Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Writing life #1 - the business of writing

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

Last week my business insurance was due for renewal. It was time for a review so I rang my provider to discuss the options. After completing the usual security questions, the customer services agent asked, 'Can I confirm your nature of business Mr Charlton - what is it exactly that you do?'

The simple answer to this question would be 'I'm a writer.' But invariably, when talking to others, I feel the need to explain that I although I write blogs and essays for myself, I also advise on investor communication, draft marketing campaigns, prepare company reports and... it all gets very complex. 

So instead, I told the agent that I have a small agency which specialises in copywriting.  'How about PR and Marketing' he interjected, 'shall I put you down as that?'  A few questions later my insurance was renewed and, for the next twelve months at least, I'm a communications director once again!

An amusing incident, though hardly the stuff of a blog post, let alone the first of a series on the writing life. But I'll bet the story resonates with many authors who'll read this piece. Why didn't I just say I was a writer?  Would my insurer have allowed that job description?  And what sort of cover would they have recommended - third party liability, professional indemnity, or just a very thick skin?

I often make a distinction between my commercial work and what I call 'writing for me'. In part, that's because the later doesn't pay the bills - I'll not earn a penny from this post - but I wonder if it also stems from of a sense that writing for companies isn't quite the real thing. As if it's somehow not what proper writers do?

The author Julia Cameron claims that all forms of the craft are equal - that those who draft computer manuals are as entitled to call themselves writers as those who pen poetry. It's the care for our task, she argues, which defines us. And I'd agree - not least because I've spent the last ten minutes redrafting the two sentences above (and this one) to avoid repeating any words. 

I've also read this entire piece aloud what must be a dozen times. And when I say aloud - I mean ALOUD, because in my study I'm allowed to do that - and because it makes a difference and it's part of my process.  By the time you see this post, I'll have reviewed it a dozen times more  - and I'd do exactly the same if it were a commercial commission.

Some say that being a writer is as much state of mind as practice. I'm sceptical of that - for though I write a great deal 'in my head', it's the committing of pen to paper - or fingers to keys - which is critical to the craft. And it's only through regular practice that we build our confidence, finding a style of our own and not a copy of the Company's or the company we keep. Ultimately, it's that style my clients are paying for, and it's not so different to what's free on this blog.

In recent years I've been lucky enough to teach a little at the University of the West of England. My involvement has largely been to help students transfer their skills in creative genres to more mainstream career opportunities. I've advised the students that regular blogging is one of the best ways to do this, for it involves all the elements of choice and concision and attention to your audience that commercial work demands.  It also teaches that perfection isn't necessary for publication - or for that matter success.

Before finishing this blog I went for a walk - which is also good practice by the way - and returned to a message from a client.  Could I write a report next week: they'll provide the data if I can thread the narrative... make it personal and compelling, they said.  Later, another contact called to thank me for drafting some letters.  'I don't know how you do it,' he said, 'the tone is so hard to get right'. There's no great secret, I replied, 'I just write them for myself'.

So perhaps the distinction between writing for me and writing for work isn't so clear cut after all. And that being a communication director is not so different from being an author. Insurance premiums aside, the writing life is first and foremost about writing for life - and the labels we apply are less important than the words we find and the joy we take.


  1. I can in no way consider myself a 'writer', but the written word is so very important to me. Words, how I loathe the cheap americanisms, the TV language, the 'celebrity'sloppiness. As a retired teacher I suppose that might be considered normal!
    I am, of course, certain that there is a book in me waiting to be written....
    Thanks for your visit to Small Moments.

  2. I've read this, nodding vigorously as I go along as so much of it resonates. As for the insurance it sounds like it's a poorly designed system and you don't fit neatly into the options their drop down menu gives them. That happens to me too! Which reminds me, I need to go and renew MY insurance...

  3. Hello Mark,

    Long time no see but it was great to see you popping in to our first post in an age and now here we are reconnecting with you.

    How we love the last line....the "labels we apply are less important than the words we find and the joy we take". How beautifully this captures the spirit of what you write here.

    These are strange times and call for connection perhaps more urgently than at any other period. To write in order to make those connections whether they be personal or connection does not matter. It is the connection which is the key. As Forster wrote..."only connect".

    So, just write. Just be. All will be well.

  4. Hi Mark, please feel free to visit if you're around NW France any time.
    Best regards
    Mark in Mayenne

  5. Hi Mark,

    thank you so much for visiting my blog and leaving an ‘appreciative’ comment.
    All I write nowadays is my blog, but perhaps I will think about changing that some time soon.
    My writing teacher was a fool, I don’t think I stayed with her for more than six months or so. Contrary to you I never reread and hone except to look for typos; I may think about what to write about before I sit down at the computer but once it’s written it stays written. Maybe I am just not professional enough. In a previous life I wrote essays and documents for discussion, I also did translations, but now it’s just for fun.

    Looking forward to renewed visits.