Steve Hopson, stevehopson.com
Did you know that primates in the wild open up their bananas from the bottom, not from the stem like most humans (that I know, anyway)? It turns out that opening the bananas from the bottom is so much easier than opening from the stem. When I was first told about the bananas from the bottom technique, I didn’t believe it until I saw it for myself. That got me thinking about doing things differently. As a freelancer, it’s imperative to make your writing stand out.
But when you’re talking about writing for clients, that’s not always an easy thing to do. I was recently talking to an attorney about his web site. He said he didn’t have anything special he wanted, but he had heard that he needed some kind of flash animation at the top of his page. The rest of it he just wanted to be “similar” to another top attorney in his area. “Blarg,” as Liz Lemon would say. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that sometimes, content writing can be a bit of a drudge. It’s not always easy to make your writing stand out. That’s when you need to shake it up, if not for the client, then for yourself.
Make Your Writing Stand Out by Taking a Challenge
One of my favorite things to do is comb the Craigslist ads for writing jobs, even though a lot of prominent writing bloggers say “Noooooo! Don’t do it!” But the fact of the matter is that I’ve gotten a few really great gigs from Craigslist ads. One contract that I gained through Craigslist is with a large national corporation. I’ve written hundreds of articles and blogs for them, and they consistently give me steady work that pays well.
Last week, I answered a Craigslist ad for a freelance writer at Stunt and Gimmick’s, a content marketing firm in New York City. Their ad was quirky, funny, and off the wall. They sounded just a little crazy, if you know what I mean. Of course I knew I had to answer it. I pulled out my resume and made sure there were no typos (they mentioned public humiliation for typos or grammatical errors. Yikes.) Their ad was so different that I wanted to do something to make myself look different. Near the bottom of the ad was what looked like a throwaway line: “Bonus points go to anyone who writes their cover letter in the style of an epic poem.”
Holy. Flying. Cheese balls.
I’ve read more epic poems than I care to remember, but write one? I knew was pretty sure they were just kidding, but then I thought, “Why the Hell not?” After all, if we don’t challenge ourselves, how will we ever grow? (That’s what I’m always telling my kids anyway.) If you’re going to make your writing stand out, you might as well do it with an epic poem, right? Once I sat down to write the epic cover letter, it wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t have as much of a clue about epic poetry as I thought I did.
Do You Know What a Spondee is? Because I sure as Heck Don’t.
Since it’s been a while since I took that poetry class, I couldn’t remember what makes an epic poem “epic.” I had to conduct some research. But the research wasn’t making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like I should this time of year. I could only find technical terms like dactylic hexameters and spondee. Gadz. Eventually, I (very) basically figured out that epic poetry follows a certain narrative form, and is constructed of verses that follow a specific rhythmic scheme. So I decided to write my epic cover letter using a time honored tradition: counting the syllables on my fingers. Which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
After about an hour, I finally had a version of an epic cover letter that I was satisfied with. Before I could second-guess myself, I triple checked it for errors (I hate being publicly humiliated) and sent it off. I know how these cattle call Craigslist ads go: hundreds of people reply, and unless they want to hire you, you can forget about getting any kind of a response.
But that isn’t what happened. I heard back from them within an hour of sending the package off. They were amazed that I had actually written an epic cover letter. If I hadn’t mentioned it in the subject line (which is like a page’s meta tag), they wouldn’t have bothered to open it right then. It got their attention, and they opened it right away instead of letting it die in the slush pile.
While I haven’t been offered the job (yet) (they’re deciding after the New Year), the fact that I got a shout out and recognition for doing something different feels great. Even if I don’t get the job, there are a few important lessons here:
- Don’t write Craigslist Completely Off as a Source for Freelance Gigs. All kinds of legitimate companies use Craigslist to find freelance writers (and other employees). Automatically rejecting it as a source just because there are a few bad eggs out there doesn’t make sense. Learn to spot the scammers, and don’t ever take a job that pays a pittance, or worse, nothing. Legitimate companies are willing to pay for quality content writers.
- Sometimes, requests that seem off the wall are serious. The reason Stunt and Gimmick’s asked for an epic poem cover letter is because they want to hire someone with writing chops. What better way than with an epic poem? Their request was a way for them to let applicants know they expect only the best submissions. In other words, as a writer, when you are communicating with potential clients or employers, you’d better learn to read the subtext.
- Don’t be afraid of a challenge; but if you take one on, do your research. You know it’s true: challenge really does build character. It can also be a great learning experience. As freelancers, we might sometimes shy away from a job or a client because it seems too hard. I’m not saying you should take on jobs you know nothing about; I took on the epic challenge because after all, I am an English major, and I do have some background in the classics. But it’s been a while. In this day and age, you’ve really got to leverage what you know. Research is easier than it’s ever been; make yourself a research expert.
- Use your keywords, every single time. In this case, the keyword tag was the subject line of my e-mail. Because I alerted them to the fact that I had written an epic cover letter, they immediately opened it. Search engines act the same way – they are looking for relevant and great content that’s optimized, but if you over do it, you’ll look like a spammer. If you haven’t learned what keyword strategy is, it’s time to get started educating yourself. Hubspot is a great resource; they offer tons of free material for people who want to learn more about Internet marketing.
I think perhaps the best lesson learned when you’re trying to make your writing stand out, is to keep looking forward. There’s no telling what’s on the road in front of you. But keep an eye on that rear view mirror, because you’ve got to learn from what came before.