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Writers In The Wilderness: A Field Guide

If you’re a busy principal, or a graphic designer who has vaulted up the marketing career ladder and now has to manage content, writers are essential to your success.

I would like to let you know that you don’t lack for options. Writers come from several different traditions, and their styles and priorities will reflect these. They include:

  • The Sales Copy Writer
  • The Journalist
  • The Storyteller
  • The Wordsmith

Some of them may be more suitable to your purposes than others. And to be fair and balanced and public-spirited, I will dish on them all evenly.


The Sales Copy Writer

The Sales Copy Writer writes sales letters, direct-to-consumer emails, and occasionally B2B emails that read more again like direct-to-consumer emails. They indulge in boldface, italics, highlights, and underlines to draw the reader’s eye. That’s because these letters are meant to be skimmed, which they largely are (when they’re not thrown out). The Sales Copy Writer runs on and on and takes forever to make a point because the tone he uses is folksy and conversational. Shopworn analogies about dating or fishing abound, as do oversimplifications and weighted arguments in favor of their product or offering.

They know how to convert, and if you’re needing a call to action at the bottom of anything, the Sales Copy Writer can do that — with shameless certainty!

These guys and gals are always “on”, and always closing. They’re accustomed to using their techniques without finesse. You’ll see copywriting elements such as limited time offers, and deep discounts, and other techniques in their client correspondence with you. Want sophistication and restraint to be part of your brand? Not this guy.

Use them for: thinly-veiled advertorials, phony “best practices” articles, “free reports” (i.e. lead magnets), and slanted buyer’s guides.


The Journalist

The Journalist is proud, truth-seeking, even-handed, devoted to standards of reporting, and to whatever style guide she was trained with. She pines for a dying industry. They love a deadline, and this is what makes them ideally suited to the environment of chaos that is a marketing department under deadline. They will be driven to rehash statistics from questionable studies because they’ll need to cite sources.

Don’t ask them about search engine optimization because it interferes with their integrity. Besides, their career of writing features for prestige print magazines hasn’t prepared them to have an educated opinion on this topic. Whether they’ve written for the local culture section, business paper, or national prestige publications, they’ll fit whatever pay-to-play rag you’re targeting. They’ll aspire to get you covered in papers of record for your town and major city. Younger ones will stuff any idea you come up with into the two most popular formulas (“7 Ways To Write A Kick-Butt Listicle” and ”How To Make Your Listicle Go Viral”).

Use them for: listicles, how-to articles, press/news releases, interviews, executive profiles.


The Storyteller

The Storyteller hates to verify his recollections. He doesn’t do research, or traffic in dull statistics and factoids. He loves to detail a process, and find the odd detail that seems to be the critical one that makes a project succeed or fail. The ghost in the machine or the one turning point or critical flaw that ruined all previous efforts to accomplish the deed. Stylistically he’ll be all over the place. Think Malcom Gladwell, Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, or that pair of goofballs on RadioLab.

A storyteller won’t write headlines and subheads that are SEO-friendly. He will drift toward allusions to literary titles, oldies lyrics, or wry wordplay that human readers of a certain generation may appreciate, but that search engines and Millennials will have trouble with.

Storytellers like to write, but they love to talk. They are gabbers and raconteurs. Their eye for the crucial detail means they can defend themselves vigorously against any attack, and deflect blame, reducing their share of it to a forgivable minimum.

Use them for: long-form content, case studies, project summaries, technical explanations for non-technical or general audiences, presentation scripts and other forms of verbal branding


The Wordsmith

The Wordsmith isn’t a writer, though he’s a decent editor. He can make anything shorter and more succinct, to fit the narrow space constraints for it. He’s good near the end of a project. He can take a volley of words spit up by a busy professional (“spoken English”) and turn it into something that reads well. He will get hung up on stuff he doesn’t know about, and editorial instinct will cover for any deeper ignorance.

Use them for: Powerpoint slides, project approaches, marketing collateral


There you have it, a field guide to four different freelance writers. Now that I’ve dashed this off, it’s back to the work I get paid to do.


Mike Sweeney, CPSM is the Principal of Design-product Systems, which provides content development, marketing automation, and marketing management services to firms and individuals in the A/E/C industry Mike brings IT industry expertise and design studio training to bear in helping firms develop new or updated marketing materials and information systems.

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