One Writer, Many Voices: Professional Writers Should Be Insanely Flexible

A prospective client recently asked me whether I thought I could adapt my writing style to the job that she had for me. Most of what I write for clients tends to be on the technical side because I write a lot about network security, cloud computing, healthcare, business, and university-related topics. However, this client’s job involved customer communications. She needed to communicate complex health insurance topics to customers who, on average, read on a sixth-grade level. She wanted to know, could a person who wrote for a network security blog by day write a simple, easy-to-understand letter about a claim denial?

Back in (year that shall not be named so as not to betray my age), I earned a Bachelor of Music with a concentration in music education. When someone hired me for an orchestral job, they never asked me whether I could play a Bach piece because I’d played in a Puccini opera at my last concert. Conductors expected me to play in any style, on demand, as soon as they passed out the music. Professional writing should be held to the same expectations.

I told my client that I could write in any style just like I could play in any musical style, even though I might prefer one composer to another. I didn’t get orchestral gigs by specializing in one composer or one style only. I had to be flexible if I wanted to find work.

In professional writing, you have to vary your content structure to keep things interesting for your readers. Also, different subjects require a different writing approach. Let me give you some simple tips for expanding your writing tool chest from the perspective of a musician who's also a writer.

Expanding Your Musicianship…as a Writer

As a musician, I had to learn to play in new musical styles all the time. Writers can expand their stylistic palettes by incorporating some of the same practices that musicians use. For starters, we have to immerse ourselves in writing that’s similar to what we want to create. Then, we have to practice it and perform it until we get it right.

Read

As a musician, I listened to recordings to better interpret specific composers or musical styles. In the same way, if you want to write like someone else or in a particular style, you should start reading as many pieces as you can that are written in that style.

Some writers worry that reading too much of someone else means that they’ll start creating cheap, unoriginal knockoffs of someone else’s work. In the beginning, you might mimic the writers whose work you read, but as you practice, you assimilate the style and make it your own. The other writers’ work gets mixed in with your experiences, your tastes, and your voice. Eventually, the writing you've imitated is no longer someone else’s. It's yours.

Notice

One of the best ways to become a better musician is to attend a concert or a recital performed by other great musicians. You pick up on unique things that they do, and you incorporate them into your own performance. In the same way, when someone crafts a good piece of professional writing—or even casual blog writing—make a note of what you liked and why. Attend a book signing or a lecture by someone who writes in a style you’d like to learn. Pay attention to what the writer says about the craft and how he or she does the work.

Noticing helped me to create a good sample insurance letter for my client. Because I’d signed up for health insurance on the exchange in 2013, I’d received plenty of communications from Access Health Connecticut. When I read their letters, I casually thought to myself that I liked their simplicity and straightforwardness. I liked the way the writers used second person, the clear section headings, and the simple, direct language. Later, when I crafted a sample letter for my prospective client, I noticed that I’d subconsciously incorporated many of those elements. The communication style, though hardly Shakespearean, helped me land a new client.

Practice

As a young pianist, I tended to perform composers like Beethoven and Chopin much better than I performed other works. I had a naturally heavy touch – my dear grandfather told me I played piano like a man. I also had some adolescent pent-up anger issues, and those work really well for Romantic period music.

When I went to college, I had to learn to play Bach pieces, and I had to learn how to create a Debussy soundscape. This didn’t come naturally to me, and those pieces didn’t ever sound as comfortable as when I played Beethoven. Eventually, they sounded okay thanks to good teaching and hours of practice. In the same way, the only way to write about unfamiliar subjects or in unfamiliar styles is to practice it until you get better at it.

When I try a short story after not writing fiction for a while, I feel frustrated because my fiction writing sounds like whomever I’m reading. When I write fiction regularly, however, I sound less like an imitator and more like myself. If I’m unwilling to practice, and I don’t write multiple drafts until my real voice comes out, then I always sound like someone else. Adapting to a new style requires both time and practice. The old adage applies here: “Writers write.”

Perform

When I started working in professional writing, I didn’t know any more about technology than the typical person. I saw a job opening for a technology writer, and I decided to become a technology writer that day. I took a low-stakes job and wrote a blog post about managed hosting, a topic that I barely understood at the time. Then, I copied the blog post and turned it in as a job sample. For some strange reason – desperate editor? – I got the job.

Over the next few years, I learned about technology topics by writing for that site. Putting my name and headshot on it gave me accountability, and it didn’t allow me to get by with second-rate research and writing. Today, I completed a 1,000-word white paper, and I was compensated at nine times what I made when I wrote for the technology site. I wrote about my topic (data backup and business continuity) with fluency and without nerves. I’d completed many, many similar assignments in lower-stakes situations.

Before we played major recitals at my college, we used to play in front of students first. The vocal students performed in voice labs, in which everyone taught by the same professor shared their current work with one another. We also had a recital period, called X-Period, every Tuesday and Thursday, in which any musician could take the stage to perform a short piece of music. I recommend that when you’re trying out a new blog post structure, start performing in a safe place. Find your own voice lab or X-Period recital. Your safe place might be writing for a low-traffic blog, sharing your work with a writer’s group, or giving a reading for your peers. Whatever you do, make sure you gain performance experience.

More Topics + More Formats = Truly Professional Writer

A friend of mine who wrote a humor column for my high school newspaper now writes the “Bits and Bytes” technology column for Tulsa World. Another acquaintance who spent a career in corporate communications has published multiple short stories in horror anthologies. Exploring many styles keeps your writing fresh, and it helps you fall in love with your craft again and again. Specialize in what comes naturally to you – and what keeps food on the table – but don’t hesitate to try something new.

For assistance with your professional writing projects, contact me today. 

Image credit: © Stokkete | Dreamstime.com - String Orchestra Performance Photo

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2 Comments

  1. Jacqueline, this is a great topic. I have been dealing with exactly this on my current job search.

    My resume was turned down by a potential contract employer because I never held the title “proofreader” never mind the fact that most times, a proofreader is an entry level job for someone entering the publishing industry. I didn’t follow that path, but I have been proofing corporate collateral, advertising, marketing, and all sorts of other materials for about two decades, for both writing and design simultaneously.

    It is unfortunate that some decision-makers do not see outside the narrow scope of specific job titles.

    • I don’t know if you feel this way, David, but I’m really tired of hearing how there’s not enough talent in the workforce. A lot of talented people don’t neatly fit all of the items on a checklist, but HR is usually either incapable of recognizing talent or not empowered to do so. Many people who would perform well at available jobs can’t get past the HR gatekeeper, who’s usually a lower-level employee not skilled enough to recognize transferrable skills, fit for the culture, etc.

      You’re obviously overqualified for a proofreading position, and that’s exactly why someone should hire you. Whatever proofreading notation/training you required, you’d pick up within a week, and the employer would have valuable employee who could make bigger judgment calls involving far more than where to put commas. Also, the employer would have someone who could be a possibility for permanent employment and for upward movement within the company. Why do people have no vision?

      Someone with a decade of experience at “title” doesn’t necessarily do the job better, and someone who’s more of a generalist and picks things up quickly might adapt to change better. As a manager, I always thought that you hired the person, not the resume. Talented people can play many different roles in an organization…because they have talent.

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