A Freelancer’s Guide to Writing in New Genres

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All freelancers have been here. You have your niche and a type of writing that you are comfortable with. But you know you need to expand. After all, the more versatile you are, the more income you are able to generate.

For the first year of Page Writing Pages, I wrote blog posts. Just blog posts. I was studying SEO and keyword analytics so I could create high-quality posts for my clients, but I had never written a script, whitepaper, or landing page copy. 

So when one of my long-term clients approached me about creating a script for a brass band performance, I was filled with apprehension. I hyped myself up a bit, “You’re a professional writer. You can do this!” 

And since my background is in teaching college composition, I went back to basics. What would I tell my students to do if they were nervous about a new assignment?

Analyze Examples

When I assigned projects to my students, I always started by giving them an example. Sometimes I wrote it myself, sometimes I pulled examples from previous classes. Either way, they would look at an example of the genre, and we would discuss it as a class. 

If possible, we would look at a few examples and compare. Which do you like better? Why? What is similar about these two examples? What’s different?

As freelancers, we are primarily accountable to the client, so ideally, I would ask him or her directly for an example of the type of project that they are looking for. If they can send me a few, that’s even better. But once I have a baseline, I can find additional sample pieces.

Then I take notes. How long are the pieces? What is the tone? What do all of the samples have in common? What varies between them? Which one is more effective?

For the brass band script, my client sent me a concert recording with probably a dozen bands performing the same type of show that he was rehearsing for. I went through the first few performances and timed the narration between pieces, while taking notes on content and tone.

Based on these notes, I set word count goals for my narration and brainstormed an outline.

Ask Questions

If a client approaches me with a new project, they probably have an expectation for what the finished project will look like. Just like I had goals and expectations for my students’ papers. (If only freelancing projects came with a rubric.)

So I use the client as a resource. If they send me samples, I ask questions about their choices. What did they specifically like about this example? Is there anything they disliked about it?

Also, if you don’t usually have clients approve outlines for your freelancing work, this would be a good time to start. Having the client look at my outlines for projects has saved me a lot of time and frustration during the revision process. 

I often drop this practice once I am comfortable with the client and project expectations, unless the client specifically asks to see an outline.

Write a Shitty First Draft

Almost every semester of teaching, I assigned my students a chapter from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. The chapter was called “Shitty First Drafts.” I love this excerpt because it helps take the fear out of writing. 

Writer’s block kicks in when we are afraid that we won’t be able to create something good. Or when we feel uncertain about expectations. 

When you give yourself permission to write something shitty, it takes the pressure off. Of course, you’ll revise it before you hand it off to a client, but I’m less likely to clean my whole house to avoid a project when I start with this mindset.

Do your research and analyze examples. But then, for goodness sakes, write something.

Revise

I’ll let this one mostly speak for itself since you probably have your own revision strategies that you’ve been using for years, but I do suggest reviewing your initial notes from the sample pieces and making sure that you hit your word count goal, included relevant keywords, etc.

For this specific project, I also read the script out loud to make sure everything sounded natural for the narrator.

Give Yourself Time

Finally, I would recommend giving yourself extra time when you take on a new type of project. In addition to the extra initial research, you will probably write slower than you would in a genre that you are more comfortable with. 

When I take on an unfamiliar project, I try to turn it in a few days before the agreed upon deadline. This gives me extra time to complete revisions, and has the added bonus of impressing the client with my timeliness.

Between a slower writing process and revisions, expect to make a lower hourly rate on a new project (if you bill by project or word). Once you get the hang of it, your hourly rate will skyrocket, and you will have a new marketable skill to add to your portfolio. 

Comment below with your strategies for learning new genres, and happy writing!

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