There comes that first time in an aspiring writer’s life when he or she is offered a paid writing gig. My opportunity came via a chance meeting with the advertorial editor of a community newspaper chain, which in the interests of sparing them and myself embarrassment, shall go unnamed.
It was early-2007, and I was attending a reading by a local Christian author at a mega-church in Tualatin, OR, a suburban city outside Portland. After the talk, during some announcements, a woman rose to mention that her media company was looking for writers to pen advertorials for the chain. I introduced myself and followed up with an email, whereupon she gave me the lowdown. Members of the advertorial team would meet with business owners whose companies advertised in the papers. After a brief interview, the writers would submit a 250-300-word advertorial that would appear in a weekly full-color print edition insert. The rate was $85 per assignment.
Why not? I figured. Three or four such pieces a month would pay for my flip phone, cable, and internet. How difficult could it be? Not very, it turned out. I met with a few business owners and submitted my work. After a handful were published, I asked the editor how I was doing.
“Actually, you’re trying too hard,” she said. “We’re looking for straightforward, easy-to-understand copy here.” I soon gathered that the maxim about aiming for a sophomore level of reading comprehension when writing for the general public applied. Nevertheless, I wasn’t deferred from my intention to craft respectable literary snapshots of my subjects.
I was surprised to learn that many businesspeople have difficulty composing grammatically-correct sentences. Successful entrepreneurs and managers used “there” when they meant “their,” or “you’re” when they meant “your.” Sample emailed sentence: “Their coming at ten to take pictures, look forward to reading you’re article.” I began to understand why these people weren’t writing their own blurbs.
That the client always read and approved my work before publication was part of the process. No advertorial made the color insert without first being green-lit in its entirety by the client or client representative. Though I was given a free hand to write as I pleased, two common themes recurred from the standpoint of what the subjects wanted highlighted in their stories: (a) something about the company or business’ commitment to community involvement (like sponsoring a youth baseball team), and (b) something about the firm’s commitment to “integrity.” Whether a high-finance adviser or the butt-crack-showing proprietor of a Porta-Potty delivery and maintenance company, mention of community involvement and integrity was key.
I adjusted and fell into a rhythm, visiting framing shops, boutiques, health and fitness retail, replacement window installers. Usually in a back office, I’d ask four-five questions, typing the answers onto my iPad, then thank the owners and write the advertorial in my head on the ride home. Restaurants were good because you always got a free meal.
Things didn’t always go smoothly. Assigned to write-up a local lumber supplier, I arrived to find that I wouldn’t be meeting with a sole proprietor or representative but the entire management team. They planted me at the end of a long boardroom table and turned the tables, peppering me with questions. It was a shakedown. Before they put their firm’s multimillion-dollar reputation in my hands they wanted to ensure I was up to the task. I met with a nice couple who were running a home-based travel agency. Everything went well until I left and realized that my car wouldn’t start. Anxious to relieve their minds about why I was still parked outside the house, I knocked on their door again to inform them I was waiting for roadside assistance. They asked if I wanted to wait inside; I politely declined.
The worst came when business owners wanted to write the advertorial themselves. When a home improvement contractor completely rewrote my piece—larding my prose with community involvement and integrity—I asked the editor if it should go without a byline. It didn’t work that way. An assignment is an assignment. You couldn’t have construction contractors writing their own ad copy.
The high-water mark of my stint as an advertorial writer was reached with “A Very Good Ham,” a commemorative feature on the 50th anniversary of the Honey-Baked Ham Company. I visited Oregon’s flagship location in Beaverton, met with a regional manager, enjoyed a ham plate, and came up with a headline that survived the editorial cleaver, an obvious play on the title of the Frank Sinatra hit.
Soon I was offered more challenging writing opportunities. But I learned from the advertorials. About deadlines, writing for the reader and proper reportorial comportment.
—Mark Ellis is the author of A Death on the Horizon, a novel of political upheaval and cultural intrigue.