How to get better at freelance writing
If it’s one thing freelance writing needs, it’s a touch of Orwell. I’m not talking about the dystopia either. George Orwell was an amazing writer. His ability to look at the times he was in and translate them into otherworldly metaphor is nothing short of astounding. He also donned his diver’s suit and went deep into the murky depths of our philosophical being.
Orwell’s ability to criticise and realise within a sentence is well known. We study his works like Animal Farm and 1984 as stark reminders of what we risk when we allow our nature to get the better of us.
What is often overlooked though is the way he wrote. His essay turned small book ‘Why I write’ is a must read for anyone attempting freelance writing or who fancies themselves as a content writer.
He flirts with history and horror while taking the writer in you like an errant child by the scruff to the desk for the most succinct yet powerful English lesson you’ll ever have.
Read it. Own it. Pull it out each time you notice your prose gets puffy and saggy. Don’t only rely on my interpretation. It will turn you into a better writer and a smarter human.
For the purpose of exploring the value in ‘Why I write’ by George Orwell, I bring you the questions stitched into the essay that all freelance writers need to know to write compelling copy
What am I trying to say?
Freelance writing is nothing without a focus on outcomes, outcomes, outcomes.
That heart-igniting chant for the community cause. The advertising hook hungrily awaiting the customer lip. That last chapter sentence that makes the weary-eyed want to read for a little more.
The rallying cry of sales, sacrifice or solidarity has to exist.
And it has to be repeatable.
If the guy at the pie stand or the folks at the public meeting or the boss on the floor can’t sum up the intentions, you may as well fill a bath with words and have a nonsensical splash.
You must set the expectation at the top of the work and drive it to conclusion.
What words will express it?
Express is your key word here. People don’t want information from writing. They want to relate. They want to feel. To explore.
They want to understand and connect to problems, experiences, frustrations, ideas, moments, dreams, and life in general.
That relationship between person and copy doesn’t come from supplying what we need to read. We don’t relate to an instruction manual. We use it. Usually after we’ve ignored it because it’s boring and that act has gotten us into trouble.
We feel our way through things by looking for the opportunity to relate it to our experience of the world.
That means we need to choose the words that reflect the tone of the relationship. They want you to express the hope they feel and the improvement in their existence your words promote. Pretty lofty ambitions for freelance writing, but an accurate one nonetheless.
Express the experience, not what you think people desire.
After all, there’s nothing worse than reading, “reach Nirvana with three simple steps” when the feeling of completion barely resembles a trip to the post office. Or your simple evades the reader and taunts their lack of ability.
What image or idiom makes it clearer?
Analogy is our friend. Raining cats and dogs, belting down, one in one-hundred-year storm- you don’t need a picture to feel the soggy socks, ineffectual umbrellas, or imagine the stormwater racing to drain from the streets.
You can hear the weak cough of the engines that threaten to stall as the water beats the wheel archers. You can understand how perilous a notion stepping from bus to saturated suburban street may feel.
And you can understand sloughing the wet clothing, the extra steam of the hot shower and how every fibre of that fluffy grey towel to rain rinsed hair may feel.
Freelance writing is meant to create that mental image that makes the concepts instantly recognisable to the imagination.
Is the image fresh enough to have an effect?
Here’s where most freelance writing comes unstuck. It’s walking over such a beaten path of imagery that while it’s instantly recognisable, it’s also lost all impact.
Analogies are like the chewing gum you used to order as a kid.
You’d feel the syrupy sensation in your mouth from the first, grape abusing hit. As you dig in, the sugar drizzles across the tastebuds.
It’s over too soon. The more you chew, the more like chewing on Blu-tak it becomes.
But you buy a packet the next day anyway in the hope of that three second syrup hit.
Clichés and analogies are those packets of chewing gum. Only once we get it second hand or keep finding it under the desk or hidden under the chair to hit the unsuspecting knee or pant-leg, we realise how painful it’s become.
