paragraphs of text. The first graf was humorous; the second was a features-benefits pitch played straight.
The two grafs were set up as part of a larger countdown list.
The countdown list started at 10 and ended with 1. The idea here was that recipients would look forward to receiving each subsequent mailer just to find out how the countdown would proceed and ultimately end.
Atop the two grafs of each mailer was a header. The header never changed from mailer to mailer. The header read: “Top 10 Reasons to Hire ME!”
Immediately below the header was a deck. The deck was different each time. It described a specific freelance writing service that I could provide.
Here’s a sampler of what appeared on each mailer.
Top 10 Reasons to Hire ME!
For on-demand newswriting
Reason 10. My parole officer says a long-term freelance writing relationship with you should – repeat, should – help rehabilitate me and smooth the way for my eventual reintegration with society.
Reason 9. Communications developed by you and me as a team will penetrate people’s brains deeper than you ever thought possible.
Top 10 Reasons to Hire ME!
For on-demand brochure writing.
Reason 8. Your expectation of receiving completed freelance writing projects electronically will force me to switch from technologies with names like Crayola and Ohio Art.
Reason 7. Writing you request will land on your desk way faster, in remarkably cleaner condition, and at a surprisingly lower cost compared to what you may be accustomed to receiving.”
You get the idea. So, let me end the demo right there.
I know. “Awww, Rich Smith is a meanie. Show us the rest of it, you fink.”
Actually, I’m ending the show here because I think those examples make clear what I was talking about earlier: each mailer making the recipient eager for the next one to arrive.
The reason the recipient will be eager is because he or she wants to see if the subsequent reasons are funnier than the ones that came before.
It doesn’t matter if they are or aren’t funnier. What matters is that the recipient is in the thrall of anticipation. That’s a very good place for a sales prospect to be, whether you’re selling aluminum siding or freelance writing (which, of course, some people view as the functional equivalent of aluminum siding).
Bottom line: Humor can be an effective technique for promoting one’s freelance writing availability and prowess.
Every freelance writer wants to be known as a witty wordsmith. You’re no exception.
At least I hope you’re no exception.
There are benefits galore associated with being a witty freelance writer. Popularity is the biggest one.
Popularity as in everyone wants to hire you.
It’s completely understandable why there would be demand for witty freelance writers. They craft writing that is engaging, challenging, rousing, and satisfying.
Witty freelance writers deliver for their clients copy that gets read. And copy that gets read – start to finish – is copy that stands a better chance of generating response from target audiences.
WHAT IS WIT?
The problem for many freelance writers is they don’t know how to be witty.
Or, more precisely, they don’t know how to be witty because they don’t know what wittiness is.
Over at dictionary.com, they define wit as “the keen perception and cleverly apt expression of those connections between ideas that awaken amusement and pleasure. Synonyms: drollery, facetiousness, waggishness, repartee.”
You’ll notice that missing from the synonyms list is the word “snark.”
Dictionary.com defines snark as “rude or sarcastic criticism.”
That’s totally different from “amusement and pleasure.”
My friends, I’m here to tell you that snark is to be avoided in your freelance writing – especially if you’re churning out content for a corporation or other entity that needs to speak temperately.
(I make an exception for snark in an autobiography or Hollywood tell-all. It’s OK in those settings for the reason that readers are expecting rude and sarcastic.)
Notwithstanding that lone exception, you don’t want to peddle snark because it’s a turn-off to a lot of people. My sense is that the ranks of those hostile to snark are growing. (Why are they growing? That’s a discussion for another day.)
If you’re writing to help your client gain friends, attract customers, win buy-in, and so forth by showing how cool and hip your client is, then you can’t afford to write to alienate – and snark alienates.
Show cool and hip by instead being witty.
AN EXAMPLE OF WIT
Right about now you’re probably going, “Hey, Rich Smith, quit stalling. Give us an illustration of witty writing.”
You want it, you got it.
NBC News at its website posted this story March 9. Here’s just the first three elements.
Headline: “Lawyer’s Pants Catch Fire During Florida Arson Trial”
Lede: “It seemed like a set up to a tired joke: A lawyer’s pants caught on fire in court.
Body graf 1: “But on Wednesday, it was Stephen Gutierrez’s reality when the Florida defense attorney’s pants began smoking during an arson trial, Eleventh Circuit Court Public Relations Director Eunice Sigler confirmed to NBC News Thursday.”
Some blogger somewhere reposted the headline and lede but teased them in what I consider to be a reasonably witty way:
“WELL PLAYED, UNIVERSE. WELL PLAYED”
This was witty because he created amusement in and pleasure at the poetic justice served upon a lawyer – a guy in a profession with a reputation for making the most outlandish claims.
But although the blogger’s tease was good, I think the writer of the original post at NBC News blew a chance for some potentially very witty writing.
RICH SMITH PROPOSED HEADLINE REWRITE:
“Lawyer’s Pants Catch Fire as He Pleads His Client’s Innocence”
The NBC headline laid an egg because it left out a crucial piece of information readers needed in order to derive amusement and pleasure. I imply that missing info in my rewrite – it’s that the lawyer’s pants caught fire while he was engaged in the very act of spinning his yarn about the cops catching the wrong guy.
Bottom line: Freelance writers need to know the difference between wit and snark, and to strive to infuse their writing with wit, not snark.