A writer’s life: What I did for clients in 2017 (and could do for you, if you want)

Photo: Ray Bernoff

I made a pretty decent living as a writer this year, and I’m grateful — not many writers can say that. I thought it might help other writers and whatever friends and fans I have out there to peek into how I did it, so here’s a retrospective of a writer’s life in 2017.

I set out on this journey with one principle in mind: I would work only on projects I liked and with people I liked. That’s a luxury that only a person late in a successful career could ever imagine, but it has worked out for me — I’m having a blast working with terrific people who seem to appreciate me.

For the purposes of this post I’m not even going to count the 250 or so blog posts I did and the half a dozen free speeches. This is just about people who paid me. Since most of my work is confidential, where you see client names here, the clients have agreed to be identified.

Book proposals and idea development (34% of my income in 2017)

Having pitched and sold four books of my own and two that I edited to publishers, I know what it takes to get a publisher interested in a business author. A lot of potential first-time authors aren’t sure how to do that. So I ended up writing, editing, or working on ideas or proposals for ten authors this year. These included the branding expert Denise Lee Yohn, whose second book Fusion will be published early next year; Seth Earley, A.I. expert and CEO of Earley Information Science, who is currently seeking a publisher; and Jay Acunzo, a brilliant podcaster and public speaker who has just begun to conceive his first book. I also worked with two senior executives at marketing agencies, two senior executives at established technology companies, another prominent podcaster, a public relations expert, and a speaking coach.

I typically begin projects like this with what I call “idea development” — working on titles, subtitles, and a “treatment” to get the idea defined and the author pointed in the right direction. In a single, intense 90-minute session, I can typically get people grounded and ready to get to work.

After that, we build a proposal, which includes elements like the points of differentiation, a detailed table of contents, a sample chapter, and the all-important promotional plan. (If you want to see what a successful proposal includes, download this one that I wrote to sell my last book.) When you’ve created a proposal at this level of detail, you’ve not only created something you can sell to publishers, you’ve also done about 20% of the work necessary to write the book.

I love working with prospective authors because of three things. First of all, they have unique and powerful ideas that excite me. Second, they are filled with enthusiasm. And third, the thing that their ideas and enthusiasm need to go further — guidance on what really resonates and how best to say it — is something I’m able to help with.

Workshops and speeches (21%)

I do writing workshops for organizations that want to elevate the writing of their staffs, and in doing so, boost the efficiency of their organization. My workshop clients in 2017 were diverse, including salesforce.com, Frenova Renal (an operator of dialysis clinics), two research companies, two insurance companies, and a consultancy. Six of the seven were in person on the company’s site, but I did one for eight people over four videoconference sessions.

I also gave paid speeches to diverse audiences including a PR conference, a database developer conference, a content marketing conference, and a large financial services company.

When I do workshops, I alway use material supplied by the organization as samples for the exercises. It’s clear to me that people want to write better, more simply, and more briefly, but that years of the wrong training and incentives has perverted their motivations. In a workshop, I can see them going through stages — slowly becoming aware of how big the problem of bullshit is, how they became entangled in it, and how fixing it can help them all work together better. When I can give all the writers in a working group the same framework, I can pivot the entire organization in a positive direction.

Royalties and book sales (18%)

I published Writing Without Bullshit in 2016, but received some money for it in 2017, including a small amount of direct book sales through a conference.

Editing (16%)

This year I worked as an editor with six writers, including the author Shel Israel and two people getting blogs off the ground: Clay Richardson, principal of Digital Fast Forward, and Megan Burns, a customer experience expert. (It’s no coincidence that Clay and Megan are former Forrester analysts — their desire to work with me came from experience with my developmental editing at Forrester.) I also worked with a writer who is publishing a series of newspaper op-eds on politics.

I enjoy editing because for me, it is about much more than pieces of writing. Editing is coaching, teaching a writer to be a better writer. The editor’s job is to help a writer and their writing to be the best it can be. That’s highly rewarding for me. It’s sometimes a struggle for the writers, but the struggle is always worth it.

