When You Are a Freelance Writer, The First Thing You Need To Do Is Identify Your Client’s Voice.
If you are going to be a successful freelance writer, you have to be able to identify the characteristics of different voices and then quickly adapt to them. The faster you can do this, the happier your client will be.
I’ve been freelance writing for well over forty years, and up until last year never ever used my own voice.
The fact is, to be successful you must be able to write in a variety of different styles — which is the essence of voice.
From business “corporate” to business “casual.” From chatty to lean. From the level of a 6th grader to university academic. From hands on the podium to hands in their pockets.
I’ll give you two examples to illustrate.
I was a ghost writer for a very well known internet marketer. When I fist started working with him, I already “recognized” his voice because I had read one of his books and some information on one of his websites.
He was chatty, informal and very repetitive. One of my first assignments was a series of five articles for his popular newsletter. He was worried. He’d never worked with a writer before and he was actually anticipating that it would not work out.
We settled on the titles of each article, along with a one-liner description of what would be in the article. I got him to spend 30 minutes on the phone going through his thoughts for the first article on our list. I recorded out conversation, took notes and asked a few questions.
Then I wrote the article and sent it to him.
He was thrilled and asked “How did you DO that?” He said it was like I plucked the article out of his head.
The fact was that I managed to “nail” his voice in the first try. I nailed his voice so precisely that he often thought he had written the articles himself … and I would have to remind him that NO … I had actually written the articles for him.
Over the years I worked with him, I slightly changed his voice and he was happy with what “we” came up with. He was too wordy and too repetitive. I managed to cut back about 50% and then stopped. After all it was HIS voice and I needed to preserve that uniqueness for him. I needed for “his excitement and enthusiasm” to jump right off the page.
On the other end of the spectrum were the Fortune 500 companies I worked for. The bulk of the information coming out of these companies was formal. corporate. factual, and informational. If you want to say “boring” you are in most cases correct. Many of the companies had the burden of not only being politically correct, but of being legally precise.
When I wrote anything that was to be published, printed and distributed … I stuck to boring. Everything was so grammatically correct it squeaked.
However, where I really had FUN with these companies was when I wrote video scripts for them. Because “video” was normally outside of their area of expertise, they listened to my advice. I was able to convince them to use a “lighter” and more “friendly” approach. My rationale for them was that “we” needed to match the voice to the audience. We additionally needed to match the voice to the message.
I had the most delightful times when a group of stiff corporate executives in $5000 suits would march into the editing suite, prepared to say NO.
I would set the scene by reminding them WHO would be watching the video, and WHAT the video was supposed to accomplish. I reminded them that THEY were most likely NOT even remotely similar to their audience.
I would ask them questions like … “Have you ever actually put on some construction clothing and a hard hat and walked out onto a construction site?” “Have you ever talked to a worker who wasn’t wearing their safety goggles and asked them WHY?” “Do those guys even speak the same language you do?”
After setting the scene I would play the video and wait. Their faces would first lighten up and would then light up!
They were willing to forgo “corporate” for what actually worked.
The bottom line is …
You MUST understand voice. You not only have to know your client’s voice, but you must know what voice to use for THEIR audience. You must be able to match voice when it is appropriate. You must be able to explain the voice you are using, along with why and how it is intended to work.
If you really want to understand voice:
Watch Queen Elizabeth II deliver one of her New Years greetings.
Watch Donal Trump deliver one of his speeches.
Apart from delivery (close your eyes) … what are the differences?
You just nailed it … THAT”s voice.
How do you start to identify your client’s voice?
- Ask your client for any written material that their company distributes (brochures, pamphlets, annual report, a few–non-confidential letters or emails.)
- Make a list of the words or terms they use OFTEN.
- How would you classify their writing style? (academic, corporate, formal, informal, chatty, detailed, brief, friendly, personal, impersonal, repetitive, fun, serious, etc.)
- Note where there may be differences. For example many companies are very formal with the information they impart on their website (about, products, services) and are informal, chatty and friendly on their blog and in their newsletter.
- Tell your client what you noticed and ask the if they want their existing voice(s) matched, OR if the reason for hiring you is to get a different voice.
- Let your client know that it may take two, three or even four tries to get it “right.”
- Get your client to “walk” though a short article, or the start of a longer project WITH you. On the phone OR in person. Really pay attention to what they say. You will be amazed at what you can learn about what will make them happy, in a very short amount of time.