You know what I mean when I say raining cats and dogs. But you don’t care as much as when you heard it the first time. You may become immune completely, especially as someone else uses it to describe an even sprinkling.
Treat your wordsmithing like an invitation to flower a permanent, less forgettable, and tired image.
Can you put it succinctly?
Start with the 150 words to get your tale out. Be brutal with the pruning shears. Cut it down by half. Slice and dice again. Find the 25 words, then the 20. Cut deeper and find the ten.
That ten should lead you right back to your outcome. The feeling you wish to install in your customer. That trigger to embolden them to action.
Once it’s centred there, do the 150 words need to be said? Do they even still apply?
The surgical precision needed to stitch that repeatable feeling has to be at the heart of whatever you write. It has to be memorable, relatable, and exacting. Freelance writing has to be restrained and constrained to have an impact.
Can you say it differently?
Turns of phrase exist because words have a habit of spinning. They need to pivot and make friends with several people, not all of whom speak the same language.
That’s where testing the words in your copy makes sense. Giving them the ability to form and reform to make other statements in search for your desired conclusions helps.
When we sit on a pile of words and bust through all their crap, we become attached to what remains. But we can’t do that. Because we start seeing magic formulas and formations. We start lining up predictable.
A story around a campfire is predictable because of the bones. The beginning, the middle, the end.
That same campfire story as a TV show or a podcast has the same bones. But they are plated differently.
Your freelance writing is a potato. That potato can create French Fries, German Potato Salad, Spanish Patatas Bravas, mashed potato for the English, and a vodka for the Russian.
The potato remains a potato with a beginning, a middle and an end. You decide the potatoes fate, find it friendship with other ingredients, and cook it up until it is cohesive and appealing.
No one has ever said, “the way you boiled that potato was transcendent.”
They may however say, “I don’t know how you made a humble potato so amazing.”
Have you said anything avoidably unpleasant?
Sharpening freelance writing is a process. You throw everything onto the potter’s wheel. But you also give it shape and guidance. Even after the shape is wonderful, you still know to fire the pot in the kiln and sand back the edges before adding the paint.
Even in the most gifted of horror writing, we want to step across the story like stones. We don’t want Clive Barker, Stephen King or Neil Gaiman leaving us on a snag of their imagery, unable to get off, night after bleeding night.
Our words need to grab the reader and pull them towards the outcome. We need to split a sandwich, pull out the thermos and make the journey hospitable. Especially if the story is harrowing.
You and the writer, you and the audience, you are centred among the field of words together. And together, you have to move forward as a team.
The ugliness of a broken, snagging image distracts us from the outcome. It dominates our feelings. Whether that is a clunker of a sentence or a misshapen word. Or information that didn’t need to be there but yelled “I am here!” or decided to wind the reader with shock.
If we have broken our friendship through some kind of inconsistency, we risk losing the trust.
Don’t ask your reader to step into unpleasant moments.
Questioning your freelance writing intentions with Orwell
After Orwell schools you, dips you like a lady at the ball before departing for the smoking room to contemplate deeper evils over a cup of whisky and Mah-jong, he leaves you with a parting gift.
Your new writer’s den sign should be:
I am on the hunt for “a fresh, vivid homemade turn of speech”.
Suitably rewritten so as not to hear his faint acceptant sniff of your mediocrity for choosing to re-use analogies provided of course.
We’re here to write the times. Not rewrite the time we’re in.
The internet has taught us to repurpose our world. It is of course a major repurposing of the real world into the digital. So, it stands to reason that it also encourages us to rewrite other people’s work in unfortunate and boring regulatory.
The key here is the feeling.
Our customers feel frustrated. They feel stressed, abandoned, sick of how much obligation they are under, and are tired of reading the same old thing.
Our job is to harness those feelings as writers and translate them.
Looking for a writer keen to do that for your business? check out my CONTENT SERVICES.
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