Writing or ghostwriting (12%)

I write things and get paid for it. I wake up every day thankful that this is true.

In 2017, I worked with two companies — the corporate software system True Numbers and the audio tools company iZotope — to help write marketing tag-lines. These companies wanted me to help define how they described themselves to the world, and they could not have been more different. I did the same for a travel services company.

I also helped write descriptions for Michael Krigsman’s interview series CXOtalk and articles for Spigit, an innovation management company, one of which was published in Harvard Business Review.

I am currently ghostwriting a book about marketing for two corporate executives (when it’s published, my name will be on the cover as “with Josh Bernoff”).

Every writer wants to write what about what they know. But I’ve found it rewarding to try to understand, and then write, what others know. This is not just a process of dictation. I am collaborating with them on their ideas, then expressing them in ways that will impress readers.

I’m also find the process of “debriefing” my coauthor/collaborators to be challenging. It’s typically a series of meeting and interviews. The give and take is necessary, but inefficient, and everyone uses different methods to best express themselves. I’m looking forward to cracking the code on how best to do this, because I’m going to do a lot of it next year.

What I’ve learned this year

Here’s what I’ve learned from all this writing, editing, and interacting with writers.

  • Ideas are exhilarating. As long as you are working with people who have ideas, you can be happy working.
  • People are very different. Their communications styles and challenges are as different as their personalities. This keeps things from getting boring, but it makes it hard to develop a single way of working.
  • Marketing is unpredictable. I really don’t know on any given day which of my services are going to be in demand. It’s hard to plan this way, but somehow, the work keeps coming.
  • There is no such thing as a lead that doesn’t pay off. I follow up on every lead, because I never know which of them is going to be profitable for me. The people who decide not work with me sometimes come back, or refer others. Or they may just end up as friends and contacts. So while I don’t always get paid, I never lose out.
  • Faster is better. Some of my clients are in a hurry. I like them best. Others take a while to get me the source material and approvals I need. They’re more challenging to work with, because I have to keep picking up what I left off days or weeks earlier.
  • Case studies are crucial. If you have case study stories to write about, your results will be much better than if you do not. Finding case studies — including people willing to be interviewed — is the hardest part of the kind of writing I do.
  • A.I is hot. A growing number of my projects touch on some form of A.I. This trend will likely drive a lot of my writing in the future.
  • All my past skills are useful. In the last year I have used my experience with marketing, customer experience, public relations, social media, mobile technology, statistical analysis, public speaking, coaching, writing, teaching, publishing contracts, promotion, and political analysis — and often in surprising ways. I can design a survey, interpret a scatter plot, deconstruct a marketing plan, build a Facebook group, plan a series of blog posts, negotiate a contract, and write a press release, and I’ve had to do all of those things and many more in the last year. You never know when something you did earlier in your career will come in handy.

If you need anything like the things you’ve just read about, contact me. I look forward to working with you and your ideas in 2018.

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  1. Congrats on an awesome year, Josh! I especially love this part, which echoes the core, guiding principle I established for my own future work choices: “I would work only on projects I liked and with people I liked.”

  2. Thanks Ray, you have given me a Christmas gift of some great ideas about how to increase my income from writing next year. I have written speeches many years ago but had not thought about doing it again. I had been writing instructional material and it represented 80% of my income but the market for this dried up and I took up policy writing to replace it but that only replaced 20% of what I’d lost. I like your lesson: “There is no such thing as a lead that doesn’t pay off.” I have the same attitude and do not approach everyone with the hidden agenda of trying to elicit paid work because it is a very perverse agenda. I’ve also had paid work from people that suddenly contacted me 20 years after I first met them, who remembered me as someone that might be able and willing to help. It is important to also recognise the need to clearly articulate what we offer as a paid service. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I’ve enjoyed reading many of your posts through the year thank you and best of luck in 2018