How I Write Today: Susan Johnston

by Meredith Resnick

I have long been an admirer of Susan Johnston and her fabulous writer’s blog, The Urban Muse. The Urban Muse has been a Writer’s Digest Best Site for Writers pick, and is one of Michael Stelzner’s Top 10 picks for 2009-2010. One of the (many!) reasons I believe Susan is such a successful blogger and writer is because she helps to promote other writers with a sincere interest in their craft and art. Another reason: Susan aims to make the business of writing a creative venture while many other writers mistakenly see the two as mutually exclusive endeavors. Check her out—you’ll see what I mean.

How I Write Today
by Susan Johnston

A year and a half ago, when a friend asked me to help her company get through a backlog of online catalogue descriptions, I figured it would be a good way to earn money as a copywriter while helping her out. Little did I know that I was about to discover a new niche!

Photo credit: MergeWeddings.com

Photo credit: MergeWeddings.com

My first foray into writing product descriptions covered mostly sheets, rugs, and watches. But as I started doing more catalogue projects, I also branched out into toys, jewelry, athletic shoes, apparel, handbags, even an entire catalogue devoted to candles! (This despite the fact that I’m pyro-phobic. I can capture the ambiance created by candles even if they make me a little nervous.)

Here’s how writing for catalogues has improved my overall approach to writing:

1. Word economy. Depending on the client, some of my catalogue descriptions might be as long as a few paragraphs or as short as 150 characters (practically the length of a tweet). This means that every word counts and sometimes an artfully phrased fragment can set the right mood. It’s almost like writing haikus!

2.  Strong verbs. One of the ways to pack a punch in as few words as possible is to use verbs that are so compelling they don’t need any modifiers. For instance, using “strut” instead of “walk” or “luxuriate” instead of “relax.” Writing for catalogues has forced me to pull out the strongest verbs I can think up.

3.  Finding new ways to phrase things. A lot of times I’ll get a long list of watches or shoes that are very similar at first glance. The challenge is to come up with creative ways to differentiate products and make each one sound enticing.

4.  Adapting to the brand’s voice. Just as different catalogues have different ways of describing products and presenting information, different magazines use vastly different voices (although Good Housekeeping and Glamour are both women’s magazines, their approach to topics are sometimes worlds apart!). Remembering and internalizing these differences has made me a more versatile writer.

5.  Attention to detail. Whether you’re writing about a Swiss chronograph watch or 1,200 thread count sheets, details matter to the customer and it’s your job to get it right. Digging for information and double-checking product features also serve me when I’m writing articles for a magazine, because I need to fact check information to ensure accuracy.

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer and blogger who has covered business and lifestyle topics for The Boston Globe, DailyCandy.Com, and many other publications. She also blogs about writing at The Urban Muse.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Alisa Bowman

I’ve been struggling with that “new ways to phrase things” during the past few days, as I write one headnote after another for a series of 70 or so recipes. They can all start to sound the same after a way. It takes a lot of creativity to break out of the same old sentence structure and find something new to say about each. I suppose that’s similar to catalogs, as it’s a catalog of recipes vs. products.

Stephanie - Wasabimon

What a great post! I love the part about using strong verbs and how catalog work is like writing haikus. I love Susan – she’s such an inspiration (and look at that cute photo!).

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Excellent post and great advice, Susan! I’ve always said my venturing into writing by writing advertorials first was a good experience for doing other types of writing. When they said they needed 150 words, it was no more, no less and it was a great experience at learning how not to be wordy.
Thanks for reminding me of that!

Jackie Dishner

Susan,

Great points made. And I love that you accidentally found a new niche. Nice photo, too! ;-)

Jackie

Kara Williams

I love all your advice!

Shera Dalin

So the big question is what do catalog’s pay?

Kim Hooper

This post was interesting for me as I’m also in copywriting and have found that even writing about boring medical devices improves my overall craft. I’m forced to be creative with word choice, either to meet word count restrictions or legal constraints. There’s also an organizational component to copywriting (outlining a brochure or website, for example) that makes me better at structuring novels and short stories.
I’ll have to check out The Urban Muse!

Meredith

I’m totally with Kim (and Susan) on this. I’ve done a ton of copy writing. Having to work on tight deadlines and crank out copy in a hurry has made me a far better creative writer. Those skills of finding the story (either in a 150-word post or a 1500-word essay) are totally transferable.

Susan Johnston

Shera: The pay totally varies. Sometimes it’s by the hour, but more often I’ve gotten paid per product. And due to the high volume of items to get through, most of my clients don’t request too many revisions (they might ask me to revisit a few products here and there, but usually it’s on to the next batch).

Thanks to everyone who weighed in and to Meredith for hosting me on her blog!

Susan Matthewson

Outstanding advice for any kind of writing. All writing should be crisp, dynamic, and concise and strong verbs are a key element to good writing. I know because I’m an adjective addict and am always having to kill my little lovely adjectives in revision. And as much as I love my lovely little adjectives, their absence makes my piece stronger.

Vera Marie Badertscher

Great advice from Susan. I found this through a tweet by Jackie Dishner and really appreciate seeing it. Thanks.

Sheryl

This is so interesting. I love your point about word economy. Many people say studying poetry makes you a much more careful, economical writer. Same for your copywriting, I guess.

Almost Slowfood

Susan, I love how you always find unique and helpful ways to explain a thing. You also make just about any kind of writing seem interesting!!

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