Writing for them, us, or me: The challenges of contract, collaborative, and self-directed writers.

Image: Charles Darwin at his writing desk (public domain)

Versatile writers can end up writing for clients and bosses, for colleagues and collaborators, or just for themselves. Here’s what I’ve learned from writing in all these different modes:

Writing for “them”

The nonfiction pieces you write in business settings must satisfy somebody else: a boss, an editor, or a client. When writing for “them”:

  • The good. When you write to meet somebody else’s needs, you can imagine that you have a very small audience: Satisfy the boss or client, and you’re done. This is strangely liberating. I’m writing a book for a client right now, and I know that if the client is happy, I’ve succeeded.
  • The bad. Pride of ownership can go out the window if your only job is to make the client happy. Don’t allow yourself to create crap of which the only redeeming quality is that the client likes it.
  • The ugly. Convoluted review processes are the worst. Get clarity on who has veto power and last draft review rights, and try to keep the number of reviewers to just a few.
  • The audience. In the ROAM process for planning before writing, the first letter stands for “Readers.” If you’ve satisfied the client but not the readers, you’ve failed, even if you get paid at the end. When making choices about content, structure, and tone, bring the prospective reader’s needs into the discussion to keep the piece aimed in the right direction.
  • The caveats. Choose your client carefully — writing for idiots produces not just crappy prose, but heartburn. (Obviously, this is easier if you’re a freelancer than if the client is your boss.) Develop the skill to not only make good writing decisions, but to explain and justify why you made them. You’ll find that your writing for clients is best when you can embrace and internalize their vision for the result.

Writing for “us”

Collaborating with others can be both exhilarating and exhausting. When writing for “us”:

  • The good. Other people have stimulating ideas that you’d never come up with. The best collaborative writing springs from the interplay between two creative minds, pushing each other to conceive and clearly explain great ideas.
  • The bad. If you have irreconcilable differences, both you and the prose will suffer. Coauthoring is like a marriage: exciting when it works, painful when it doesn’t.
  • The ugly. Two authors is hard. Three authors is close to impossible. Everything from review processes to finding agreement takes much more time and effort and produces wimpier results.
  • The audience. Agree on the audience ahead of time. Come back to their needs as a touchpoint. Don’t lose track of the audience as you focus on coming to agreement with your collaborator.
  • The caveats. Divide tasks carefully ahead of time: who’s doing the research, who’s doing the writing, who’s lining up the interviews? Use collaboration tools like Google Docs. And remember that while what you’re writing is important, your relationship with your coauthor is foundational. Stay friends.

Writing for “me”

It’s thrilling to write just for yourself. It’s also a solitary pursuit. When writing for “me”:

  • The good. There’s nobody to get in your way, so you can make decisions quickly and then act on them immediately.
  • The bad. There’s nobody to stop you from doing something stupid, ill-considered, or just less than optimal.
  • The ugly. It’s lonely. And when your confidence wanes, it’s hard to get motivated. You’ll need to survive the moment when you look at what you have written and say to yourself “This is crap, isn’t it?”
  • The audience. The audience is what keeps you sane. You are not really writing for yourself, you are writing for them. Get a photo you can use as an icon of your audience (a young adult, an engineer, a hairdresser, or whoever you’re writing to) and put it by your monitor; look at it when you’re not sure what to do.
  • The caveats. Get an editor or join a writing group. They’ll help keep you on track. Talk to your friends about what you’re writing. And if you’re a blogger, listen to the comments — at least the more intelligent ones.


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